An open Mumbai is a better Mumbai

By David Maddox

I had the good fortune of walking along the Bandra waterfront in Mumbai last week with architect-activist P.K. Das, environmental journalist and neighborhood leader Darryl D'Monte, and Bandra Fort steward Arup Sarbadhikary. They were showing me some of the fruits of a long-standing effort to create more open space in Mumbai, where people can enjoy the outdoors and one of Mumbai's assets: its coastline.

They are really proud of this civic space, and I can see why. It was a warm weekday, and lots of people were out strolling along the wide promenade. It is placed between the road and the sea, so people take in the view and walk out onto the rocks at low tide without the barrier of Mumbai's intense buzzing traffic. At the end of this long strip is Bandra Fort, reclaimed from dis- and misuse, and now the scene of baby strollers, young lovers, concerts, and people enjoying the sunset across the Arabian Sea. Mangroves have rebounded on this section of the coast - Mr. D'Monte tells me that in relatively recent times there were none.

To me one of the glories of this space is a design that mixes a winding, visually interesting path with varying visual elements, everything from Nature in the form of the mangroves and grassy lawns, to sitting areas. There are even life-sized statues of Bollywood stars, with which I saw many people having their photos taken. Such diversity of design is, I am certain, something that keeps a diversity of people coming to park - there is something for everyone.

This effort is part of a larger one that Mr. Das has been passionate about, and about which he wrote at The Nature of Cities: Open Mumbai. The meaning of "open" is two-fold. First, it means open space. Mumbai has very little accessible open space - only 0.88m2 per person, compared to 15 in Delhi, 6 in Tokyo, and 2.5 in New York. The city and its people desperately need more civic spaces, places they can recreate and enjoy the outdoors and each other. Open Mumbai also means open information. Information is power, and when it is secret or tightly held public dialog about land use and what is good for the society and communities at large - that is, the people and what they want - is impeded. Mr. Das has made a crusade of finding and publishing social data and mapping it so that it can become information that feeds public discourse - data on abundance and location of mangroves, of slums, of existing open space, of ownership patterns, and so on. Such mapping can puncture myths about pattern, cause and effect and lead to real progress. For example, the myth is that slum encroachment is the root cause of mangrove loss. Not so, says Das, the mapping reveals that high-end development is the larger cause. More of this is needed in every city: real data made available to everyone so they can be informed participants in the planning and decisions about their city.

Mapped data is a key starting place, but there also has to be process - a context within which people can participate and a willingness of current power holders to lessen their grip on it. Another Das project is to green and blue Nullahs - channelized waterways that course through the city, including slums, but which have become neglected open sewers. Das sees them as opportunities for public space, and has begun community dialogs that involve the local community in their design. What are the challenges? They are many, Das says, but one of them is for him and other experts to put aside their own beliefs in the best design ("I know what is right!") and actually participate as one of the group.

Obviously there are big challenges for Mumbai, but creating more open space, and creating it in a fundamentally democratic way, is real progress the city desperately needs. It’s starting to happen.

Click here to read "PK Das on collaboratively remaking Mumbai".

Photos: (1) P.K. Das, Darryl D’Monte, and Arup Sarbadhikary at Bandra Fort, Mumbai. (2) A promenade along the ocean in the Bandra neighborhood, including a diversity of uses. (3) A Nullah, polluted and under-utilized, is ready for re-development into a linear park and accessible civic space. All photos by David Maddox.

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