Masterplanning in India! Land in Mumbai
by Tony Chavira
Arriving on New Year’s Eve, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Mumbai, the Indian city formerly known as Bombay. I was told by a close friend that the traffic would be terrible, that there were no real, viable public transportation options from the airport and that I would have no choice except to spend the final countdown for 2010’s New Year’s Eve in the back of a cab, driven by a dedicated man who at least spoke enough English to cheerfully wish me a happy new year as I stepped into the vehicle. Happy New Year to you too, sir.
My ever-gracious hosts offered me their personal driver for the day of the first, and for that I am eternally grateful. I had completely unfounded images of myself casually walking the streets of Mumbai, listing from one neighborhood to the other and cutting through slums to reach monuments, disappearing off into the far corners of the city, and finally stumbling onto a main road where I would hail a taxi back to my starting point. Getting lost is exactly what I love most about being in a large city; but Mumbai is a wild new (or just really wild) animal of a city. No road is straight, and all of them will get you lost unless you have a really good idea of where you’re going. Although by “good idea” I actually mean “know exactly.”
Of course, that didn’t stop me from at least trying. But I got some great advice from my hosts, which helped out immensely: in a city where you can’t trust the streets or any of the street names to get you where you need to go, you should break things down by districts and monuments. Once you get close, roll down your window and ask a local. Where’s the India Gate? Where’s Juhu Beach? Where’s Phoenix Mills? Worked like a charm. And what struck me about this system for finding directions is that literally everyone used it, especially life-long residents.
“But how can one live their whole lives in a city and not know most of it inside out?” I thought from the backseat while my friend the driver tried his best to stroll me around town. His answer was clear: because the city is so dense and can change so drastically that it’s hard to get a really strong grasp on where exactly everything is. So you use markers that everyone knows and go from there. Although now that I’ve zipped around Mumbai by myself, I’m going to make an amendment to that statement: yes, the city is dense and constantly changing, but what makes it difficult is that the city is so ancient that the plan to accommodate a mega-sized population was never created. And this is especially rough for a mega-sized population with such a high percentage of poor people. And I don’t mean regular poor people, I mean people who come from generations upon generations of poor people. People so poor that if they got a service job and worked hard at it all their lives, there still wouldn’t be enough opportunities for their children to have upward mobility. A whole social stratum of destitution, and generations of beggars.
Someone told me today that roughly 300 families move to Mumbai every day in search of work. How do local officials even try to accommodate so many of these people? While we all know that density is usually the answer, Mumbai has a one-up on our usual assumptions about dense urban neighborhoods. Once the limits of the city left the “island” of Mumbai, new neighborhoods began to be developed outward, in an unholy cocktail of sprawl and slum density. And you can bet a million rupees that these homes and buildings are filled with people ready and willing to move from the countryside into the city for work. I’m sure you’ve heard, India’s GDP is growing ... everyone here definitely has. It seems like an article or two in the Economic Times is devoted to that issue every day.
There are options, though, one being what people around here call “reclaiming land.” Immediately my friends at the ILSR might smile when they read that righteous-sounding term, except that when I asked my friend what reclaiming land meant in Mumbai she replied “reclaiming land from the ocean.” Apparently 30 years ago the city built a wall to push back the ocean front, dumped a ton of dirt, and essentially added valuable real estate onto the city. It would be like forcibly expanding Manhattan to Ellis Island. Today, this reclaimed land is mostly malls, offices, and global companies. I passed by a Coffee Bean there, in fact ... I’m so damn cosmopolitan.
Slums are apparently another way that people in can seize interesting opportunities. You see, slums aren’t just dirty hyper-dense seven by ten foot blocks of space for 10 people to live in ... they’re actually investments in the future. Here’s how it works: a legalized slum (most are illegal, by the way) involves an investment that everyone living in it has made. They pay for their microscopic plot of land until a developer comes along and provides them a deal that’s pretty consistent throughout the city for slum-owners: the developer will move them to a local loft or apartment at the developer’s expense, then buy their land from them for something like ten times what the slum space cost the slum owner. Then, once the building or skyscraper is completed, the slum owners will have the first shot at purchasing a brand-new flat in it. Most slum owners are so sick of living in those conditions that they opt out of living in a new flat on their old land and move onto something a bit more spacious, but the fact that they’re given a chance to live there at all is definitely something. In fact, there is a market for investors who buy slum spaces for cheap and just let squatters use up the spaces until a developer comes along, ready to buy the space from the investor. As for the squatters, they’re history.
But how else should you try and solve the crisis of having more than ten million people in a single city? Mumbai can only expand so much, and since it’s the banking capital of India it’s hard, since (just like Manhattan) the bridge and tunnel crowd drive in from the surrounding mega-sprawl and take up space on the roads, cause pollution, and put a heavy strain on all of the city’s resources (most notably water). Answers have yet to be revealed, but how the city of Mumbai decides to deal with these population issues could have an impact on how many other world cities with growing populations deal with their resource allocation issues. Land unfortunately being a finite resource, it would be interesting to see what kinds of creative solutions people come up with when they’re under the gun like this.