If you’ve lived long enough in Mumbai or even if you’ve just arrived, it won’t be long before you start feeling a clawing need for space. Think shoulder to shoulder travel in the Mumbai locals, which carry 7.5 million commuters every day, a number dangerously beyond its capacity.
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In 2014, Mumbai was ranked sixth on the list of the world’s most populous cities. It is predicted to become the fourth largest by 2030 with a population of 28 million. Yet people can’t seem to get enough of Mumbai. There is a constant influx of migrants looking for gainful employment.
A burgeoning population throws up any number of challenges. One among these is space; an issue often overlooked in the bid to provide basic necessities. Land is a scarce resource in the island city. While the city administration struggles to create additional open spaces, it is completely oblivious to the colossal amount of ‘public space’ taken up by cars that serve only a few thousand private owners.
Private transportation swallows a large chunk of public space in the form of roads, and more so in the form of parking. Shouldn’t alternatives be looked at for freeing up all of this space? Instead, we have proposals to deconstruct existing parks under the guise of ‘beautification’ and for construction of underground parking lots.
Parks vs parking lots
A few years ago the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation appointed an established architect to plan and design underground parking lots at the site of two public gardens, one in Byculla and one in Bandra West as a solution to bottlenecks and traffic jams caused by cars parked on the sides of roads.
In the case of a park in Bandra, a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by a well-known civic activist, Zoru Bathena, revealed that the parking lot was not planned for the underground. It showed the structure jutting out over the ground by 7 feet, covering over 60 per cent of the park area. It was in fact converting the natural park into an artificial terrace garden.
The proposal had also included the construction of a shopping plaza on the periphery of the park. It soon became clear that the parking lot was meant for the shopping plaza and not as a solution to the traffic woes, as was being touted.
At a public meeting organized by a community-based organization in November 2018, with the local municipal councilor, the MLA, BMC representatives and the consulting architects, citizens raised many valid questions. Alternative solutions on the parking issue were offered in lieu of the proposed parking lot. These included reopening of several underground parking lots in the park’s vicinity which were locked and unused. Within a few days of that meeting, the proposal was put on hold.
Space per person vs Space per car
It is widely acknowledged that availability of open spaces is one of the biggest challenges that Mumbai faces. According to the Mumbai Development Plan 2034, the existing per capita open space in Mumbai is 1.28 square metres as against the international standard of 11 square metres. A typical car parking space is about 12 square metres. Vehicle numbers in Mumbai have jumped from 20.3 lakh to 32 lakh, up 56 per cent in five years. The number of vehicles added to city roads every day is close to 700.
Ashok Datar of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN) pointed out that space for parking is snowballing with the continuous addition of cars and in comparison, the space for parks and public use, is shrinking. According to Datar, at the time of purchase, only the cost of the car is considered, not the cost of parking.
“A car is used for two hours, while carrying one or two people, and parked for 22 hours while buses run for 16 hours, transporting at least 1000 people per day, and are parked for 8 hours,” Datar pointed out, urging city authorities to learn from cities in the developed world who are moving away from private transport and focusing on mobility systems for the public such as BRTs, metros, cycling lanes and pedestrian infrastructure. “This should be adopted in Mumbai especially when you look at the numbers: Imagine the public space taken by 32 lakh cars when parked for 22 hours in a day. Mumbai has limited space and a burgeoning population, 21 million and counting. Simply put, where is the space?”
Natural spaces linked to health and happiness
Open spaces make cities ‘livable’. For example, citizens who convert open spaces into community kitchen gardens reap more than vegetables and herbs. They nurture relationships with each other. The upside is the security that comes with it.
A review of evidence on the link between urban green spaces and health by the World Health Organisation defines resilient cities as those which are better equipped to face climate change events: “A city of well‐connected, attractive green spaces that offer safe opportunities for urban residents for active mobility and sports as well as for stress recovery, recreation and social contact, is likely to be more resilient to extreme environmental events, such as heat waves and extreme rainfall. Such a city is also likely to have healthier citizens, reducing demands on health services and contributing to a stronger economy.”
Mumbai is fortunate to have a handful of concerned citizens who work to save open spaces on behalf of the general public. Nagar, a city-based NGO that began 20 years ago at a time when there were very few citizens involved in civic issues, has documented 1428 reserved open spaces as shown in Mumbai’s 1991 development plan, to make data available to protect these spaces. Aptly titled Breathing Space, the document offers a solid foundation on which to base policies and plans.
Nayana Kathpalia of Nagar shared instances of working closely with the authorities on open spaces, parking, pedestrian infrastructure, policies and related civic issues. “If the authorities are investing in Metro, then why are they also spending public money on a coastal road?” asked Nayana. Her advice is to improve public transport and pedestrian infrastructure.
Jane Jacobs, a well known activist, managed to disrupt car-centric thinking in New York and Toronto. Like Jane Jacobs, we in Mumbai and elsewhere, too must ask if we are building cities for cars or for people? And it follows then to ask, whether we need more parking, or if we need more parks?