(de)Coder Mumbai: The Story of a Growing City

Mumbai’s title “Urbs Prima in Indus”, the first city of India, comes from the fact that it was the most populous and therefore the largest city in India in the late 1800s. a major trading port, the island attracted labour, businessmen and professionals. Unfortunately, the bubonic plague of 1896 reduced a growing city to ruin. Turning adversity into opportunity, the authorities envisioned a modern city and set about creating it. Mumbai today has emerged from a devastating pandemic.

An exhibition on the history of urban planning in Mumbai, titled (de)Coding Mumbai, was held at the Ice Factory at the city’s Ballard Estate from June 12-25. Sameep Padora, a city architect, designed it with sPare , the research wing of his company. It opened with an introduction to the plague of 1896. At a time when the city was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, there was much about the show that resonated with contemporary times. sPare researchers used large panels with maps, illustrations, photographs and models of the buildings described, as well as accounts, to trace the history of urban development in the city.

Panels from the exhibition (of) Coding Mumbai held at the Ballard Estate Ice Factory in Mumbai.
Panels from the exhibition (of) Coding Mumbai held at the Ballard Estate Ice Factory in Mumbai.
| Photo credit: VIVEK EADARA

The exhibition material has recently been converted into a book, also called (de)code Bombay. It is a mirror image of the show and is a valuable tool for city planners. Like the exhibition, the book is divided into four phases and uses 18 case studies, each dealing with a locality in the city, to examine the evolution of Mumbai’s urban development control regulations.

Changing priorities

The researchers found that past policies reflected a vision that today’s regulations lack. For example, city authorities in the late 1800s seemed to focus on living and working environments, whereas modern city planners let real estate values ​​influence development plans. The case studies clearly show this shift in priorities. Fundamental policies that shape the landscape of Mumbai such as Development Planning (DP), Development Control Regulations (DCR), Transfer of Development Rights, Slum Upgrading and Development Act 1995 clusters, are critically examined through the specific buildings and localities that are the subject of the case studies.

The researchers say in the book: “The megacity of Mumbai is on the verge of another paradigmatic shift in the way its urban form will be produced and which will have serious implications for the livability and functioning of the city. That’s what drove them to undertake the whole exercise. “Housing in a city constitutes the majority of its built form and, in a sense, the quality of housing defines the image and qualitative experience of a city. Despite this obvious connection, state housing policies and the resulting regulatory frameworks often prescribe housing architecture without regard to the living environments they create,” the book states.

Strong points

  • de(Coding) Mumbai is an exhibition on the history of urban planning in the city.

  • Large panels with maps, illustrations, photographs and models of the buildings depicted, as well as accounts, used to trace the history of Mumbai’s urban development.

  • Past policies reflected a vision that today’s regulations lack.

  • The exhibition material has been converted into a book of the same name.

Sameep Padora says: “We are advocating to reverse this framework that creates insensitive living environments in grounds like the SRA [Slum Rehabilitation Act]. So much from Mumbai’s past can be learned to make the city more livable. He says that the current urban planning framework does not take into account fundamental issues such as hygiene, light, ventilation and public health. The team proposes that architectural and living codes be referenced while modifying development policies. He hopes his research will help achieve this goal.

For a healthier city

The first phase of the book looks at the period between 1896 and 1933. The turning point was 1898, when the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) was established. Inspired by the Glasgow Improvement Trust, the BIT’s mandate was to bring ‘order’ and create a ‘healthier city’. He used two methods: a direct attack which demolished, rebuilt and restructured the city centers and an indirect method which worked on the expansion of the city towards what is now the suburbs. The BIT has been applauded for its vision but criticized for addressing the elite class.

A sign that shows the development of Agripada, Princess Street, Gamdevi and Dadar Parsi Colony.
A sign that shows the development of Agripada, Princess Street, Gamdevi and Dadar Parsi Colony.
| Photo credit: VIVEK EADARA

Under the heading “Rehousing and Rehabilitation”, the book looks at the Agripada Improvement Plan of 1899. This was the city’s first improvement program and involved demolitions to make room for buildings in cement. The ‘Street Scheme’ section examines the 1901 Princess Street plan. Princess Street, Mumbai’s first major street, was designed to bring a cool sea breeze into the dense interior sections. The section “City Extension Scheme” concerns the locality of Gamdevi. In 1908, planners envisioned buildings located along tree-lined roads, with geometrically distinct boundaries and a physical distance between them. Gamdevi still retains this character. The section titled “Regulating Open Spaces” looks at the Dadar Parsi settlement established in 1898 as an example of exemplary planning where three or four storey buildings are constructed around a large park which becomes a social space for the community. The historic Kings Circle is the subject of the section titled “Regulating the Facade” . The researchers describe the radial pattern with buildings of uniform elevation around a large circular garden, a unique concept.

Titled “Urban Sprawl”, the second phase of the book examines the period from 1964 to 1991. It explains the concepts of social housing, increasing the housing stock, slum clearance, resettlement and equitable land distribution. The year 1964 marked two important moments: Bombay’s first development plan officially came into effect and for the first time the concept of Floor Space Index (FSI), an essential element of real estate in the city, was introduced. To understand the FSI, the book uses Almeida Park, Bandra West. Several charming bungalows in this area have started adding a floor to accommodate more tenants.

Accommodation for work

In the early 1970s, the government was faced with the difficult task of providing accommodation for Mumbai’s burgeoning labor force. In the section titled “Resettlement,” researchers look at Shivaji Nagar, where hundreds of thousands of slum dwellers and laborers are resettled. The area is close to the Deonar Town Garbage Dump. This phase has shown the first signs of a major shift from the old policies that focused on sanitation and health while rehabilitating people. The “Urban Land Ceiling and Regulation Act” section examines the highly controversial law through the case study of the Nagari Nivara Cooperative Housing Society in Dindoshi. It explains the demand and acquisition of land and the subsequent construction of a settlement in the 1990s.

Shooting rates

A cutaway model of the Mahul PAP (Project Affected Persons) program from 2009. The residential buildings were built for slum dwellers displaced due to a municipal storm water system.  Built in an industrial area that emits dangerous pollutants, the buildings' dense planning also limits adequate lighting and ventilation, leading to health issues.
A cutaway model of the Mahul PAP (Project Affected Persons) program from 2009. The residential buildings were built for slum dwellers displaced due to a municipal storm water system. Built in an industrial area that emits dangerous pollutants, the buildings’ dense planning also limits adequate lighting and ventilation, leading to health issues.
| Photo credit: VIVEK EADARA

Phase three , titled “Urban Implosion”, tackles the period from 1991 to 2018. This was an important period in Mumbai’s development, as real estate prices made the city’s square footage one of the most expensive in the world. This was also the time when infrastructure and development control rights (DCR) related to the factory land issue came into the picture. Through the case study of the Mushroom Tower in Mahim built in 2012, the researchers examine an exemplary plan for parking in a city struggling with a growing automobile presence. Tetros Tower in Bandra, built in 2020, illustrates a case that uses additional ISP incentives for parking. The Shreevati Towers in Nana Chowk are an example of the redevelopment of derelict buildings, a process that has changed the landscape and many lives in the city center. Similarly, cluster development, another recent phenomenon, is depicted via the Uplift Towers at Bhendi Bazaar.

The case study on the planet Godrej, built in 2001 in Mahalakshmi, traces the development of the decrepit and disputed lands of Mumbai. This five-tower residential complex “marks the change from mill owners to property developers”. This case study explains the tortuous evolution of the DCR towards its recent avatar of a quasi real estate lobby. Another controversial issue has been the redevelopment and rehabilitation of slums. Researchers use the iconic 2010-built Imperial Towers in Tardeo to understand a policy that allows builders to bid for land on which Mumbai’s crumbling but distinctive chawls exist. In exchange, the builder constructs a modern compound for the resident of the slum or chawl on part of the land. The larger piece is used to build towers for the city’s wealthy. It’s an interesting concept of rich and poor living literally side by side.

Phase four, titled “Urban Exaltation”, is a storehouse of information about the city’s future and includes a projection of what Mumbai will look like in 2050.

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