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"Mumbai on Two Feet": Open Public Spaces for a Healthier City
Open public spaces in Mumbai are feeling the squeeze. Photo by OneEighteen.

Open public spaces in Mumbai are feeling the squeeze. Photo by OneEighteen.

In Mumbai, shrinking space has become a public health concern, with a significant strain on the city’s resources.

“Only 6 percent of the total land in the city is made up of open public spaces,” according to Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Design Research Institute. “Out of this, 45 per cent is partially or completely encroached upon.”

Joshi spoke of these findings at a roundtable discussion about “open and green spaces for a healthier Mumbai,” organized by the Observer Research Foundation, a nonprofit public policy think tank. The event was tied into this year’s World Health Day, which focused on the themes of urbanization and health.

“A citizen of Mumbai gets 1.95 square metre of open space against the international standard of 11 square metre per person,” Joshi added. (It’s unclear to which “international standard” Joshi is referring; this study, commissioned by Israel’s Ministry of Environment, surveyed more than 100 plans in 11 cities and found that Europe and the United States allocate more than 20 square meters of land for urban parks and gardens per capita — 10 times more than Mumbai.)

FREE AND OPEN

Open public spaces have many benefits, including attracting business investments to the area, providing cultural opportunities, reducing crime and increasing the use of public transportation. Without public spaces — including gardens, promenades, parks and plazas — a city risks losing a quality of life.

To deal with Mumbai’s problem, roundtable participant P.K. Das, the architect who designed the Carter Road promenade, announced that he would help launch the “Mumbai on Two Feet” project in Juhu, an affluent western suburb of the city, home to Bollywood stars and musicians, as well as slumdwellers (it is, afterall, the setting for the film, “Slumdog Millionaire.”)

Das said the initiative “aims to connect the area’s disparate open spaces by walking and cycling on a 5-km path over the Irla nullah,” an urban stream that helps drain storm water to the Arabian Sea.

As an activist, Das is acutely aware of the benefits that public spaces provide — and the dangers of not having them. “The city is being fragmented into pieces with exclusive and competing spaces thus restraining the growth of the city and its people,” Das writes  in his manifesto, “Revisioning Mumbai: Democratising Public Spaces.

With Das’ leadership, and the participation of other  community groups, the area surrounding the Irla nullah is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Two years ago, nearby residents successfully demanded the removal of encroachments (i.e. slums) from the Irla’s banks two years ago, and now they are proposing a new development plan, which includes turning a 40-acre “No Development Zone” into a garden, building a boardwalk to connect Juhu and Versova beach, and adding walking and cycling tracks. The BMC has sanctioned Rs 5 crore for the project.

Underlying these plans is the thorny issue of evicting hawkers and relocating residents of the nearby slums. But Das has long championed housing rights for the poor, and he sees it as a critical element in creating accessible, affordable, attractive urban spaces. In his “Vision Juhu” plan, Das calls for expanding public space by “networking them,” paying close attention to the “improvement in the standard of living in slums and gaothans, provision of space and security to hawkers and including them in mainstream development plans and networking this public realm.”

CONCRETE JUNGLE

In regards to another project, Hutokshi Rustomfram from the Save Rani Bagh Committee spoke on the need to prevent the 148-year-old Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, a botanical garden popularly known as Rani Bagh, from being converted into an international zoo. “BMC’s plans will result in the loss of 1,100 trees,” Rustomfram said,  concerned that the BMC’s plans to build more cages and bring in more zoo animals will destroy the existing greenery in the area.

The BMC has proposed a Rs 450 crore makeover for the zoo in 2007. The first phase  of the plan has already begun, and the BMC sanctioned an additional Rs 192 for the 2010-11 budget. However, environmentalists, as well as the Central Zoo Authority and the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee, say the proposal won’t be passed unless the BMC assures them that not a single tree will be uprooted.

“The government will never allow any redevelopment project that will replace an area of green cover with a concrete jungle,” said Environment Secretary Valsa Nair-Singh at the ORF’s roundtable. “Any proposed redevelopment project should focus on increasing green cover instead of removing it.”

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For more opinions on what Mumbaikers want in public open spaces, see this poll from dnaindia.com: “This is Mumbai’s ideal open space.”

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