Mumbai: City planning leaves few open spaces for citizens to breathe free

The city and its suburbs are so badly planned and congested that there are no public open spaces for citizens to enjoy freely.

Just breathe. Take a deep breath and let your body and mind relax. Easy enough to say but a difficult thing to do for a Mumbai resident. Given the severe lack of public open spaces (POS) or, to put it differently, spaces to breathe. 

The first day of 2023 saw record crowds flocking to the city’s Zoo and the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), as the city lacks enough healthy options for family outings. The Mumbai Zoo was so overflowing with over 33,000 visitors that at one point during the day, it closed its gates and refused to take in more people.

The city offers its residents no space to rest or renew themselves. 

With a population of 129,21,605 as estimated in mid-year-2021, the city of 483.14 sq kms has a per capita population density of 26,745  persons per sq kms, according to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) records.

As per the BMC’s Environment Status Report- 2020-21, though the city has 291 gardens/parks, 475 recreational grounds and 355 playgrounds, the city continues to have an abysmal low per capita open space of 1.24 sq metres.

With the city growing vertically and multi-storied skyscrapers becoming the norm, the need for breathing spaces has become so acute that desperate Mumbaikars seek to escape to open spaces like beaches and resorts outside Mumbai whenever they can. Every weekend or holiday coming together tends to be viewed as opportunities to rush out of the city limits to unwind and relax and take a deep breath of fresh air.

“Parks and open spaces are breathing spaces for people where they can just step out to just breathe free or just pause and sit,” says Nayana Kathpalia, trustee of NGO Alliance for Governance and Renewal (NAGAR).  

The state agrees, but only on paper. “POS serve the purpose of lungs for the city and impose much-needed balance between the built and the open environment,” says the Revised Draft Development Plan-2034 (RDDP-34).


Read more: Why Mumbai needs parks more than parking lots for its 32 lakh cars


What is an open space?

Mumbai’s RDDP-34 describes POS as open spaces where there is right to access and any restrictions imposed are universally applicable. Open spaces available to all members of a local community, such as residents of a housing society, are local community spaces. So, are clubs, gymkhanas and swimming pools that are available on a membership or fee basis. The logic for this inclusion into POS was that “the facility was being enjoyed by a sizable number of citizens”. 

open ground at cross maidan on churchgate
The Maharashtra government had commissioned a committee in 2012 to study and recommend rules for drafting a new uniform policy on open spaces in Mumbai, The report is yet to be made public. Representational image. Photo: Berjis Driver

The recent RDDP has redefined the concept of open spaces to include mangroves, beaches, national parks,and even the green spaces below flyovers. Which means all natural areas that could be enjoyed by a sizable number of people, have been clubbed as POS.  

 But citizens do not have access to many of these open spaces. This is either because many POS are encroached by slums. Also, thanks to the BMC’s policy of handing over POS to private entities either temporarily on an adoption basis, or on a long-term lease period on a caretaker basis, access is denied on many lands to the average citizen. 

Andheri resident Narendra Soneji says that many prefer to have morning walks on the roads because most of the gardens around his house are either far or charge an entry fee or even converted into private clubs. He finds the nearby Versova beach, hardly 2 km from his residence, unsuitable for walking due to factors like the beachfront being used for open defecation by local slum dwellers. Recent construction of a concrete promenade and putting up tetrapods has failed to render the beachfront walkable due to nuisance caused by couples and drunkards. “A few gardens are unkempt and unsafe, while the well-maintained ones levy charges,” says Soneji, “Children are so short of playgrounds that they end up playing cricket on the streets”. 

Challenges in keeping POS open for all

As per information uploaded on the BMC’s website, portal.mcgm.gov.in, about 262 plots have been handed over to private groups on an adoption basis. These include gymkhanas, sports associations, schools, hotels like Lands End, religious groups like Prajapita Brahma Kumaris, Advanced Locality Managements (ALMs), resident associations and even builders.

Another 11 plots have been entirely handed over to private groups on a caretaker basis. This includes a whopping 42,290.60 square metre of land at Borsapada, Kandivali (West) to the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) for a new stadium.

Termed as sponsors, these private bodies are supposed to maintain these grounds. While people do have limited time access to the plots assigned on an adopted basis, they have zero or paid access to the plots handed over on a caretaker basis. Which means that the policy bars citizens’ access to public land.

Most of these lands granted on caretaker basis include premier clubs like the Khar Gymkhana and the MIG Club, which charge membership fees in lakhs to use the space for recreation purposes.

Former leader of the Samajwadi Party in the BMC, Rais Sheikh recalls how a decision to acquire back the POS from private bodies never got ratified by the BMC. “Gardens were allocated on an adoption basis around 2011-12,” says Sheikh. “However, soon things got out of hand and huge violations were noticed with the plots getting converted into private gymkhanas and clubs that charged huge fees”.

Sheikh, ex-corporator from the Nagpada and legislator from Bhiwandi, recommends that adoption be granted for a shorter term, like say eleven months, to prevent private parties from pitching tents on public lands. Sheikh also suggests involving citizens in managing activities at the gardens, but ensuring that BMC retains its overall management control over them.

This caretaker policy had met with much opposition from citizens forcing the authorities to stay the policy. Nayana Kathpalia says that strong lobbies keep pushing huge big-ticket construction projects like stadiums, clubs or even underground parking lots on the POS in the name of development. The latest BMC proposal involves building  a theme park on the vast expanse of the Mahalakshmi Race Course, that is popular with morning walkers. 

“Citizens must be constantly updated and vigilant about the spaces in their neighbourhood to ensure they remain encroachment-free and accessible for them,” says Kathpalia.


Read more: How can Mumbai get more public spaces?


Other challenges in retaining open spaces 

Many open grounds had been encroached by informal settlements and the government had planned to regularise or relocate them under the Slum Redevelopment Authority (SRA) project on Mumbai’s open spaces. NGO NAGAR has challenged this in the courts and has petitioned against POS being used for slum housing projects. 

Though the Maharashtra government had commissioned a committee in 2012 to study and recommend rules for drafting a new uniform policy on open spaces in Mumbai, the city still does not have a policy on managing its open spaces. The committee’s report is yet to be made public.  

Executive director of Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) Anuradha Parmar rues the fact that Mumbai lacks a consistent definition, policy and even a strategy to manage, maintain and protect its open spaces.

“Though the concept of spatial urban planning is yet to evolve in the city, we continue to lack clarity about how these spaces need to be designed so they best serve the neighbourhoods they exist in,” says Anuradha “There is a lack of guidance on the kind of native tree species that need to be planted in our public gardens or the kind of benches it should have. Local communities must be engaged to ensure that POS be designed as per their needs”.

The way forward

The RDDP-34 aims to increase open spaces from 3,798 acres to 8,710 acres  to bridge the land demand deficit to meet the needs of the estimated population of 12.79 crores by 2034. It seeks to double the per capita public open space index from 1.24 sq metres to 3.36 sqm. Overall, the city aims to achieve a per capita open space index of 6.13 sqm by bringing in 7834.41 hectares or 19,359 acres of land mainly by redefining and recreating spaces. 

A big chunk of this – around 88 hectares or 217 acres – is expected to come from the “green reclamation” undertaken as part of the Coastal Road Project. But how this land would be developed is yet to be made public.

The RDDP-34 also proposes to carve out public green spaces out of the development planned in the tracts of the Mumbai Port Trust and Salt Pan land. The BMC also proposes to re-reserve POS that had been de-reserved due to encroachments to avoid “incentivising” the encroachers.

The first step, however, is to protect whatever POS that still exists by accurately documenting them. One also needs to have a framework for evaluating these open spaces so that one can strategize about which open spaces need to be maintained, protected or enhanced, advises Parmar.

The UDRI is in the process of GIS mapping open spaces in certain parts of Mumbai in partnership with NAGAR to prepare an open space management strategy document. The data thus collected will be in the public domain, to inform and assist people to stay vigilant and participate in keeping its POS healthy and accessible.

“Be vigilant, arm yourself with information about the open spaces in your neighbourhood,” is Nayana’s advice. “Merely being aware won’t help; you need to fight for it”.

This article is part of a series of articles on Urban Planning in Mumbai, supported by a grant from the A.T.E. Chandra Foundation.

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Comments:

  1. Narendra L. Soneji says:

    Apt article on dearth of open public spaces in mumbai. Hope the concerned authorities and Government of Maharashtra will take measures for betterment of public at large.

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