What is the way forward for the planning of open spaces in Mumbai?

Given the lack of open spaces in Mumbai, urban planner Berjis Driver explains three focus areas that need to be addressed in our development plans.

Urban planning experts and allied interests have for long grappled with exactly how much open space Mumbai needs, and what more can be done to improve Mumbai’s natural environment. Given the likely impacts of climate change, especially in the context of the latest IPCC report warning the city of climate change catastrophes, urban planning in Mumbai appears to have reached a critical point of inquiry. 

Extensive research already outlines Mumbai’s open space deficit as an outcome of administrative disputes, land availability, acquisition financing, lack of holistic policy implementation, and other reasons across social, economic and environmental aspects. While the search for solutions has always presented complications, there is a need to take stock of alternative ideas.

An important concern that has been completely neglected in Mumbai’s environmental and development narrative is intergenerational equity, which is defined as, “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. Youth interests, particularly concerning open and natural spaces, have been openly abandoned by our city’s former development plans and have been recognized only through a handful of urban design and mobility projects as recently as 2022.

After the absence of youth-centric initiatives stretching over 54 years since the first Development Plan of 1967, younger generations and their right to experience the city and its natural environment, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, needs to be prioritised. Addressing this is also pertinent as it helps meet underestimated targets (11.4 and 11.7) of the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, which are often lost in national discourse and action due to a selective emphasis on green mobility and housing observed at the central level, not the city.

Read more: Has urban planning in Mumbai failed?

There are three clear focus areas for addressing the matter of public open spaces and larger environmental concerns.

Addressing shortfalls in open spaces in Mumbai

Five key standards are used globally when it comes to planning urban open spaces and these are based on population (provide open space based on a population level), area (carve out a percentage of total urban area for open space), mobility (identify catchments and link with walking and transport), facilities (specific facilities on which the open space is dependent) and locality-based (preference-driven as per available data). In India, the planning focus is largely on a foundation of facilities and population-based norms, as part of the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) guidelines, referred to by urban local bodies when it comes to the matter of land use planning and development. 

The guidelines further describe the provision of 10-12 square metres of open space as desirable, based on an organisational definition of open spaces as ‘recreation space’, ‘organised green’ and other ‘common open spaces’. But, there appears to be no clarity on exactly why 10 square metres is favourable. If the norm is assumed to be an expansion from the globally recognized standard of 9 square metres per capita, formerly established by the World Health Organisation (WHO), then it is inherently flawed due to a lack of proven relevance with the Indian context of recreation.

The origins of how the original 9 square metre norm for open space came to be has much to do with Italy’s active participation in the WHO and the eventual mention of the norm (which is part of the domestic regulations for open space in new construction areas of Italy dating back to 1968) in an unofficial report to the WHO board. Given the concerns driven by climate change and the poor conditions of public utilities and infrastructure, perhaps the norm has no relevance or applicability whatsoever to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) of 2022. There is also no clarity in the URDPFI guidelines as to what exactly constitutes a recreation space and by extension, factors differentiating between various types of open spaces. Also, there is minimal documented evidence to validate that area and facility-based planning approaches for open space were ever successful, as there is no qualitative information at the ward/neighbourhood levels to back such claims.

Urban planners in the country need to study these origins and their applicability to strive towards developing more nuanced and relevant norms which capture the nature of recreation in the Indian context across various socioeconomic factors. This is an opportunity for young urban planners and local governance bodies to ideate, test, and formulate alternatives to density-based norms like URDPFI, backed on evidence that is truly reflective of local needs. 

Similar mentions of creating local solutions for tackling urban problems are clearly stated in Niti Aayog’s recent report. To quote page 18, ‘Observing India’s urbanisation through a Western lens has become the practice. Experience has shown that such objectivity diminishes the motivation and confidence needed to generate innovative solutions for indigenous problems.’  

Integrating blue and green spaces

A uniformity in open spaces and natural area terminologies need to be maintained throughout all administrative jurisdictions of the MMR to take stock of possible adaptation strategies. The focus at the regional level must be firmly rooted in expanding accessible open space and natural areas, meeting recreational demand and further ensuring favourable conditions of existing blue (seas, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and water utilities) and green (trees, parks, gardens, playgrounds, and forests) spaces. Where the Regional Plan 2036 accounts for various environmental measures and conservation zoning, the methods of implementation and monitoring remain ambiguous. 

Better flood prevention measures are a need of the hour in Mumbai. In this regard, proposing the formulation of statutory, regional-level urban design guidelines can help better address water sensitivity and percolation and improve stormwater drainage through mandating the use of nature-based solutions like blue-green infrastructure. Other measures, like phytoremediation, a wastewater treatment method, can be adopted by housing societies and can also help minimise costs for acquiring treatment utilities of high capacities. Creating complete streets and integrating them with pre-existing and proposed open spaces, water bodies, and traditional decentralised water sources like dug wells and tanks can also help augment the net open space area accessible to Mumbaikars while giving water the room it needs to spread and percolate.

Read more: How can Mumbai get more public spaces?

Systemic reforms: the big picture

open ground at cross maidan in churchgate
Mumbai has the second least amount of open space available per person. Photo: Berjis Driver

To fill in gaps and continue securing Mumbai’s legacy as an inclusive city, it must legally recognize citizen science, which is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research to plug-in data and execution gaps for ensuring better urban infrastructure management, financing, and giving more weight to people-centric executions as part of the city climate action plan. There is a need to deep dive into ideating potential governance reforms and compensate for shortfalls of poor decentralisation. A public supervision model and toolkit for open spaces can be developed for their long-term management by citizens. Amending the municipal act of the 19th century to include more duties resonant with climate change also presents a good starting point. 

Another strong case in point for ethical environmental management is the transparency and democratisation of urban data and information. Communicated and simply presented data has the power to initiate various actions, especially among younger demographics who perceive complex information as a barrier for maximising their energies towards change-making processes. Urban data transparency of social, environmental, and economic points will be critical for directing Development Plan and Regional Plan objectives, eliminating maladaptive infrastructure practices and justifying budgetary allocations for various kinds of (upcoming) urban infrastructure, backed by datasets driven by citizen sciences at the ward level.

As open spaces represent only one of several natural ecosystems of Mumbai’s biome, their significance and roles need more meticulous integration with larger environmental considerations. In this regard, recognizing and empowering the role of indigenous communities for the sustainable management of natural areas and resources in MMR is critical. Solid Waste Management reforms are imminent as improper solid and C&D waste (construction and demolition) disposal practices are affecting the livelihood of such communities, as well as the city’s marine biodiversity and water quality progressively for more than two decades. 

Impasses in policymaking for Mumbai’s open spaces and environment must be resolved immediately. Living in harmony with nature represents a truly unique aspiration for a metropolitan like Mumbai which has always been at the forefront of experimentation. Given the vulnerabilities of the city and region to climate change, and to help seal very promising sustainable futures for upcoming generations of Mumbaikars, no one must be left behind as Mumbai continues to explore in its climate action journey on the road to 2050.

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  1. Capt Salil Srivastava says:

    Fantastic article with substance and its urgency for the people now. More than ever. The Open spaces are shrinking faster than the bullet train’s speed. Our lungs are having more Co2 deposits than ever before. My heartiest Congratulations on a wonderful article! ???????

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