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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107 thoughts on “Why Mumbai Needs a Strategic Urban Design/ Ecological Master Plan”
  1. Excellent article. I couldn’t agree more – we need a single comprehensive masterplan that addresses slum development, mass rapid transportation, sewage, water, open spaces, green cover, affordable housing, sustainability and the eco-system. We need a masterplan that will envision what Bombay will be like in 20-50 years. With this masterplan the city can move ahead in a progressive direction in terms of its development that is wholesome rather than a piece meal approach that is currently being made by several independent authorities each of whom have different visions such as the MCGM, MHADA, SRA, MMRDA, UD, etc. We should have one single regulatory authority on the masterplan and its implementation.

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  3. I was just browsing jobs in mumbai and saw this article. Very interesting, i really hope that Mumbai can develop on these lines, its the only appropriate option for future sustainable development. Anywhere that doesnt develop within the ecological context will simply not work….good luck and maybe i’ll be there to help one of these days!

  4. Is Tokyo an existing role model for the new Asian mega cities such as Beijing, Mumbai, Shanghai, Delhi to follow? The greater Tokyo metro has a population of about 35 million and above all, it is a fully functional and orderly city.

  5. How Skyscrapers Can Save the City (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/03/how-skyscrapers-can-save-the-city/8387/)
    Ed Glaeser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Glaeser)
    The Atlantic Magazine, March 2011
    …..And nowhere have limits on development done more harm than in the Indian mega-city of Mumbai.
    It’s a pity that so few ordinary people can afford to live in central Paris or Manhattan, but France and the U.S. will survive. The problems caused by arbitrarily restricting height in the developing world are far more serious, because they handicap the metropolises that help turn desperately poor nations into middle-income countries. The rules that keep India’s cities too short and too expensive mean that too few Indians can connect, with each other and with the outside world, in the urban places that are making that poor country richer. Since poverty often means death in the developing world, and since restricting city growth ensures more poverty, it is not hyperbole to say that land-use planning in India can be a matter of life and death.
    Mumbai is a city of astonishing human energy and entrepreneurship, from the high reaches of finance and film to the jam-packed spaces of the Dharavi slum. All of this private talent deserves a public sector that performs the core tasks of city government—like providing sewers and safe water—without overreaching and overregulating. One curse of the developing world is that governments take on too much and fail at their main responsibilities. A country that cannot provide clean water for its citizens should not be in the business of regulating film dialogue.
    The public failures in Mumbai are as obvious as the private successes. Western tourists can avoid the open-air defecation in Mumbai’s slums, but they can’t avoid the city’s failed transportation network. Driving the 15 miles from the airport to the city’s old downtown, with its landmark Gateway of India arch, can easily take 90 minutes. There is a train that could speed your trip, but few Westerners have the courage to brave its crowds during rush hour. In 2008, more than three people each working day were pushed out of that train to their death. Average commute times in Mumbai are roughly 50 minutes each way, which is about double the average American commute.
    The most cost-effective means of opening up overcrowded city streets would be to follow Singapore and charge more for their use. If you give something away free, people will use too much of it. Mumbai’s roads are just too valuable to be clogged up by ox carts at rush hour, and the easiest way to get flexible drivers off the road is to charge them for their use of public space. Congestion charges aren’t just for rich cities; they are appropriate anywhere traffic comes to a standstill. After all, Singapore was not wealthy in 1975, when it started charging drivers for using downtown streets. Like Singapore, Mumbai could just require people to buy paper day licenses to drive downtown, and require them to show those licenses in their windows. Politics, however, and not technology, would make this strategy difficult.
    Mumbai’s traffic problems reflect not just poor transportation policy, but a deeper and more fundamental failure of urban planning. In 1991, Mumbai fixed a maximum floor-to-area ratio of 1.33 in most of the city, meaning that it restricted the height of the average building to 1.33 stories: if you have an acre of land, you can construct a two-story building on two-thirds of an acre, or a three-story building on four-ninths of an acre, provided you leave the rest of the property empty. In those years, India still had a lingering enthusiasm for regulation, and limiting building heights seemed to offer a way to limit urban growth.
    But Mumbai’s height restrictions meant that, in one of the most densely populated places on Earth, buildings could have an average height of only one and a third stories. People still came; Mumbai’s economic energy drew them in, even when living conditions were awful. Limiting heights didn’t stop urban growth, it just ensured that more and more migrants would squeeze into squalid, illegal slums rather than occupying legal apartment buildings.
    Singapore doesn’t prevent the construction of tall buildings, and its downtown functions well because it’s tall and connected. Businesspeople work close to one another and can easily trot to a meeting. Hong Kong is even more vertical and even friendlier to pedestrians, who can walk in air-conditioned skywalks from skyscraper to skyscraper. It takes only a few minutes to get around Wall Street or Midtown Manhattan. Even vast Tokyo can be traversed largely on foot. These great cities function because their height enables a huge number of people to work, and sometimes live, on a tiny sliver of land. But Mumbai is short, so everyone sits in traffic and pays dearly for space.
    A city of 20 million people occupying a tiny landmass could be housed in corridors of skyscrapers. An abundance of close and connected vertical real estate would decrease the pressure on roads, ease the connections that are the lifeblood of a 21st-century city, and reduce Mumbai’s extraordinarily high cost of space. Yet instead of encouraging compact development, Mumbai is pushing people out. Only six buildings in Mumbai rise above 490 feet, and three of them were built last year, with more on the way as some of the height restrictions have been slightly eased, especially outside the traditional downtown. But the continuing power of these requirements explains why many of the new skyscrapers are surrounded by substantial green space. This traps tall buildings in splendid isolation, so that cars, rather than feet, are still needed to get around. If Mumbai wants to promote affordability and ease congestion, it should make developers use their land area to the fullest, requiring any new downtown building to have at least 40 stories. By requiring developers to create more, not less, floor space, the government would encourage more housing, less sprawl, and lower prices.
    Historically, Mumbai’s residents couldn’t afford such height, but many can today, and they would live in taller buildings if those buildings were abundant and affordable. Concrete canyons, such as those along New York’s Fifth Avenue, aren’t an urban problem—they are a perfectly reasonable way to fit a large number of people and businesses on a small amount of land. Only bad policy prevents a long row of 50-story buildings from lining Mumbai’s seafront, much as high-rises adorn Chicago’s lakefront.
    The magic of cities comes from their people, but those people must be well served by the bricks and mortar that surround them. Cities need roads and buildings that enable people to live well and to connect easily with one another. Tall towers, like Henry Ford II’s Renaissance Center in Detroit, make little sense in places with abundant space and slack demand. But in the most desirable cities, whether they’re on the Hudson River or the Arabian Sea, height is the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.
    The success of our cities, the world’s economic engines, increasingly depends on abstruse decisions made by zoning boards and preservation committees. It certainly makes sense to control construction in dense urban spaces, but I would replace the maze of regulations now limiting new construction with three simple rules.
    First, cities should replace the lengthy and uncertain permitting processes now in place with a simple system of fees. If tall buildings create costs by blocking out light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. The money from those fees could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as the neighbors who lose light from a new construction project.
    I don’t mean to suggest that such a system would be easy to design. There is plenty of room for debate about the costs associated with buildings of different heights. People would certainly disagree about the size of the neighboring areas that should receive compensation. But reasonable rules could be developed that would then be universally applied; for instance, every new building in New York would pay some amount per square foot in compensation costs, in exchange for a speedy permit. Some share of the money could go to the city treasury, and the rest would go to people within a block of the new edifice.
    A simple tax system would be far more transparent and targeted than the current regulatory maze. Today, many builders negotiate our system by hiring expensive lawyers and lobbyists and buying political influence. It would be far better for them to just write a check to the rest of us. Allowing more building doesn’t have to be a windfall for developers; sensible, straightforward regulations can make new development good for the neighborhood and the city.
    Second, historic preservation should be limited and well defined. Landmarking a masterpiece like the Flatiron Building or the old Penn Station is sensible. Preserving a post-war glazed-brick building is absurd. But where do you draw the line between those two extremes? My own preference is that, in a city like New York, the Landmarks Preservation Commission should have a fixed number of buildings, perhaps 5,000, that it may protect. The commission can change its chosen architectural gems, but it needs to do so slowly. It shouldn’t be able to change its rules overnight to stop construction in some previously unprotected area. If the commission wants to preserve a whole district, then let it spread its 5,000-building mandate across the area. Perhaps 5,000 buildings are too few; but without some sort of limit, any regulatory agency will constantly try to increase its scope. The problem gets thornier in places like Paris, practically all of which is beloved worldwide. In such cases, the key is to find some sizable area, reasonably close to the city center, that can be used for ultra-dense development. Ideally, this space would be near enough to let its residents enjoy walking to the beautiful streets of the older city.
    Finally, individual neighborhoods should have more power to protect their special character. Some blocks might want to exclude bars. Others might want to encourage them. Rather than regulate neighborhoods entirely from the top down, let individual neighborhoods enforce their own, limited rules that are adopted only with the approval of a large share of residents. In this way, ordinary citizens, rather than the planners in City Hall, would get a say over what happens around them.
    Great cities are not static—they constantly change, and they take the world along with them. When New York and Chicago and Paris experienced great spurts of creativity and growth, they reshaped themselves to provide new structures that could house new talent and new ideas. Cities can’t force change with new buildings—as the Rust Belt’s experience clearly shows. But if change is already happening, new building can speed the process along.
    Yet many of the world’s old and new cities have increasingly arrayed rules that prevent construction that would accommodate higher densities. Sometimes these rules have a good justification, such as preserving truly important works of architecture. Sometimes, they are mindless NIMBYism or a misguided attempt at stopping urban growth. In all cases, restricting construction ties cities to their past and limits the possibilities for their future. If cities can’t build up, then they will build out. If building in a city is frozen, then growth will happen somewhere else.
    Land-use regulations may seem like urban arcana. But these rules matter because they shape our structures, and our structures shape our societies—often in unexpected ways. Consider that carbon emissions are significantly lower in big cities than in outlying suburbs, and that, as of 2007, life expectancy in New York City was 1.5 years higher than in the nation as a whole. As America struggles to regain its economic footing, we would do well to remember that dense cities are also far more productive than suburbs, and offer better-paying jobs. Globalization and new technologies seem to have only made urban proximity more valuable—young workers gain many of the skills they need in a competitive global marketplace by watching the people around them. Those tall buildings enable the human interactions that are at the heart of economic innovation, and of progress itself.

  6. The vision oriented thinking and its incorporation in urban planning process and affecting practices has remained an integral component of the time and space. Revisiting Urban design and ecology-led urban development shows the legacy of the past practices emphasized more on physical aspects than social and economic elements. Urban design thinking do not pay any attention in depth on ‘differences and diversity’ in the city. Cities are not absolute space, they are places where people, community, networks, functions, and relations are at work and often reproduced. Without a proper and deeper understanding of ‘how city functions’, the impostion of ‘how city ought to function’ does not have significant worth in context of Indian cities. The current shift in urban planning right after neo-liberalization, urban places have been facining many challenges and in the name of urban development to support economic growth, the vulnerable and marginalized sections of urban society are at the risk. The role of stregthening urban governance is a crucial a need of the time where marginalized groups can have a say in decision making process and access to corridors of power. Therefore, the ‘vision’ of the future city is a powerful demand of growing ‘globals’, who want the city to be as ‘worls-class’ city with enormous facilities. To an extent, urban planning has flowed in the same direction, the people and communities facing both ‘social and spatial exclusion’ are further kept away from city decisions. The city like Mumbai which has many challenges which are product of historical process and economic and power relations, a vision-led planning would not consider the differences and inequalities adequately. Ecology at the central to planning has already undermined such unavoidable differences and posed certain technical soulutions, which have resulted in several other probles. To pursue a vision in the city like Mumbai, a comprehensive study of ‘urban marginal spaces’ have to appropriate and a base for the allocation of scarce urban resource and planning capital. It seems, planning has to be revisited in postmodern times in India.

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