Making Mumbai a Better Place to Live
Dhiru A. Thadani, AIA, CNU
Cities in India are changing every day. Most are becoming worse places to live. There are many intersecting forces for this decline, including, increase in population, failing infrastructure, dependency on the automobile, outward sprawling development, and the inability to provide housing for lower- and middle-income residents.
On a recent visit to Mumbai, I was asked if there were any solutions to alleviate this accelerating decline of Indian cities. What was happening in the West? Why were American cities experiencing a renaissance? Why was the quality of life in cities improving, especially in my second city of choice, Washington DC, while there was a noticeable decline in the city of my birth, Mumbai?
Cities are the largest and most complex things that we humans make. Despite evidence to the contrary, the knowledge exists on how to make them well. To the politicians and citizens who want to create a better Mumbai, I humbly offer these 10 suggestions.
1. Streets are for People
What makes a city memorable? For the most part it is a well-defined public realm – public spaces defined by the buildings which enfront them and peopled by a vibrant street life. A successful public realm is one that people can inhabit comfortably on foot. Unfortunately, most Indian cities today, including Mumbai, emphasize automobile movement while disregarding the pedestrian. Sidewalks are non-existent or permanently in disrepair, often having been dug up for utility upgrading. Today being a pedestrian in Mumbai is akin to being a soldier on a battlefield navigating through land mines strewn in one’s path of travel.
Traffic engineers for the most part ignore the real needs of pedestrians. For example, parallel parking, essential to protecting and comforting people on the sidewalk, is often eliminated to speed the traffic. Every aspect of the streetscape, including lane widths, curbs, sidewalks, trees, and lighting can be designed to the needs of either cars or people. Mumbai favors the former.
Mumbai should remove the fence barriers along the edges of streets that enclose pedestrians like cattle. Permit pedestrians to cross streets at grade at all intersections. Whoever designed an elevated pedestrian crosswalk must have been in an automobile. They do not work, and they never will. And you only have to walk through a below grade street crossing once, to realize that it is a bad idea.
2. Overrule the Specialists
The city by definition is a general enterprise, and the specialist is the enemy of the city. Engineers are not alone in their quest to shape the city around specialized needs. The modern world is full of experts who are paid to ignore criteria beyond their profession. Cities need generalists to weigh the advice of specialists against the common good.
The traffic engineers in their quest to move traffic from north to south propose building 100 above-ground flyovers, without consideration for what this decision does to the quality-of-life for local residents, who have to look and live with this ugly, noisy monstrosity.
Imagine for a moment if someone was to build a concrete bridge 15 feet from your bedroom window, so that the privileged few could save a few minutes of time driving through your neighborhood in the comfort of their air-conditioned capsule.
While cities such as San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Washington DC, to name a few, are demolishing inner-city highways in the interest of quality-of-life for their residents, Mumbai has embarked on a ludicrous and expensive endeavor to build new inner-city highways.
The department of transportation proposes widening existing roads to ease traffic generated by the very sprawl that they cause. Each of these approaches may be correct in a vacuum, but is wrong in a city. It is a proven fact that expanding street width and capacity on existing streets only leads to more traffic. This in turn leads to an increase in accidents, which causes further delays, nullifying the investment’s goal.
The money earmarked for flyover building should be diverted to improving the train and bus network. Additionally, an efficient water taxi service can service both coastlines. As all world-class cities have come to realize, investment in public transportation is the only solution to alleviate congestion. Imagine ten years into the future, what will be on these streets when the price of petrol doubles? Buses not cars.
3. Mix the Uses
Another key to active street life is creating a city that pulsates at all times of the day, with neighborhoods so diverse in use that they are occupied around the clock. Eating, shopping, working, socializing, recreation – these activities are mutually reinforcing and flourish in each other’s presence.
The best parts of Mumbai, have this diverse mix of uses. Neighborhoods are alive during the day when residents are away at work, because workplace and retail are active. Vice-versa in the evening, when the offices and shops are closed, the residences keep the neighborhood vibrant and safe.
Moreover, many businesses such as restaurants, general stores, and health clubs rely on both daytime and evening traffic to cover their rent. The key is to stop building single use zones, such as Nariman Point and Bandra-Kurla which are predominantly workplaces. These places are unsafe in the evening due to a lack of activity. Similarly, stop approving residential enclaves, which are mono-cultures and eventually become residential ghettos.
4. Hide the Parking Lots
In a city such as Mumbai, 90% of the population is pedestrians. The city is obligated to make pedestrians feel safe, comfortable – and entertained.
As the infatuation with automobiles increases in India, so will the need to house these machines. There is nothing more boring than walking past a parking lot. Whether they are open-air or six-stories tall, parking lots must be banished along any street that is inhabited by pedestrians.
In the hands of a skilled designer, parking lots are easy to hide. It only takes a 25-foot-thick wrapper of housing or offices to block an unsightly parking lot or garage from view. New parking structures can easily be built above street-level shops. Enlightened cities globally are putting this requirement into law.
5. Small is Beautiful
People are small when compared to automobiles, and most world-class walkable cities acknowledge this fact with small blocks, small streets, small buildings, and small increments of investment.
The Fort District owes much of its success to its tiny blocks and fine grain that creates an incredibly porous network of streets. Pedestrians like to criss-cross through the fabric, intelligently looking for the shortest routes between two points.
Unfortunately, most of Mumbai has obscenely large blocks that make the city impenetrable. For example, south of Woodhouse Road there is only one east-west connection, making travel between the two coastlines difficult. This problem also exists in the northern part of the city and land for street rights-of-way need to be acquired to help create a true network of streets.
Although 25% of India’s population resides in urban cities, and this number is rapidly growing, building height is another place for smallness. Today’s building codes prevent the making of Marine Drive, one of the most memorable parts of the city. Additionally, it is illegal to achieve the residential density found between Marine Drive and Churchgate rail lines in six story buildings.
Tall buildings place undue stress on a small land parcel. By concentrating population in a single point within the city all systems are pressured including accessibility, parking, garbage removal, water and utility supply, to name a few. In the long run, this creates an unhealthy, unsustainable living condition. A healthy real-estate development community consists of many players, not just a few giants.
6. Save That Building, and by-the-way Remove that Billboard
How many buildings need to be torn down before a city learns the lesson? Every city deeply regrets and laments the destruction of its historic/heritage structures. As a society that pays homage to its elders, historic preservation may be the best way to respect our ancestors. But, it is also justified on economic terms. Market economies suggest that the differentiated product is one that commands a monetary premium. This is why cities like Savannah and Miami Beach can point to historic preservation as the key ingredient in recent booms. It isn’t always easy to find a productive use for an empty old building, but tearing it down makes that outcome impossible.
Additionally, billboards and hoardings illegally installed on buildings and along the highway must be removed. City officials must enforce the recent court ruling. The city should rise beyond this crass commercialism and the visual assault on the human senses.
7. Build Normal (Affordable) Housing
Affordable housing remains a crisis in Mumbai, and the solution is not to build housing projects in the suburbs, which taxes the poor resident with the longest commute. Rather, to be successful, affordable housing must do two things: be integrated with market rate housing, and look like market-rate housing.
Despite the best-intentioned efforts to provide affordable housing, architects should not be permitted to experiment on the poor, or pioneer new design styles for the poor. Most housing projects that have been built in recent years play geometric games that only their designers can understand and appreciate. Experiment on the rich; they can always move out, but the poor do not have a choice. Housing for the poor should provide smaller-than-standard apartments, but they should be stylistically compatible with their neighbors and the context. There should be no visible stigma attached to living in subsidized housing.
8. Build Green / Grow Green
People have been talking about sustainable architecture for decades. However, given the burgeoning population of Mumbai, it cannot afford to be anything but sustainable. History shows us that as a country becomes more affluent, it becomes dumber, by being more wasteful of its resources, recycling less, creating more solid waste, and increasing its dependency on artificial cooling and lighting. This is absolutely true for Mumbai, as the city increases in wealth the less it seems to care about sustainability.
Architects and developers get lazier when it comes to designing buildings that truly respond to the environmental conditions of place. As children we never relied on air conditioning for comfort because the buildings we occupied passively kept us comfortable. Ceilings were higher, transom windows above doorways permitted air circulation, and windows had deep overhangs that shaded interior spaces as well as provided protection from the heavy monsoon rains.
The city needs to mandate that all new buildings be smart by using less energy than their predecessors. As an example, every residential dwelling in Israel obtains its hot water from roof mounted solar panels. This is a viable technology that can easily be adapted to the Indian context.
There is also a strong correlation between green tree cover and real estate value. The more green there is, the higher the real estate value. The new development at Powai is a perfect case study proving this theory. The city should plant more trees!
9. Question your Codes
The existing building codes that govern new development within the city are made up of incomprehensible statistics like floor area ratios (fsi), setbacks and open space requirements that ignore the differences between pleasant and unbearable urbanism. As mentioned earlier, they make the city’s traditional urban form, the most loved places within the city, illegal to emulate.
Codes must be based on a picture of what is desired to be built, not statistical manipulations. Close your eyes and imagine what you want the city to be, and then write a code to achieve it. Around the world a new generation of design ordinances is gaining favor among city planning officials. Referred to as form-based codes, these ordinances regulate what really matters: a building’s height, disposition, location, relationship to the street, and where to place parking. Cities including Arlington, Virginia, and Miami, Florida are adopting form-based codes for their neighborhoods.
10. Don’t Forget Beauty
Joe Riley, Charleston’s Mayor since 1968, reminds us that cities should be places that make the heart sing. For many Mumbai citizens, especially those too poor or infirm to travel, the city is an entire world. For this reason, the city should be proudly maintained, function properly, but also afford moments of beauty.
Yet, the city routinely builds to the lowest denominator, when it comes to building public schools, parks, and government buildings, – the only investments that belong to all the citizens of the city. In the interest of short-term frugality, the city cheats itself out of an honorable public realm and a noble legacy. This was not always the case, and it need not continue.
One only has to look around Mumbai, an incredible city and realize that it contains a handsome portfolio of beautiful buildings, parks, and public spaces. This legacy can and must be continued.