Name: Mahender Vasandani

Bio: Mahender Vasandani is the President of M Square | Urban Design – a firm that is primarily focused on helping communities and developers build or re-build urban areas that are viable, sustainable and have a great sense of place. With over 25 years’ experience in urban planning, urban design and architectural design, Mahender is passionate about creating good urban design and brings to a project special skill sets that include project leadership, management, interactive public participation, creative design plans and strategies, TIF financing, pro-forma feasibilities, design guidelines and regulations. Mahender has designed corporate and spec office buildings, retail commercial centers, and residential communities. He has also led and prepared regional planning and transportation studies, major downtown urban design and TIF plans, and individual and intergovernmental corridor urban design plans. Focused on plan implementation, Mahender has recently helped communities adopt Form-Based Codes and Regulations. Professionally active in the field of New Urbanism, Mahender frequently gives talks to communities and professional groups emphasizing the importance of urbanism that covers sustainable urban design, good architecture and enhanced urban living. He was the immediate past and the first elected Board Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism. Currently he serves as the Chairman of Chapter’s Education and Outreach Committee, and is also a Plan Commissioner on the Kane County Regional Planning Commission. While as the Chairman of CNU-Illinois, Mahender was also the Vice-Chairman of the New Urbanism Division of the American Planning Association. Last year, Mahender was the Jury Co-Chair for CNU-Illinois Awards. In addition, he has served on the design juries of Judson and Andrews universities that have pre-eminent architecture and urbanism programs in the nation. Last December, Mahender was accredited as a New Urbanist (CNU-A) by the Congress for New Urbanism. Mahender has completed Executive Management from the Kellogg School of Business, and has dual Master’s degrees: in Architecture and Urban Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree from IIT Kharagpur.

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    Why Mumbai Needs a Strategic Urban Design/ Ecological Master Plan

    January 29th, 2010

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Martin_Bishop

    A Common Vision

    As Mumbai matures and harbors aspirations of becoming a world-class city or an international business center, the City needs to engage in ecological urban design and accountable urban planning. Urban planning is a means to create a citizen-defined vision for the city’s future that is implemented by responsible public and private leaders.

    Much has been said recently about the need for improving governance of cities in India where there has been little attention paid to the planning or design of cities. Cities throughout history – especially in democracies — evolve from a state of chaos and irresponsible governance (where mostly the interests of the powerful take precedence over the city’s general welfare) — to a progressive state where the better informed and educated citizens demand and receive political accountability for better urban life through effective planning and urban design.

    Mumbai at present is in a transitional phase in its urban and political history where few enlightened and committed citizens and civic leaders are learning about the prospect of a better city in the future. Better than its current physical, social and political conditions such that through gradual transformation in another generation Mumbai could achieve its citizen-defined aspirational goals.

    What is critical for such an evolution to start now is that the various citizen and advocacy groups, the academia, the private development sector, and the political and government leaders come together in a broad-based coalition to initiate a process of creating a Mumbai 2040 Vision. Such a future vision will need a supportive Strategic Urban Design/Ecological Master Plan that identifies the necessary implementation strategies, including the coordinated roles to be played by various sectors and agencies to achieve the vision.

    Democracies present messy and inherently conflicting and competing challenges. Yet, through early-stage consensus-building processes, defining and adopting long-term common goals and vision are not altogether impossible even as they may be difficult. Yet, too, it is the difficult and hard things one does to achieve in the end something meaningful. This holds true for communities and cities too. Mumbaikars will thus come together to engage in a process — possibly arduous — to define a common future vision of their city.

    Which Mumbai or Which Parts of Mumbai?

    With the rapid and explosive urbanization of the city, Mumbai has spawned off a Navi Mumbai and several other distant and close urban agglomerations such as Thane, Andheri-Versova and the Bandra-Kurla complex. A clear question to be addressed up front is for which Mumbai or which parts of Mumbai would this future vision be created. The answer lies in the consensus Mumbaikars would achieve for the area of study. Ideally such a study area should cover the central and south Mumbai for regional recommendations, and for more focused recommendations an area such as south Mumbai. Even more detailed and fine-grained recommendations can be based on study areas comprising the wards, sectors or neighborhoods of Mumbai. The important point is to select a large enough area to better account for the city’s unique ecological considerations.

    Why A Strategic Urban Design/ Ecological Master Plan?

    Historically Mumbai was put together by joining and connecting seven islands in the colonial times. With rapid urbanization and ever-increasing built-up areas over time there is little vacant or open land today for the city to stay in balance with nature. The most recent major flood (2005) is a disruptive reminder of why a major development priority for Mumbai will be to create balance between growth and natural ecology.

    Among the Indian cities Mumbai also has a unique social ecology – whereby historical growth patterns have resulted in close juxtaposition of high-end neighborhoods and the economically-productive yet hygienically-challenged places of homes and industries. A major reason for such growth patterns in the city is economic where Mumbai as the nation’s financial capital continues to attract job- and opportunity-seeking population from its rural hinterland and indeed the rest of the country. Any future vision of Mumbai will thus also address its unique social challenges ensuring that its market-driven growth is in balance with the need-driven places for living and work.

    Along with the city’s own efforts, national growth policies that effectively bring jobs and urbanization to the villages will also be essential to reduce growth pressures on Mumbai. Notably, programs like PURA (Planned Urbanization of Rural Areas) would be important for Mumbai’s evolution towards achieving its long-term vision.

    “Helping Create Viable and Sustainable Urban Places” TM

    Other than its unique ecology and social structure, there are other factors as well (such as limited physical space for the needed transportation capacity) that further distinguish Mumbai from other Indian cities. Carefully analyzing such factors will inform the creation of solutions that are uniquely suitable for Mumbai. While specific targets may be set to increase the city’s supply of jobs and housing, the number of healthcare and educational facilities, or the number of infrastructure projects, achieving numerical parity with other world-class cities alone will be inadequate for Mumbai to achieve its aspirational goals.

    That’s why Mumbai needs a Strategic Urban Design/Ecological Master Plan (Strategic Master Plan) that would improve urban life and achieve balance with nature. There are many successful examples of city design from across the world that Mumbaikars could choose from as appropriate urban design solutions for their city.

    With the extensive transportation improvements being planned and implemented in the city, appropriate urban design would provide – for example — better pedestrian access to stations for the residents at the street level. One can imagine a network of wider sidewalks in neighborhoods that is integrated with open parks and plazas, around which are located residential, commercial and mixed-use buildings in settings that enhance the sense of place and the quality of urban life. Appropriate urban design would also determine the most suitable land uses for transit routes and stations – especially where new development may replace the established development.

    The new parks and open spaces would be located strategically in low-lying areas to give the city much needed breathing space and the room for dissipating flood waters to escape with little harm to city life.

    Appropriate urban design would also achieve good urban life across the city equitably.

    A Strategic Master Plan would thus provide multiple tangible and perceived benefits to the city that would raise its attractiveness for urban living and for businesses. Achieving the quantitative aspirations would then add to the city’s draw in the world.

    A Strategic Master Plan would go farther with new urban policies and better governance. Mumbaikars engaged in Plan development would expect more accountable leadership, and by demanding it will gradually get it too.

    What is critical is that a citizen-defined Common Vision and a citizen-supported Strategic Urban Design/Ecological Master Plan be adopted for Mumbai to most effectively meet its aspirations.

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