How can Mumbai get more public spaces?

The Coastal Road project and Eastern waterfront will bring acres of public land into the city. We look at some of the roadblocks to democratic planning.

In part 1 of the story, we wrote about how citizens partnered with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to create three new public spaces for the city, despite the limited framework available for doing so. And while these changes are a step towards greater change, Mumbai still has an abysmal 1.24 sqm of open space per person.

The Development Plan 2034, drafted by the BMC, aims to increase this from 3,798 acres to 8,710 acres. A big chunk of this – around 200 acres – is expected to come from the land reclaimed as part of the Coastal Road Project. But how this land is going to be developed is a point of contention between architects and the government.

“Roads are needed for the city, not the coast.”

Currently, 274 acres are to be reclaimed (90% of this is done) along the shore from Priyadarshini Park at Malabar Hills to the Worli end of the Bandra-Worli sea link. An 8-lane road will be constructed on the outskirts of this land, extending the shore 100m into the sea. The remaining area – 78% of the total land – is to have parks, promenades, jogging tracks, cycle lanes and open green spaces. 

Alan Abraham, architect at Abraham John Architects and co-founder of Bombay Greenway, argues that this is a fundamental misplacement. Positioning the public spaces between roads will make them inaccessible, and disconnect them at many places. Views of the sea will be obstructed, and the distances traversed by cyclists and pedestrians limited. “Roads are needed for the city, not the coast,” he says. 

Bombay Greenway’s alternative proposal – a realignment – shifts the open spaces to the seaside and pulls the road in. The envisioned result is a 145m wide and 6.7km long continuous waterfront – a massive increase from the 20m wide disjointed promenade currently planned. “Most importantly, the city should have access to its seafront,” says Alan.

This space will also act as a buffer from tides, tsunamis and floods, much needed in a city at risk of being submerged by 2050. The BMC’s current remedy for this is a partially submerged inclined sea wall, for which it requested excess reclamation of 51 acres in 2020. The efficacy of such a sea wall, however, is debated, as experts argue that it will obstruct the natural underground drainage and lead to flooding.

Read more: Are Mumbaikars prepared for the environmental impact of new coastal projects?

How public spaces can be used

The BMC also has an abundance of choices for designing the open spaces, hints principal architect at IMK Architects, Rahul Kadri. From recreational to sporting to educational, the 200 acres can be host to activities for all sections of society. “Our office has made a document on the 30-40 different types and uses a garden can have, just to give an idea of what is possible. Citizens from each precinct along the road should have a say in what is going to be built, so each part directly responds to the context of the place.”

The document takes inspiration from state-of-the-art parks all around the globe, illustrating the lessons to be learnt from the methods of governments and architects. They are numerous: the Park am Gleisdreieck in Berlin used household surveys, online dialogues and local events to transform a previous railyard; the Guaíba Orla Urban Park in Brazil renewed the Guaiba River, an integral natural resource for the metropolis; the South Pointe Park in Miami integrates two major streets into the park. Natural features, sustainable strategies and opinions of the citizens were leveraged by the firms engaged to design the parks. 

Rahul floats the idea of a global design competition for choosing the plan, as was done by  government officials for Central Park in New York and Zaryadye Park in Moscow. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) did the same for the redesigning of Maharashtra Nature Park in 2015. He suggests that the judges come from all three interest groups: architects, citizens and government officials. “This is a great chance for the government to do something really amazing. It would be nice if it wasn’t just an open and shut process,” he says. 

Mumbai’s missing Eastern Waterfront

Kadri also calls attention to the gaping hole in the Development Plan 2034: the 2000+ acres eastern waterfront managed by the Port Trust (MbPT). The Trust, owned by the Union Ministry of Shipping, was given the status of Special Planning Authority in 2018 and is developing the land independently. 

In December 2018, the Trust released its Draft Development Plan for public scrutiny, in which most of the space was marked for port, tourism, commercial and residential use. A measly 178 acres – 8.6% – was allotted for open spaces, and an extra 230 acres park was proposed to be built on reclaimed land.

The MbPT received more than 900 objections to the plan for its focus on commercial development, and hence released a Revised Plan in 2020. The new plan reserved 202 acres for gardens and public spaces. While this is effectively a 20 acre increase, the percentage of open space increased to 32% as the area open for redevelopment was almost halved. From the 1185 acres opened for redevelopment in the 2018 plan, only 625 acres have been retained for development in the 2020 plan.

“Cities all over the world, whose ports have moved out, like Boston, New York, Singapore, Bilbao, etc, got the land back to the city and used it amazingly. The east and the west coast now have the last chance to transform Bombay completely,” says Rahul.

Hurdles to development

An additional 10,000+ acres of Mumbai’s land falls outside the ambit of the city’s development plan. These areas fall under the jurisdiction of different parastatal and central authorities, like the MMRDA, Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (Mhada), Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC). 

This becomes difficult when projects for public spaces fall on this land. For the revamp of Mahim beach, acquiring an NOC from the Port Trust (MbPT) was relatively easy, as the project had the support of Aditya Thackeray. But several of Bombay Greenway’s proposals for upgrading land around railway stations and airports haven’t seen much luck. 

“Unfortunately, most public land has multiple stakeholders. And there is minimal coordination between them, which causes long delays,” says Alan. “Ideally, there should be a single town planning authority and single transport system, which would make a single point responsible and answerable.”

Mahim beach
Mahim beach was recently turned into an accessible public space. Photo: Kiran Dighavkar

Untapped potential

Once a proposal has obtained all the permissions needed, architecture firms can bring along corporate sponsors, but the BMC, known for being the richest municipal corporation in the country, is not averse to paying their part. In fact, 52% of the funds for the Garden Department in 2020-21 was left unused.

Design in urban centres has the potential to affect the everyday lives of millions of people. “Mumbai has all the potential to be beautiful; it is economically rich, it has very rich people, it is a peninsula with water on three sides, and has hills, rivers, beaches and the largest natural forest in a big city in the world,” says Alan. The work is just waiting to be done.

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