Mumbai is currently undergoing historic but unnoticed changes that might possibly alter its urban structure beyond anyone’s imagination. It’s monocentric structure that aligned the entire city towards the downtown in South Bombay is likely to change very soon. Indeed, this process has already begun.
I used to live in Navi Mumbai in 2009, and I would sometimes take the harbour line train to south Bombay. Each time, I would notice that the majority of the crowd would rush to get down at Kurla Junction, presumably in order to take a central line train northwards. For these people, the centre of Mumbai was already up north, in the “suburbs”, where industry was concentrated. Population growth rates have been steadily higher in the suburbs than in the island city – today some suburban wards are already more densely populated than wards in south or central Bombay.
We now have reason to believe that this process will continue even further. For most businesses, the direct cost and the cost borne by employees by their locating in South Bombay is so high that it makes better sense to locate in the suburbs. The Jogeshwari-Vikhroli and Santa Cruz-Chembur link roads will add to the transportation options available to commuters travelling between suburbs, as will the first two metro lines that connect Versova to Ghatkopar and Bandra to Mankhurd. This much is clear: the suburbs will become more desirable, both for living and as destinations.
Fortunately, none of these developments is likely to result in new suburbanization. Most of of the Salsette island has already been built up, except for the protected Sanjay Gandhi national park. But while the above mentioned projects might have mostly benign effects on urban structure, there is one project that I fear might have a terrible impact on Mumbai’s spatial ordering. This is the Alibaug-Virar “multimodal” corridor project championed by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA).
The project has been in the news since mid-2009, when it was first announced. Bid documents have been prepared, expressions of interest received, and the international firm Louis Berger has already been picked as the consultant. But other than some minor hiccups, no one seems to be expressing concern.
The project essentially entails a beltway/ring road 10 lanes wide, accompanied by a metro corridor, that goes from Alibaug to Virar around the periphery of Mumbai. It will go through Uran, Panvel, Kalyan and Bhiwandi, and also connect the Uran port, the new airport and Special Economic Zones. It is very clear that for the powers that be, this is more than a solution for existing transportation needs, nor meant merely as a Mumbai bypass. It is a way to promote real-estate development in the vast land in the periphery that lies currently undeveloped. In the southern edges of the project, some of this land is directly owned by CIDCO (City and Industrial Development Corporation), which has heavily invested in the region. Elsewhere, the interests of the landed gentry surely favour such a project.
Now, not all new development needs to be discouraged – Mumbai is after all very dense, and some de-densification might be in order. Nor can one argue that all suburb-to-suburb travel is undesirable. But when the land laid open to new development is so vast, one must worry about the impact that the new development will have on the older parts of Mumbai. We must ensure that Indian cities do not go down the path of central cities in the United States – central cities in the USA are now no more than ghettos for suburbanites to avoid.
How do we go about this? Here are my thoughts: a) We need to ensure that all new development is transit-oriented rather than car-oriented. This will mean that only selected portions of the land will be developed. This will be a tough decision for the government to make, but it is necessary. We will have to ensure that new colonies are dense enough to support public transport. b) We need to ensure that new development is largely directed towards meeting the needs of the poor rather than the rich. For this, the old cities of Kalyan, Bhiwandi and Panvel will have to become the central foci, and economic development initiatives will have to be directed to these locations. c) The approach will have to be one of enabling the poor through affordable housing and economic opportunities rather than promoting special economic zones in greenfield areas that are essentially zones of exception for the rich. (This is not to say that the private sector is not to be involved, but the benefits must reach the intended targets rather than getting stuck at the top levels of the trickle down funnel).
The challenge then is mainly one of understanding Mumbai’s regional economy and its urban structure, and the plan must incorporate both land-use and economic development elements. Mumbai must tread cautiously with this plan to open up its periphery to urban development, lest the city-region’s character is lost forever.
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About the author:
Karthik Rao Cavale writes: “I’m a lapsed engineer from India who found that making cars was not as much fun as getting rid of them. This discovery brought me to Rutgers University, where I am currently doing my masters in City and Regional Planning and assisting Voorhees Transportation Center in its research. I spend my free time listening to Indian Classical Music, playing bridge or reading one of Jane Austen’s novels for the millionth time.” Karthik organizes (some of) his thoughts on the blog “India lives in her cities too!” at http://vishwakarman.wordpress.com/.