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From urbane to the humane

Indian cities including Mumbai need to learn to ensure that their public spaces are sustained

The measure of a city’s greatness is found in the quality of its public spaces – John Ruskin

Our cities, much like our personal lives, are a blend of the public and the private. These complexities and interplay between the public and the private transforms our urban landscapes into vibrant cityscapes.

In the haphazardly urbanised city of Mumbai, the current state of infrastructure is marked by lack of adequate amenities and choked roads. And there is a high degree of urban poverty. One of the biggest challenges here lies is providing a reasonable quality of life for its people. A city with global aspirations cannot ignore liveability and quality of life. While trying to put elements of physical infrastructure such as transport and housing in place, we have neglected its public places.

Public places act as the living room of the city — a place where people gather to talk, interact, celebrate and enjoy with each other. Public spaces exude a sense of belonging and foster a sense of community, rendering a soul to the concrete jungle of Mumbai.

Historically, our streets, chowks and religious buildings were where people engaged with one another. Even today in Mumbai, we have T-20 matches played between housing societies in lanes, what is known as ‘gully’ cricket. I remember my grandfather nostalgically narrating his trips to ‘Rani chi baag’ (Byculla zoo) on Sundays, his leisure walks at Girgaum Chowpatty or early mornings at Banganga. The crowd became so overwhelming eventually that these excursions no longer remained as pleasurable, he used to say. This was in the early 1980s. The situation has only deteriorated over time. With the exception of the sea-facing promenades, which are congested too, no new public place has been actively developed even though there has been an exponential rise in the population.

Over the years, open spaces have become left over or residual spaces after the construction potential has been exploited. The mill lands were the last remaining vast chunks of land that were primed for redevelopment. Inclusive and integrated planning to ensure a little more public entitled space was proposed by architects like Charles Correa. We exploited the construction and monetary potential instead.

We have always turned to real estate and sacrificed almost every remaining square inch of urban open area in the guise of development. There was one advertisement of luxury apartments with parks and playgrounds by a major builder in Mumbai asking – ‘What is the carpet area of childhood?’ We have moved from town to suburbs to ‘metropolitan region’ in our quest of that little more carpet area of open space for our children. Recreation has become more of a luxury than a necessity.

As per the health indicators of sustainable cities published by the WHO in 2012, having an urban infrastructure for social engagement, availability of green space per capita, accessibility, security, quality of public green spaces serve as linkages between sustainable cities and better public health. Open spaces account for only 2.5 per cent of the city and the per capita open space is 1.4 sq m as against the UDPFI-recommended 9 sq m. With some of this open land privatised under elite clubs, the real usable public space is less than 0.9 sq m per person.

The city has transformed from a space respecting human interaction to a disconnected metropolis. We need to shape our public environments by understanding the relationship among people, their way of living and their built environment.

Public spaces must be safe, open, affordable and accessible to all regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or socio-economic status, and equitable. Open spaces are opportunities to build better, healthier and more engaged communities.

We need to look beyond the gardens and parks to include the vast natural assets that Mumbai has. Within the city’s limits are 37.3 sq km of mangroves, 10.68 sq km of salt pans, 13.35 sq km of marshy areas and 46.5 sq km of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. This total of 107.83 sq km of area needs to be strictly reserved as non-buildable in order to secure some open space for our future. And in the words of P.K. Das, an architect and planner, we need to create non-barricaded, non-exclusive, non-elitist spaces that provide access to all citizens.

Enjoyable public places are a key to planning a great city. We need to progress from urbane to humane.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 6:04:40 AM |

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