The Great FSI Debate: Benefits of Urban Density

Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in the world living on a tiny footprint, as compared to its international peers. The statistics and unique and shocking- a FSI or living space/household of 2.8 sqm and public open-space/ person less than 1sqm. Mumbai’s  current socio-economic importance will ensure that it remains a leading Indian city for some time- but in terms of livability, it consistently ranks in the bottom 20th percentile of cities worldwide. This is posing to be a drag on its ability to attract skill and capital.

The solutions need to address the average resident and not only the richest. This is not a compromise as successful cities around the world also are the lowest in economic disparity- it takes a cross-section of society from the service-class to investors to make a city successful and attractive. The solutions are clear and they need to considered in an integrated manner:

a.       Increase FSI: Low FSI is artificially pumping real-estate cost and increasing density. Mumbai lacks quality space and this is exacerbated by its shabby state of buildings. As a result, Mumbai commands one of the highest prices in the world, marginalizing most residents. Low FSI is artificially increasing density and simultaneously forcing the city to sprawl outwards- draining investment, talent, life, culture, diversity and affordability out of the city.

b.      Create more public space, including streets: Streets and open spaces- the public realm- is where city life plays out, where commerce happens, and where the personality of a city is established. Public space is a matter of quality of life, livability and commerce. Streets are not only arteries of movement but places to live, work and play. All this can be created in collaboration with private sector with the help of incentives.

c.       Increase land area: Satellite cities and towns should be strategically added (what happened to Navi-Mumbai?), which are connected by transit and designed as self-sufficient centers with mixed-uses.

d.      Move those Masses: The benefits of large cities are lost if people cannot move easily from one part to another- such large cities can end up as insulated small towns stuck to each other (even now you almost need a visa to go to Town). A connected city will allow movement of skill and capital, energizing its various neighbourhoods and centers. Transportation solutions need to be efficient, comprehensive, and affordable. Land limitation in Mumbai dictates that a major component of the transportation equation will be an expanded train/ subway network. Roads are important as they carry a cross-section of modes including pedestrians, cyclists, autos, taxis, trucks and buses (cars are not an important part of the solution). Bottle necks should be minimized (its amazing how Khar subway bottleneck holds Bandra at ransom) and east-west connectivity improved.

e. House those Masses: 60% of Mumbai lives in informal housing- also carelessly branded as slums. Most times these houses are made with as much love, effort and taste- and house residents who hard-earn a living with as much a zest for life. The residents include domestic workers, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers, shopkeepers, policemen and school kids and these areas host commercial activities from recycling to retail to light-industry. This informal housing is responsible for supporting Mumbai’s quality of life. It is a failure on the state’s part to not be able to house this resident majority. Legalizing settlements will reduce squatting and take pressure off the public realm. Living in one-story houses, however small, is a luxury in Mumbai and puts pressure on land. Slum redevelopment is a move in the right direction. Rather than treated as ghettos, new settlements/ redevelopments should be integrated into the community. Many current initiatives are oversimplified as providing 220 sf in the sky. Housing needs to be designed and provided in a manner that responds to the current advanced living patterns in these settlements- like shared kitchens, mothers overseeing kids playing on the streets while working, optimally sized streets and open spaces which are “watched” by houses, and flexible commercial spaces.

This post is part of the “Great FSI Debate “. What’s your view? Submit your opinion to info@theurbanvision.com along with a bio & pic.

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About the Author

SameerChadha Sameer Chadha is an Urban Designer and Architect who has lived and worked in the metropolitan cities of New York, San Francisco, Delhi and Mumbai. Over the last 16 years, he has helped shape memorable places, which in turn offer a good quality of life. To that end, he has driven real-estate development strategies, design and implementation. His projects have ranged from mixed-use commercial buildings to regional development plans and from lifestyle-retail to transit oriented development. His clients have spanned public, private and institutional sectors and their projects span North America, India, Italy, Middle East, Korea, and Indonesia. He believes in an urbanism that is about interpreting global lessons in a local and cultural context; in leveraging and advancing existing cities, not just building standalone projects; and in creating an urbanism and a quality of life that is centered on people, place and their interaction.