Mumbai’s title of “Urbs Prima in Indus”, the first city of India, is derived from the fact it was the most populated and therefore largest city in India in the late 1800s. As a major trading port, the island attracted labour, businessmen and professionals. Unfortunately, the bubonic plague of 1896 reduced a growing city to shambles. Turning adversity into opportunity, the authorities envisioned a modern city and set about creating it. The Mumbai of today has emerged from a devastating pandemic.
An exhibition on the history of urban planning in Mumbai, titled (de)Coding Mumbai, was held at Ice Factory of the city’s Ballard Estate from June 12 to June 25.Sameep Padora, a city-based architect, designed it with sPare, the research wing of his firm. It openedwith an introduction to the 1896 plague. At a time when the city was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, there was much in the show that resonated with contemporary times. The sPare researchers used large panels with maps, illustrations, photographs and models of the buildings described, along with write-ups, to trace the city’s urban development history.
The exhibition material has recently been converted into a book, also called (de)Coding Mumbai. It is a mirror image of the show and is valuable as a useful tool for urban planners. Like the exhibition, the book is divided into four phases and uses 18 case studies, each dealing with a locality in the city, to examine the evolution of Mumbai’s urban development control regulations.
Shift in priorities
The researchers found that earlier policies reflected a vision which today’s regulations lack. For instance, the city authorities in the late 1800s appeared to focus on living and working environments, whereas modern-day planners have allowed the value of real estate to influence development schemes. The case studies clearly show this shift in priorities. The fundamental policies that shape Mumbai’s landscape such as the Development Planning (DP), Development Control Regulations (DCR), Transfer of Development Rights, the Slum Rehabilitation Act 1995 and Cluster Development are critically discussed through the specific buildings and localities that form the subjects of the case studies.
Also read:Mills of history
The researchers say in the book: “The megacity of Mumbai is at the verge of another paradigmatic shift in the ways its urban form will be produced and that will have serious implications on liveability and the working of the city.” This was what made them undertake the whole exercise. “Housing within a city constitutes the majority of its built form and in a sense the quality of housing defined the image and qualitative experience of a city. Despite this obvious connection, state housing policies and the consequent regulatory frameworks often prescribe an architecture for housing unmindful of the living environments they create,” the book says.
- de(Coding) Mumbai is an exhibition on the history of the city’s urban planning.
- Large panels with maps, illustrations, photographs and models of the buildings described, along with write-ups, used to trace Mumbai’s urban development history.
- Earlier policies reflected a vision which today’s regulations lack.
- The exhibition material has been converted into a book of the same name.
Sameep Padora says: “We argue for reversing this framework that creates insensitive living environments on ground like the SRA [Slum Rehabilitation Act]. So much from Mumbai’s past can be learnt to make the city more habitable.” He says the present framework of urban planning does not consider basic issues such as hygiene, light, ventilation and public health. The team proposes that architectural and living codes be benchmarked while amending development policies. It hopes that its research will help realise this goal.
For a healthier city
Phase one of the book looks at the period between 1896 and 1933. The turning point was 1898, when the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was established. Modelled on the Glasgow Improvement Trust, the BIT’s mandate was to bring “order” and create a “healthier city”. It used two methods: a direct attack that demolished, rebuilt and restructured inner city areas and an indirect method which worked on expanding the city towards what is now the suburbs. The BIT was applauded for its vision but criticised for catering to the elite class.
Under the section “Rehousing and Rehabilitation”, the book looks at the 1899 Agripada Improvement Scheme. This was the first improvement scheme in the city and involved demolitions to make space for cement buildings. The section “Street Scheme” looks at the 1901 Princess Street plan. Princess Street, Mumbai’s first big street, was designed to bring fresh sea breeze into the dense inner sections. The section “City Extension Scheme” looks at the Gamdevi locality. In 1908, planners envisioned buildings set along tree-lined roads, with geometrically distinct boundaries and physical distancing between them. Gamdevi still retains this character. The section titled “Regulating Open Spaces” looks at the Dadar Parsi Colony created in 1898 as an example of exemplary planning where three- or four-storeyed buildings are constructed around a large park that becomes a social space for the community. The historic Kings Circle is the subject of the section titled “Regulating Façade”. Researchers describe the radial pattern with buildings of uniform elevation around a large circular garden, a unique concept.
Titled the “Urban Sprawl,” phase two of the book looks at the period from 1964 to 1991. It explains the concepts of social housing, increasing housing stock, slum clearance, resettlement and the equitable distribution of land. The year 1964 marks two important moments: the first development plan for Bombay officially comes into effect and for the first time the concept of Floor Space Index (FSI), a critical part of real estate in the city, is introduced. To understand FSI, the book uses Almeida Park, Bandra West. Several charming bungalows in this area began to add a floor to accommodate more tenants.
Housing for labour
In the early 1970s, the government faced the difficult task of providing housing to Mumbai’s burgeoning labour force. Under the section titled “Resettlement”, the researchers look at Shivaji Nagar, where lakhs of slum dwellers and labourers are resettled. The area is near the city’s garbage dumping ground in Deonar. This phase showed the first signs of a major shift from the old policies which had looked at sanitation and health while rehabilitating people. The section “Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act” looks at the highly debated law through the case study of Nagari Nivara Cooperative Housing Society in Dindoshi. It explains the demand and acquisition of land and the subsequent construction of a locality in the 1990s.
Phase three, titled “Urban Implosion”, tackles the period from 1991 to 2018. This was a significant time in Mumbai’s development as real estate prices made the city’s square footage one of the most expensive in the world. It was also the time when infrastructure and Development Control Rights (DCR) linked to the mill land issue came into the picture. Through the case study of the Mushroom Tower in Mahim built in 2012, the researchers examine an exemplary plan for parking in a city grappling with a growing automobile presence. Tetros Tower in Bandra, built in 2020, illustrates a case that utilises the incentives of additional FSI for parking. The Shreevati Towers in Nana Chowk is an example of the redevelopment of cessed buildings—a process that has changed the landscape and many lives in the inner city. Similarly, cluster development, another recent phenomenon, is described via the Uplift Towers in Bhendi Bazaar.
Also read:A chapter in Mumbai’s history
The case study on Planet Godrej, built in 2001 at Mahalakshmi, traces the development of Mumbai’s decrepit and contentious mill lands. This five-tower residential complex “marks the change of mill owners as real estate developers”. This case study explains the tortuous evolution of the DCR into its recent avatar as practically a real estate lobby. Another controversial issue has been slum redevelopment and rehabilitation. The researchers use the iconic Imperial Towers built in 2010 in Tardeo to understand a policy which allows builders to bid for land on which Mumbai’s crumbling yet distinctive chawls exist. In exchange, the builder constructs a modern complex for the slum or chawl resident on a portion of the land. The bigger chunk is used to build towers for the city’s wealthy. It is an interesting concept of the rich and poor living literally cheek by jowl.
Phase four, titled “Urban Exaltation”, is a store house of information on the future of the city and includes a projection of what Mumbai will be like in 2050.