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Re-imagining public spaces in cities

By Darryl D'Monte

By conventional standards, Mumbai has perhaps the least amount of open space per person -- 0.03 acres per 1,000 people. But, as a recent study by the design cell of the Kamala Raheja College of Architecture in Mumbai shows, a little 're-imagining' can throw up innovative solutions to enhancing public spaces in Indian cities

Mumbai Space

By conventional standards, Mumbai has among the lowest -- if not the lowest -- amounts of open space per person. The norm is 4 acres per 1,000 residents, which is about as much as the Delhiwallah enjoys. London and New York are slightly better off (the latter due to foresight in planning Central Park smack in the middle of Manhattan). The beleaguered Mumbaikar, by contrast, has only 0.03 acres of open space per thousand people. And that too is being eyed by unscrupulous politicians and builders, in the guise of a "caretaker" policy for recreation grounds, under which the group that is leased the ground for maintenance, can build a clubhouse on 15% of the land. In essence, this amounts to the privatisation of public land.

Are Mumbai and other cities doomed?

If one considers conventional indices that planners employ -- public grounds, parks, beaches, gardens, riverfronts and the like -- no major city barring Delhi and Bangalore will pass the test. However, as a recent study by the design cell of the Kamala Raheja College of Architecture in Mumbai shows, there are innovative ways of enhancing public space. The study was carried out under the guidance of architects P K Das and Associates with the assistance of the one-year-old Mumbai Waterfronts Centre.

Instead of tackling the entire coast of Mumbai, as was originally envisaged, the cell decided to home in on Juhu, where the college is based. Juhu has all the symptoms of the urban malaise that grips Indian cities. Apart from serving as a template for examining other precincts in Mumbai, the most populous city in the country (that of course depends on which boundaries are taken into account), the study could prove to be an eye-opener for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority's forthcoming long-term regional development plan. An earlier such plan spanned 1996-2011; it is now in the process of being revised.

The study is titled, ambitiously, 'Re-imagining the Public Realm'. It looks at another index of open space, which is, the physical amount of space per head (the entire geographical area of a city divided by its population). London fares best, with 32 square metres per person; New York has 26 square metres; Chicago 18. When it comes to the two Asian mega cities -- Tokyo and Mumbai -- which will be vying with each other (along with Mexico City) to become the world's most populous in a few years -- Tokyo fares better, with 4 square metres, while Mumbai has an abysmal 1.1 square metres. Mumbaikars are literally standing on each others' toes!

It is against this backdrop that the study examines Juhu, a coastal suburb that suffers from most of the infirmities that afflict the rest of Mumbai, including sizeable pockets of slums. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Juhu consisted of a few fishing villages and gaothans, or rural-urban clusters. Early in the 20th century, it remained a sleepy beach strip where the well-to-do, including Jamshedji Tata himself, had their holiday cottages.

Juhu witnessed its first major 'development' in 1920 when it supported the city's first airport, which is now converted into a flying club. It was incorporated into the city proper when Greater Bombay was formed in 1945. The 1960s and '70s saw a spate of hotels and institutions come up, largely because there was enough land available. These were mainly schools and colleges, and the ISKON temple. It also saw one of the last state-planned residential neighbourhoods, the Juhu-Vile Parle Development (JVPD) Scheme, in the 1970s, best known today for the home of Amitabh Bachhan. The scheme was originally designed with bungalows in mind, on the lines of Delhi's colonies, but it gradually became denser with a higher floor-space index (FSI) as a consequence of developers purchasing what is known as transfer of development rights, or TDR.

Unlike the later planned cities of Delhi and Bangalore, Mumbai is characterised by the co-existence of old neighbourhoods cheek-by-jowl with some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Thus, in Juhu, several fishing villages (or what remains of them) continue to exist, such as Koliwada -- the original dwelling place of the Koli fishing community. One gaothan is populated by the Christian community, paradoxically known as East Indians, who were converts during the Portuguese era. The British East India Company thought that this community was more in sync with its mores, hence they were named after the company.

Slums have proliferated, including along the mangrove swamps that still intermingle with planned and unplanned development. The Coastal Regulation Zone, which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi promulgated, sought to regulate urban development along the coast to protect mangroves, coral reefs, sand dunes and the like. In 2002-03, around 3,500 hectares of mangrove were identified for protection in Juhu; this alone has been responsible for the survival of this most important forest species.

Juhu occupies only 3.86 sq km, and had a population of 131,000 according to the 1991 census. It has reserved open space of only 270,000 square metres, or 0.27 sq km. Still, this provides double the open space per head that the rest of the city has -- 2.1 square metres as against 1.1 square metres. If one considers the most 'planned' precinct in Juhu, the open space per person in the JVPD declined 10.5 square metres in 1991 to an estimated 3.36 square metres today.

Reserved open space only occupies 7% of the suburb's total area. Nearly 70% of this reservation is for playgrounds, which the study dubs "locked formal spaces"; around a quarter is for genuine recreation grounds, 8% consisting of private gardens. However, as much as 36% of the reserved open space has been encroached upon by slums and commercial units. Another 24% comprises neglected spaces -- no man's land. Moreover, the private spaces do not permit public access and so are open only in a highly restricted sense. In the controversial writ petition for the public to gain open space in redeveloped mill lands in Mumbai, the Supreme Court ruled, much to the dismay of environmentalists, that "private greens" could be conflated with "public greens" as open space.

Private spaces can include bits of beach that bungalow owners have walled in. P K Das has been responsible for the newly completed restoration of the beach front, a public project that was funded from the MPs' Local Area Development Fund of Shabana Azmi and Hema Malini. In the course of this controversial project, which involved the tricky relocation of hawkers in front of the 'gap' in front of the flying club, Das discovered that several such owners had appropriated bits of the beach and turned them into gardens in the hope that their encroachments would go unnoticed. These, as well as three temples -- a ubiquitous method of capturing road space in Mumbai -- were all demolished in the public interest, in line with high court orders. Apart from other infirmities, this practice only highlights the collusion between anti-social elements and the public authorities.

The study clearly lists the break-up of encroached public spaces. Surprisingly, 21% is by citizens' groups, 30% by slums, 9% by private owners, and 40% by parking which is on land belonging to the National Airports Authority of India (NAAI). Juhu supported the city's airport until the Santa Cruz facility was built in 1958.

A distinctive feature of the study is that it shows that Juhu has a little over 200,000 square metres of potential open space. The bulk of it -- 67,200 square metres -- is in government hands, 36,000 square metres in commercial hands, 32,000 square metres in slums, and 41,000 square metres with the NAAI. This adds up to the equivalent of three Oval Maidans (one of Mumbai's well-protected public playgrounds) and 22 Wankhede Stadiums (which, incidentally, represents the appropriation of public playgrounds for a private club that is used only a few days a year for cricket and serves as a club for members on a full-time basis).

The study turns its attention to "the lived public realm". This comprises such unlikely sites as markets. For instance, the flower market just outside Dadar station bustles with commuters, the busiest public space within the precinct. The main ticket counter at Andheri station opens into a large public court with several retail counters and eateries. Bus depots typically occupy a huge footprint and are not used throughout the day. Nearer Juhu, the pavements outside colleges serve as informal meeting places for young people to congregate, in the absence of such formal spaces which all educational institutions ought to provide.

The young architects conducted interviews with all stakeholders who use, or wish to use, these informal public spaces in Juhu. They estimate that there are 270,000 square metres of reserved public open space available, 325,000 square metres of beach, 41,000 square metres at the edge of institutions, 17,200 square metres in public markets, nearly 1,000 square metres within slums, 15,000 square metres within bus depots, 18,000 square metres at the edges of large open lands, 490,000 square metres of "misused collective realm" in the form of mangroves, and another 200,000 square metres similarly misused in nullahs and garbage dumps.

They have re-imagined the extent of this informal public realm and found that while the reserved public space amounts to 21% of the total area, the lived space adds up to 79%, nearly four times more. They have attempted to link up these spaces, although it is not always physically possible to do so. However, "the intention of networking public space is to make each one relate and draw from the other for its survival and/or maintenance. By design, this would ensure that no spaces are lost or denied to the public".

The transport network is vital in this regard, particularly in a city like Mumbai which is predicated on a north-south axis. Accesses like skywalks from stations and the realignment of the proposed Metro stations to major arteries are part of the solution. The architects derive their inspiration from Boston's Big Dig, said to be the most complex urban highway and tunnel project in the heart of a city in US history, and Las Ramblas in Barcelona, which has pedestrianised the centre of a popular boulevard, making it an iconic space in this Spanish city. A 4.5-metre-wide pedestrian strip within the NAAI area would link presently inaccessible public areas.

The study looks at the existing ecological systems -- the much-disrupted and abused network of nullahs, beaches and holding ponds -- and examines their potential to hold excessive rainfall, such as the downpour Mumbai witnessed in July 2005. It proposes paving a six-metre-wide strip along the main nullah in Juhu, to allow permeability and raise the groundwater table. By simple engineering, nullahs can help cleanse waste water, on the lines of the Living Water Garden, a six-acre park on the Funan river that encircles the centre of Chengdu, a Chinese city with 9 million people. Besides installing a water treatment plant for chemical contaminants in the river, there is a vibrant education centre, a wildlife refuge and a wonderful space for people to congregate.

The architects imagine the nullah as a public space spine connecting different educational institutes in Juhu. South Korea has done this with a drain in the centre of Seoul: 'programming' its edge has transformed it into an active urban public space. Similarly, Boston and Brooklyn have the Emerald Necklace -- a 1,100-acre (4.5-sq-km) chain of parks linked by parkways and waterways. While there may be questions regarding the relevance of such foreign precedents, there is no question that one has to re-imagine solutions along these lines in order to revitalise any Indian city.

InfoChange News & Features, August 2008