It was an early April day in 2019 – before the past present times of the pandemic – that I went out fishing with Mangesh Sakre and his crew in the waters off Worli Koliwada, a settlement of fishers off Mumbai’s western coast.

The time between December and March is generally peak fishing season. April was still a good time to fish in Mumbai, though Koli fishers were now anxious about getting good catches on the few fishing days that remained before the monsoon arrived.

The water was a beautiful green-blue and very calm. Sakre wasn’t happy seeing it like this. “The water has changed,” Sakre told me when I asked him what he thought of his prospects that day. This colour is not so great for catching pomfret, he said.

A few days ago, it was biscuit colour or chocolate, he said. That water is good for pomfret. This beautiful clear water, he implied, in contrast, not so much. He was right. We caught few fish that day.

Fishing in the urban sea. Credit: Nikhil Anand

I begin with this event in part to describe the sophisticated ways in which Koli fishers read and act the city’s changing terrain to dwell in the urban sea. Fishers are keenly attuned to the dynamic changes of water colour, tide and wind to live in the city. They inhabit a city in the sea, one which is always in flux.

But their keen reading of their waters also revealed another truth. Turbid, opaque waters – waters full of stuff – accommodate a stunning depth of human and non-human life (for bacteria, fish and fishers). There is something for landbound experts and residents to learn here, for those who imagine that we live on stable, dry urban ground even as the sodden ground is always collapsing under our feet.

What might we see and make if we shift our understandings from imagining we live on dry land to living in its muddy worlds – worlds that are teeming with life, toxics and discard; worlds in which transparency is dead and muddy; worlds full of possibility?

Over the last two centuries, modern urban planning has been staged on dried ground, assuming both the stability of land and the clarity of the planner’s gaze. While neither is true, they have been temporarily fabricated into being through incremental and massive operations of power and infrastructure.

As historians Mariam Dossal and Sharada Dwivedi and architect Rahul Mehrotra have shown, urban land has been made through a series of landfill projects misleadingly labeled as “reclamations”. These planning and development projects have produced the spectacularly profitable cities of Mumbai.

At the same time, they have produced structural inequalities and vulnerabilities that are today bubbling up and collapsing into Mumbai’s ground, shaking the foundations of what was only ever imagined to be a durable, modern city by a small section of its population.

Mumbai’s Land reclamations 1720-2020. Maps drawn by Sara Anand, based in part on maps drawn by Dilip Da Cunha.

The modern city is leaking and collapsing for a variety of reasons. For example, in Mumbai, as in many parts of the world, urban planning and urban development have simply not made sufficient provisions for marginalised residents living in the city to thrive because not doing so has been narrowly profitable.

Second, in tying together urban plan, form and function as tightly together, modern planners have neither recognised nor enhanced the mixed uses of space that characterise Mumbai and other cities of the Global South.

For example, in the maidan (sometimes misleadingly labeled as “open space”), city planners have refused to see these as both intensively used spaces of recreation as well as natural flood infrastructures. On the contrary, mixed-use spaces are often discouraged, removed and exiled by modern urban planning.

By fixing land uses across times and in spaces and zones, the city’s development plan has produced a scarcity of space and a proliferation of half-complete infrastructures in the city, full of missing links and omitted synergies.

Finally, urban planning has sought to produce reliable resources (water, land, air) upon which urban life can be staged. Nevertheless, urban planning and urban life fundamentally reshape the city’s ecology and the kinds of life that can emerge in it.

For instance, in their research on their PlastiCity project, oceanographer Helen White and her colleagues have shown how the city does not just use plastics – instead, plastic waste now forms a significant part of the urban environment. Or as architects Anuradha Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha have written, Mumbai’s massive reclamations have created a city that has now declared war with its monsoons and seas, that inundate it regularly every year.

In so doing, they write, the city has also designed and engineered disasters like floods and storm surges into being. These disasters and unpredictable environments now constitute the grounds of Mumbai.

Plastics in a concretised nala in Rafiq Nagar, Deonar, Mumbai. The water body, now filled with plastic, also now features massive embankments that have been put in place to prevent flooding. Mathur and Da Cunha argue that such hard infrastructures may instead engineer a future disaster into being. Image by Zulekha Sayyed

A sufficient and necessary response to the compound events and intersecting crises of modern cities cannot therefore begin from “above”, in the fields of urban planning and engineering, as these deploy purified, flat and dry understandings of urban space, built infrastructure and social life. The futures of urban dwelling might be better addressed from and in the tangle of temporary, multiply used and muddy wet spaces in the city.

Residents (and in particular, marginalised residents) of Mumbai are already living with these nuanced and dynamic understandings of urban life. Their everyday arts of living help cultivate important sensibilities and necessary imaginations for how the wet and uncertain volumes of Mumbai might be inhabited in the future.

In January 2019, we launched Inhabited Sea, a transdisciplinary and collaborative research project oriented towards generating new imaginations and paradigms of dwelling in wet cities for our climate changed present. In the time since, we have documented the ongoing spatial and temporal practices of urban residents to provoke these new imaginaries from the everyday grounds of human and more-than-human practice.

For example, in Worli, Koli fishers in the Urban Sea project, are keenly attuned to the changing qualities of sea water to be successful fishermen. Decisions of whether and when to fish, are made in and with the dynamic water and air mixes of the urban sea, mixes that change with the time of year.

How might urban planning change if designers account for the changing rhythms of water, earth, air and always unequal social life that cities are made with, both within and across the years?

This information does not exist in government databases or manuals of best practices. As new efforts to make cities climate resilient proliferate all around the world, there is much experts need to learn from subjects they seek to govern.

A large colony of violet zoanthids (Zoanthus sansibaricus) in close proximity to the sea-facing skyscrapers of Nepean Sea Road. Photo by Shaunak Modi (@pugdandee).

It is not just fishers who dwell in the city with an acute understanding of its dynamic features. Other urban residents have also noticed that urban life is always shedding and accreting bodies, materials and infrastructures As architects Rohit Mujumdar, Vastavikta Bhagat and Shreya Kothawale show in their project titled Architectures of Exfoliation, Agri communities that previously occupied the floodplain of the Poisar river in north Mumbai practiced wetland cultivation in the area’s amphibious wetscape.

While the paddy fields of Eksar Gaothan in Borivali have become a large housing scheme, their wetness remains. A contractor who has made a home in Eksar since the 1950s has recently retrofitted his home with an additional floor, not just to make space for additional family members, but also to make space for the overflowing pond that now regularly inundates his home.

Buildings, their research shows, exfoliate people and also materials. In this dynamic landscape, the city cannot be composed of permanent structures and social relations that endure in an open-ended and enduring future. The city is planned and made in and for a meantime between major events in the lives of the city and its citizens.

The wet and sodden cities of the meantime are not utopic spaces, nor are they easy to manage. As residents strike to keep their homes, their possessions and their lives dry, a film by CAMP and R+R, Monsoon in Lallubhai, reveals a landscape made by the accretions and failures of past projects: the leaking sewage lines, broken umbrellas, and overflowing rain-water-sewage nalas. Wetness, they point out, might be an everyday condition from which life is made, but not everyone desires wetness.

The city of the meantime is always a work in progress of negotiating the lines of what can be left to wet and other things that need to be made dry through relentless human toil. As children play in its saturated ponds, the images of the wet land of Mankhurd show that dryness is a Sisyphean task in Mumbai, where both persons and their housing are almost, always, already rolling back into the sea.

The city of the meantime is shared both within, and also across, households. Households work together, forming informal institutions and everyday norms to inhabit the city. In Trombay koliwada in north east Mumbai, sociologists Lalitha Kamath and Gopal Dubey detailed the extraordinary care and dynamism with which Koli fishers, amidst steady dispossessions by state agencies, mark and share their commons in The Sea and the City project.

The use of these commons – plural, overlapping, and contested – challenge state agencies in their efforts to visualise and demarcate this land as dry, fixed, and for particular public purposes. Instead, Trombay’s residents – accounting for the wetness of the terrain and the demands of their livelihood – efficiently use this precious urban space in different ways at different times of day and year.

These practices detail a more plural and fittingly more inclusive and intensively used urban space than is otherwise fixed or possible in a development plan.

Finally, cities are occupied not just by humans, but also non-humans, particularly in the city’s rich (and now depleting) wealth of intertidal shorelines. Environmental designer Rhea Shah Draws on Wetness in the toxic industrial refuse officially called the Thane creek, to show how its spectacular flamingos negotiate gradients of salinity and temperature to live.

Neither the intensive anthropogenic environment of the creek nor the monsoons are a threat to their existence. Instead, flamingos live with these features of the landscape, working effectively with both the air column and the creek’s polluted depths to rise, forage and feed in the anthroposea.

Shah’s work with the flamingoes, and citizen scientists Shaunak Modi and Sejal Mehta’s beautiful attunements to the lives of crabs and cnidarians in their Intertidal Living project, show us how the environment is neither static nor is it external to species. The urban environment is both transformed by and borne with and in species, by flamingoes and cnidarians and humans alike.

These admittedly very different kinds of practices by different urban inhabitants are in many ways not comparable (nor should they be). Yet what they share is a form of attunement to the changing gradients of water, earth, air and sociality that make life possible in Mumbai’s inhabited sea. These ways are both related to, and also distinct from modernist modes of planning cities as wet or dry. Residents of Mumbai are always living in more than one, but less than two of these frequently opposed worlds.

What futures might we imagine for coastal cities, if we start not with the purifications of urban planning, but with these wet, muddy, everyday practices of humans and ecologies of the Inhabited Sea? More than anything, our open access research seeks to stimulate new imaginaries of urban living. These imaginaries, borne out of practice, insist on different, more just and more dynamic relationships between humans, non-humans and the urban environment that are always, always in the making.

Nikhil Anand’s research focuses on cities, infrastructure and the environment. He is the author of Hydraulic City, and co-editor of The Promise of Infrastructure.

This is the first part of a series that seeks to reimagine the futures of the coastal city of Mumbai in its climate-changed waters. Read the entire series here.