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What the BMC must do to save open spaces in Mumbai

Monday, 11 August 2014 - 5:49am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

An audit of public open spaces conducted by Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) in 2007 showed less than 1.77 sq meters of open space per person in the Greater Mumbai. Here the average population density is over 27,000 persons per sq km (it is upwards of 1 lakh persons per sq km in some areas).

The audit revealed that only 6.5% of the city's land area is reserved for public open space. Yet at micro-level, there are many locations where the perception of open space exists, but is privatised so only those who can afford it can access and enjoy the open space. 

The real accessible and usable public open space is less than 0.9 sq meters per person.

The civic body and citizens can take administrative and procedural steps to augment and save the city's existing open spaces. First, the city must augment the amount of open space in the city and declare these open spaces absolutely sacrosanct.

There are areas of the city that can be considered as open space, but are under constant threat of development. Within the city's limits are 37.3 sq. km of mangroves, 10.68 sq.km of salt pans, 13.35 sq. km of marshy areas and 46.5 sq. km of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, for a total of 107.83 sq.km. Currently No Development Zones are allowed to be constructed on. These land should be reserved strictly under non buildable open space reservations. Once these lands are declared protected from any future development, the amount of open space per capita will be secured for our future.

Moreover rapid destruction of these ecologically sensitive areas have grave consequences affecting a much broader area of the city, as seen in the increase in flooding and loss of life related these floods of the past few years hence protecting these areas is inherently logical.

Our second recommendation is to give custody/responsibility of the open spaces to the individual ward Office. Currently, playgrounds, recreation grounds and gardens are the responsibility of the Superintendent of Gardens, a centralized office within the BMC under the Department of Gardens and Zoo.

Ward Offices and ward officer positions were created exactly for the purpose of decentralizing the many responsibilities of the MCGM to the Ward, or local level. Vigilance and monitoring open spaces can be facilitated easier at the Ward level through the Ward Office's engineering cadre. This lets residents in the Ward to have logistically closer and accessible public office to contact when encroachments or a threat of losing public open space occurs. Giving daily responsibility to the local ward for maintenance such as trash pick-up in public open spaces will help create a healthier and cleaner environment as well.

In addition to maintenance, ward offices should resume the responsibilities of the Building Proposals Department as a building proposal relates to the ward level, than the city as a whole. Separation of development planning which could remain centralised (although preferred at ward level in long run) whereas building permissions can be assigned to ward.

A process of public notice issued by ward level building proposal wing will ensure that the local residents can express objection or at least become aware of a building proposal (and consequence loss of open space) in the area.

Once the Ward Office is strengthened and means of accountability are set up, our third recommendation can take place: to secure and consolidate the public open spaces. A permanent see-through fence to prevent further encroachment and in some cases, posting a security guard at the open space will be necessary. Once the an open space is secured, it will facilitate carrying out basic improvements and specific management changes.

Lastly it is the opportune time for citizens groups and individuals to adopt an open space as purely non-buildable reservation. Once the city's open spaces are secure and a minimal level of physical intervention is made (benches, trash bins, lighting, fencing, etc.), they are prime opportunities for an ALM, housing society or cooperative or school to adopt these open spaces.

Increasing or even maintaining the existing amount of public open space in Mumbai has and will continue to be a challenge in the city. Political will, public consciousness and pressure on decision makers and developers are the only tools available to ensure that Mumbai does not lose its precious public open spaces. This in turn will prevent several factors that negatively affect residents' health and restore the city's ecological balance.

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