Cities grow and evolve either by opening up new land or recycling land within their domains this is one way cities can stay relevant and prosperous.
Both these approaches if conceived holistically provide a city with immense possibilities of responding to changing economic, social, technological as well as cultural changes and realising their new aspirations. In the last two decades, Mumbai has completely failed to realise this potential.
Today in Mumbai, the recycling of urban land is the more critical issue and one that is transforming both the physical and social fabric of the city. However, simultaneously it is also emblematic of the myopic and perverse attitude of the government in purposefully stifling sustainable urban growth.
Two prime examples of this are the textile mill lands in central Mumbai and the port lands along Mumbai’s eastern waterfront. The case of the mill lands, now a lost opportunity, vividly illustrates this condition of laissez-faire physical growth in Mumbai, where approximately 585 acres of prime land have been virtually gifted by the government to a few developers for narrow financial gain.
It is indeed shocking that for such an important planning decision in the city, no planning agency in Mumbai even attempted to prepare a master or strategy plan for the processes by which these lands could be recycled for the benefit of the city. All subsequent efforts to salvage the situation were by citizens groups, who made a last minute, albeit unsuccessful, bid to salvage these lands for public good!
It would be a disaster if the same fate awaited Mumbai’s port lands which amount to approx 1,800 acres of contiguous land along the eastern edge of the city’s waterfront – something made vivid now to the city as one travels down the newly installed eastern freeway.
In port cities across the world, the most attractive, iconic and popular areas are the recycled post-industrial landscapes on the waterfront. Whether it’s San Francisco, Baltimore, Boston, London or Amsterdam, it is in these areas that recreations, leisure, work, and living all coalesce into incredibly vibrant and sometimes hedonistic ways.
In Mumbai unfortunately we have turned our backs to this great opportunity leaving these prime lands to the sinister schemes of politicians and developers.
The city must urgently recognise this potential as the recycling of the port lands in Mumbai have far reaching local as well as regional implications for the metropolitan region and the hinterland of Maharashtra. The very connection of South Mumbai (from Bandra to Colaba) or the financial epicentre of country, to the hinterland of India would depend on how the port land on the city’s eastern water edge is recycled and integrated with the broader urban system.
The visual connection, for example, from the eastern edge of the city across the harbour, could go a long way in weaving into the public’s imagination Navi Mumbai - which otherwise seems distant and remote. Similarly, the potential for the creation of connectivity to Navi Mumbai using water transport could transform the way mobility within the region is imagined.
This area of the port lands totaling approx 1,800 acres (the textile mill lands in comparison are merely 585 acres and not contiguous), is in the process of grappling with great transformation and change as the economy of Mumbai moves into the post-industrial phase with the transforming nature of users.
While this area totals roughly 4.5 times the mill land, interestingly only 6% of this land is under reservation by the BMC for public uses and less than 1% (.85%) is for open spaces. This is particularly incredible in light of the fact that there exist the potential to create 14.5km of waterfront promenades and public spaces.
Interestingly, only 50% of this land (836 acres) is used for port activities by the Bombay Port Trust (the custodian of the land) and large seemingly underused infrastructure and roads characterise the present state of the landscape. Dotted with unused warehouses (often handsome and robust buildings with great reuse potential) a sense of desolation prevails in most parts of this landscape.
This is offset by sections of this area that are teeming with life as vast pools of labour make it their home – a virtual sea of energy and resources creating new emergent forms of employment in the area. Similarly, the ecology of the region (flamingos make this zone their home for half the year) with its adjacent mudflats and mangroves, all coexist with heritage structure such as the Sewri Fort and many such fragments that comprise the rich fabric of the eastern waterfront of Mumbai.
Therefore, the challenge is how this landscape can be rearranged to synergise these different components and leverage them for the city’s advantage?
Recycling and renewing the 1,800 acres of prime land along Mumbai’s eastern edge would provide several opportunities. Renewed land uses in this post-industrial scenario could provide space for the city’s newly emergent economies.
In fact, this land could serve to replicate the wonderful mixed-use qualities of Mumbai where convention centres, hotels, hospitals, schools and colleges could be serviced by new state of the art ferry terminals connecting to the regional expanse of the Mumbai metropolitan area across the bay. Similarly affordable housing, parks, public promenades and food courts could all coexist in a rich tapestry of innovative land use planning.
The challenge is really to create an equitable yet holistic vision and strategy plan that safeguard against uncoordinated incremental development of the port lands.
The government must necessarily play a lead in making this zone in the city ripe for development by retrofitting it with high grade infrastructure a very doable task as a great majority of the lands are vacant. Furthermore, to orchestrate physical form, this could be designated a zero FSI (floor space index) zone which would be designed to mop up the many forms of TDR (transferable development rights) floating around the city and wrecking physical havoc at neighbourhood levels.
Thus the recycling of this land with the appropriate legislative mechanism could actually indirectly benefit the entire city. The way this would work is that a potential developer in this zone could buy a plot of land with a right to realise a high buildable FSI but no FSI that would come with the plot – to realise its potential, the developer would buy TDR from the market.
This would focus on development (and TDR) in zones serviced with new infrastructure and not randomly in the city where the infrastructure capacities are inadequate. The rationale for this would be that these lands were allocated to private owners or even government agencies for particular uses such as docks, warehousing, saltpans, or under railway use and that they should not realise land use changes automatically.
These lands should revert to the city for it to decide how best its conversion would benefit the city. Naturally this should be done in consultation with the stakeholders in the city. If the potency of civil society in Mumbai and its flourishing NGO sector can operate in synchrony with the government and professionals who envision the regional scale, the city will truly achieve a sustainable planning process.
In spite of this self-evident potential and gain that can accrue to the city, the state and all concerned government planning departments are once again seemingly unconcerned about this opportunity! The port land on Mumbai’s eastern waterfront is an absolutely crucial zone in the city and one that could completely transform Mumbai and ameliorate many deficiencies that exist in the city today.
The time frame to seize this opportunity is very short, and the greed for this land immense and rabid! If the citizens of Mumbai do not act quickly the very people who pretend to govern the city will once again deprive Mumbai of perhaps the last great opportunity to recycle land and remake itself for the future.
fast forward to the future
If what you see is anything to go by, Mumbai city is turning tougher to live in and uglier to look at year by year. Covering a kilometre by road in peak hours could take up to 40 minutes. And eyesores multiply and procreate.
In 7 years, how (un)liveable would the city be and does the administration have an executable reform in place? dna kicks off a campaign, Mumbai 20/20, that focuses on solutions as much as problems, starting with a perspective essay by
The author is a practising architect in Mumbai and professor and chair of the urban planning and design department at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University