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The high-rise hang-up

By Darryl D'Monte

By 2020, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region is estimated to have 28.5 million people, more than even Tokyo. By 2050, it may have as many as 40 million. Unfortunately, Mumbai's architects and urban planners are obsessed with building taller and faster, not with the footprint of cities, or open spaces and partnerships between classes and communities

Everyone is aware that one of the most potent and glittering symbols of growth and affluence is that of the high-rise city, the gleaming skyscrapers of New York in particular. The symbolism of the skyscraper is that much more seductive now that half the world's population lives in urban areas, and TV transmits images of urban growth round the clock globally.

However, not many may be aware of India's crucial role in such urban growth, Mumbai in particular. Indeed, Mumbai is probably the only proper megacity in the country in the sense of registering very high density in the city proper as distinct from the outlying areas, as in Kolkata. A megacity is any metropolis whose population exceeds 16 million. By that count, Greater Mumbai, which had 12 million people at the last census in 2001, has probably by now breasted the tape.

It took the Urban Age project, an initiative of Deutsche Bank, to remind Mumbaikars recently that they had been bestowed this somewhat dubious distinction of megacity. The Bank's Alfred Herrhausen Foundation -- named after the former chairman who was gunned down in front of his residence in Germany by the Red Brigade, 20 years ago -- is funding the Urban Age project, in collaboration with the London School of Economics (LSE). It is holding a $ 100,000 award for the best urban project in Mumbai -- the very first such annual prize in each of three different megacities around the world for three successive years, which will be announced on November 1, to be followed by a two-day seminar on Mumbai issues.

Needless to say, a city's population is determined by the area that is taken into account for such a calculation. Greater Mumbai occupies 466 sq km, but the much bigger 4,355 sq km Mumbai Metropolitan Region is poised to rank among the most populous in the world in the not-too-distant future. According to the Washington-based Population Institute, the region will touch 28.5 million by 2020, surpassing Tokyo by 1 million people.

At a recent Urban Age road show in Mumbai, Ricky Burdett, architect, Director of Urban Age and Centennial Professor in Architecture and Urbanism at the LSE, alarmed the experts present by pointing out that Tokyo was likely to have 35 million and the Mumbai region 40 million, by 2050. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that whatever happens in Mumbai is likely to have an impact not just on India's urban growth but is crucial to the shape of megacities in all developing countries.

At the very least, the Urban Age conference in Mumbai -- which follows city conferences held elsewhere in the world -- may help focus on the key issues confronting a megalopolis in the 21st century. At the introductory meeting in Mumbai, eminent local experts present cited at least three different current estimates of Mumbai's population, which indicates some degree of confusion about the basics, including the area being referred to.

Only recently, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Commissioner T Chandrasekhar controversially called for a halt to migration into the city. However, the International Institute of Population Studies in the city shows from the 2001 census that only 480 people -- not families, as is frequently believed -- enter the city every day. Even in the previous 1991 census it was evident that the proportions of the 1960s have been reversed, with 60% of Mumbai's growth being natural increase and 40% comprising migrants. With the precipitate decline in formal employment in Mumbai, today the numbers are likely to be 70% and 30%.

Urban Age has a very revealing chart of the urbanisation of the world, which illustrates the highest city population growth rates by skyscrapers on a map. As it happens, South Asia -- India in particular -- has the highest growth of high-rise structures. In terms of growth rates, Delhi has the highest, with 64 people being added every hour (due to both natural increase and migration), second only to Lagos, with 67, and ahead of Dhaka with 61. Mumbai has 49, while London has around eight.

India, where urbanisation -- again contrary to the popular perception -- is fairly evenly spread throughout the country, as the National Commission on Urbanisation, headed by Mumbai architect Charles Correa showed 20 years ago, is by any reckoning a laboratory where future cities anywhere in the world may be envisioned.

While home-grown experts tend to take a sector-by-sector approach to Mumbai's problems, as witnessed in the discourse on the second anniversary of the great deluge of July 26, 2005, the Urban Age specialists have not only a far more holistic vision but an ecological perspective, which is sadly lacking here. They are concerned, for instance, with the footprint of cities -- the larger area that citizens reach out to for natural resources, including water, energy and building materials, as well as the waste dumped outside, whether it is on land or in the air or water. (Among countries as a whole, the footprint of a resident of the UAE is the worst in the world, with over 10 hectares per capita, slightly ahead of the US; an Indian uses only about 0.4 hectares.)

Burdett cited how cities actually contribute three-quarters of the world's carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas. Half the energy consumed by the entire world is on buildings -- for heating, cooling and lighting. If one adds the energy used in producing the building materials, like steel, cement and glass, the proportion of total energy would go up substantially. Further, transport, whether public or private, would add to the load, which means that cities are not very efficient users of energy, even allowing for higher densities, which would mean lower amounts of energy consumed per citizen.

Burdett, an architect turned academic, showed a slide of Caracas, which could almost have been mistaken for Mumbai. On the left, occupying about half the slide, was a seething mass of shanty dwellings; cutting a swathe through it was a modern-looking highway; on the far right were some high-rise residential towers. Pointing to the last, he said censoriously: "This is what we do as architects." He might have added that the highway was what planners did, while the slum dwellings were what the people did for themselves. "Architects have no idea what happens on the ground between buildings," he asserted. Indeed, many Mumbai architects, including Hafeez Contractor, who was present, suffer from an 'edifice complex'.

Perhaps it is the interstices of urban life that visionaries look to -- the open spaces, the participation of citizens in public life, the alliances and partnerships between classes and communities and, not least, the ownership of a city's physical assets. The scale models assembled by Urban Age show the densities of different cities. New York is, in many ways, one of the most inegalitarian, since there is a phalanx of tall towers looming upwards at the centre. London is evenly spread out: anyone seeing the model without knowing which city it represented would be hard put to identify it. Shanghai is actually the most uneven: there is a tumour-like growth protruding from the centre, with flat topography all around it. Johannesburg, thanks to years of enforced segregation during apartheid, has four curious piles amidst a plateau.

Any architect or planner worthy of his profession should also be concentrating on providing public spaces rather than merely contributing to high-rise growth. London maintains 46% of its entire area green, which makes it such a memorably different experience even though its population is growing, thanks to migration. Even New York, which is the epitome of urban splendour, has 16% of its area open. Mumbai, which aspires to be a world class city, a la Shanghai, has a measly 0.03 acres of open space for every 1,000 people, which must be the lowest of any city, certainly any of its size and importance to the national economy. Even Cairo, which the Urban Age experts listed at the bottom of the pile, has 1%. In Mumbai, a venal state government and municipal corporation are in cahoots with builders to convert the few remaining open spaces -- including saltpans and mangroves -- into private clubs, malls and high-rise buildings. It is not without justification that Mumbaikars say that the only thing real about the city is the estate...

Critics may justifiably condemn Shanghai as an example of urban megalomania, particularly the new business district of Pudong, across the river, where paddy fields have made way for towers that vie with each other to touch the sky. Indeed, this city of 18 million will soon have some 3,000 high-rise towers. At the same time, there are some features which Mumbai would do well to emulate. There is one bicycle for every two residents, which is extraordinarily high. The eminent British architect, Sir Richard Rogers, once remarked on the high number of cycles to the mayor of Shanghai on a visit there. The mayor mistakenly took his observation as a criticism and hastened to claim that in future every bicycle would be replaced by a car!

However, Shanghai is building 11 satellite cities -- reminiscent of Navi Mumbai, which has failed in many respects -- to take the pressure off the metropolis. It is also trying to regulate cars by limiting their entry into the central business district, on the lines of Singapore, by odd and even number plates. When a similar attempt was thought of in Mumbai, critics alleged that it would either prompt the elite to buy another car or to get the person who washed their car to change its number plate every day!

The Urban Age experts emphasise the connection between the physical form of cities and their social relationships. The entire issue of governance is central, as Mumbai's experts correctly reiterate. London saw its worst period at the height of Thatcherism, between 1985 and 2000, when the democratically-elected London City Council was abolished and planning was almost abolished as well, as witnessed in the redevelopment of the Docklands, now the financial centre of the world. In 1997, London saw the election of its first mayor, Ken Livingstone, who exercises certain powers over 33 boroughs.

It is under this left-wing mayor that London has followed Singapore's example in levying a congestion tax on cars entering the central business district, originally ₤ 5, now upped to ₤ 8. This now raises around ₤ 300 million a year, with operating costs of ₤ 7 million. The big difference is that this entire revenue is spent on improving public transport. The fine for not paying the charge has been raised from ₤ 80 to ₤ 100. London also has dedicated bus lanes and is proposing to install three new tram lines. There will be a fast cross-town rail system, like the RER in Paris, which will get you from Heathrow airport to Canary Wharf in the Docklands in 20 minutes.

One of London's most significant initiatives in recent years has been in housing. It has defined its geographical limits and no expansion can take place outside this area. The private sector has been encouraged to invest in new "brownfield" sites -- typically, derelict industrial areas -- but the catch is that half the housing in any new redevelopment project will be reserved for what the British call "key workers": firemen, nurses, cleaners, policemen and the like, at affordable rates. This is precisely what Mumbai ought to have done to the mill land, had it not fallen prey to the greed of property developers.

Andy Altman, who was for five years Washington DC's Planning Director, summed up what factors made any city vibrant. His own city was divided on the lines of race, with 60% of the population being Afro-Americans and, at one stage, was "put into receivership" by the political establishment, with a Control Board appointed by the President. But, with the reassertion of local democracy and the judicious use of planning, there was diversity of land use, which imparted a new energy to the city. In much the same way, New York, which was once seen as a bad investment -- illustrated by movies such as the apocalyptic Escape from New York -- had a $ 5 billion programme to keep the city diverse. As a result, it has now turned the corner and is a symbol of urban success.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2007