City of paper urbanism: how Mumbai can make plans it may actually implement


Skyscraper for one: billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storey home ‘Antilia’ towers over adjacent apartment buildings in Altamount Road, South Mumbai. Photo: Kerwin Datu

As the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai progresses its newest 20-year Development Plan for the city, Kristen Teutonico considers the barren legacy of past plans and argues that many small interventions might do more for the city than a grand plan that may ultimately be ignored entirely.

As Mumbai drafts its Development Plan for the next 20 years, it is apparent that not much has changed in the last forty. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) publishes plans on a 20-year cycle, and is in the midst of working on the latest edition for 2014-2034. While the MCGM oversees the production of the plan, the proposals are being detailed and executed by Groupe SCE India, a company that has been working with planning authorities and local urban bodies in India for over eight years.

The Development Plans always seem to hold the answers for a balanced and socioeconomically rational city. But while they go into great detail on paper, the city never quite follows through on the implementation with equal rigour.

The planning of Mumbai is regulated by the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act of 1966, which extends to the whole of the state of Maharashtra excluding the city of Nagpur, and which requires every local authority to prepare a development plan for the area within its jurisdiction allocating land for different uses — residential, commercial, agricultural, etc. — and reserve sites required for public purposes such as schools, playgrounds, hospitals, parks, roads and highways.

The first Development Plan for Greater Mumbai was prepared for 1964 to 1981, and revised for 1981 to 2001, though only sanctioned between 1991 and 1993, and even then with only 12 per cent of it being implemented. In 1981 as in 1964, the region suffered from haphazard sprawl, the overzoning of lands for industrial purposes especially in outlying villages like Kalyan (dairy) and Bhiwandi (textiles), inadequate infrastructure and housing, and general traffic and transportation problems. All of which, as of the end of 2012, are still alarmingly present.

The main problem is that development proceeds before government papers are signed but after money is exchanged. By the time the 2014-2034 plan is printed, the peripheral areas it must be concerned with will have already shifted from a rural landscape to an urban condition with all the problems of the existing city, recognised but not addressed thirty years ago.

Government and policy makers acknowledge that the city needs help but time and money — a classic partnership — ultimately determine what gets done and who it favours. Planning is expedient only for the wealthy, from billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s famous 27-storey home built in the absence of effective zoning or land ownership regulations, to the underused Bandra-Worli Sea Link connecting affluent western suburbs to the downtown area, which cost 16 billion Indian Rupees (186 million British Pounds) yet operates at only 15 per cent capacity due to its exclusionary toll of 55 rupees (64 pence).

Given its track record, how can Mumbai expect to maintain a grip on its planning while capitalist development pops up overnight? The MCGM needs to reinvent the way it approaches urbanisation to be able to engage with the city and its people at the heady pace they operate on.

Regardless of what is drawn, written, stamped or agreed upon, the appeal of instantaneous creation and economic gain will continue to be the drivers of Mumbai’s urban growth. Until corruption and elitism are more tightly constrained, problems will continue to plague the city and the majority of Mumbaikars who cannot afford to pay to do ‘as they please’.

In the meantime, rather than grand abstract plans every twenty years, what the city needs more of are practical and proactive thinking to pinpoint problems and solve them with articulated design solutions that have timelines, budgets and schemes that are easily attained. Such factors led to the new bus loops in downtown Mumbai which provide an efficient and clean service for tourists and walkers who inundate the sidewalks. The entire route cost 5 rupees and a bus swings past every five minutes. New bus routes such as these through congested areas of the city can alleviate traffic, reduce noise and pollution, and promote sustainable urban life.

The scheme was developed and executed by the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI), an NGO tasked with improving the urban environment through research, information provision and public engagement in planning processes. In response to the ongoing preparation of the 2014-2034 Development Plan, UDRI is initiating a public participation programme in which stakeholder groups consisting of NGOs, researchers, former government officers and experts, working in sectors such as health, education and the environment, come together to study the needs of the city and make recommendations to the MCGM. The process not only allows citizens working in different portfolio areas to understand how planning affects their sector and to have a voice within it; it also puts pressure on the MCGM to see the wider public demanding solutions to real problems.

In the recent exhibition ‘Open Mumbai’, the architect P. K. Das proposed a constellation of new public spaces throughout the 24 wards of the city. The project was created to show the MCGM what Mumbai has the potential to be and how, in the architects’ terminology, ‘to create non-barricaded, non-exclusive, and non-elitist spaces.’ Embracing and enforcing these spaces would give the government plans and ideas already thoroughly researched and designed; the only task for government is to execute them.

Concretely implementing public participation in planning, building new public spaces, and establishing new bus routes are only three examples of small-scale initiatives that Mumbai can begin to embrace. New regulations regarding parking, noise (such as honking) and the amount of vehicles allowed in certain areas each day will also start to promote a more positive urban condition.

Problems such as sprawl, housing and transportation will continue to plague Mumbai as long as the government continues to pretend to put all its faith into a thoroughly planned city-wide manifesto that is ultimately tossed aside. Large answers are not always the way to deal with large problems, and the web of tangles in Mumbai is too complex to unravel in one grand sweep. In rethinking the grandiose nature of the Development Plan, perhaps the government can engage in smaller scale implementation ss and allow new regulations and ideas to take centre stage so that Mumbai can begin to envision its future and move beyond its paper urbanity.

Kristen Teutonico received a Master of Architecture at Parsons The New School for Design and recently completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Mumbai. She has remained abroad to continue her work as an architect, educator and researcher, working on projects that seek to understand urban development in India.

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