For almost as long as the modern city of Mumbai has existed, it has been a work in progress. The 350-year-long history of the peninsula has been marked by reclamation plans and improvement schemes – and by raucous debates about whether these projects were viable (or even necessary).

For the past five years, the most heated discussions have revolved around the plan to build a 29.2-km road down the length of Mumbai’s western coast. The cost of the entire project is as yet unclear because details have not been made public. But the city’s municipal corporation has estimated expenditure for the initial 9.8-km southern section at Rs 12,721 crore. Though proponents of the project say it will help decongest the city’s crowded streets, critics contend that the road will cater to only 1.25% of Mumbai’s population – people who own cars and commute along the city’s western coast.

In July, the Bombay High Court halted further construction on the project until a proper environmental impact assessment had been conducted. The Maharashtra government and city municipal corporation have challenged this decision in the Supreme Court.

Among those who are sceptical about the project is Rahul Mehrotra, former chair of the department of urban planning and design at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Mehrotra’s architecture practice is based in Mumbai and he has written extensively on architecture, conservation and urban planning in the city. It was largely due to his study and recommendations for Mumbai’s historic Fort district that the area was declared a conservation precinct in 1995, the first time such a designation had been applied in India.

The coastal road, Mehrotra said, is not the solution to the city’s problems.

Mumbai, he suggested, is like “a patient with a heart disease or clogged arteries being asked to change their lifestyle and become a new person over a year or two – or to do multiple bypasses as a quick fix”. The coastal road, he said, is like a bypass to the problem of traffic at great expense but “it is not going to achieve what we need in the long run”.

Excerpts from the interview.

What makes the coastal road so contentious?
The coastal road is emblematic of many problems that we face in Mumbai. One is the fundamental set of values that we hold as citizens of this great metropolis: look at where have we chosen to put our money? We know that only 6% or 7% of Mumbai’s population owns cars and that car ridership is very low and it is estimated that 82% of Mumbai’s workforce uses the suburban rail system.

What if the same money went to making the railway infrastructure more robust, stations more usable – to have more toilets, to create facilities that people could wait at if the train is late, or even dormitories so that on a rainy day people could sit or rest there for several hours? This will not only make the commute for millions better but will make more people use the train system and hopefully take cars off the road.

We are increasingly less sensitive about where we make large investments. Ultimately, any city or society is judged by how they treat those who aren’t privileged. The coastal road is an example of blatant disregard by the elite – or more accurately those in power – for what the city really needs. And additionally, for the coastal road there are environmental concerns, which I am not qualified to talk about but should be paid serious attention.

What does the coastal road project reflect about Mumbai’s approach to urban planning?
You mean lack of urban planning? These approaches and projects are reflective of the fact that we have lost any imagination of the metropolitan scale. All successful examples of urban design, planning and thinking are those that can traverse scale – you can think from the small to the large scale.

The small scale would involve how to improve a pavement or build a piece of street furniture, create parks and public spaces and make areas pedestrian – such as Kala Ghoda in South Mumbai – so that people can enjoy that space. Essentially, construct common spaces for every one’s enjoyment and recreation etc.

The middle scale is how you might treat a larger chunk of the city, such as the Charles Correa committee’s plan [in the 1990s to redevelop the 400 acres of land in central Mumbai on which 58 defunct textile mills stood]. That blueprint [which was rejected after a court battle] took a large chunk of the city, and by tweaking factors like how to distribute public space, where to put public housing and open spaces, created a more desirable result in terms of spatial rearrangements and possibilities for city improvement. At this scale many components of the small scale get coherently woven together.

The large scale is when you look at the metropolitan region and how different parts of the middle scale connect to each other. We seem, in Mumbai, to oscillate between thinking only about the small and the middle scale – and even the middle scale we barely get to. Look at how we’ve avoided making decisions for 20 years about the [approximately 1,800 acres of space on the] eastern water front [much of it owned by the Bombay Port Trust]. We’d rather break it into small-scale chunks – someone wants to make a marina here, someone wants parks with luxury housing there.

We seem as a society to be much more comfortable with this because when the contestations for space get very acute, which is what happens frequently in Mumbai, the small scale is where you can most easily resolve it. Or at least control and manipulate it.

The bigger the scale gets, it’s harder to resolve multiple claims because there you need a combination of good vision, good values and political will to do it, which we currently don’t have in our fractured politics, which is characterised by myopic thinking.

The coastal road reflects this lack of vision – for if we were to look at Mumbai as a metropolitan region, I think it would be come clear that this is a terrible move to have a road with this large investment along the western coast. Instead, we would be going back to the idea which the originators of the New Bombay scheme had in the 1960s, which is opening up the mainland of Maharashtra across the eastern bay, where you’d get more affordable land.

With the coastal road, you are strengthening the north-south axis of Mumbai. It encourages people to live further north and you are accentuating the land values and its concentration in the southern part of the city, rather than by opening up more land on the east where it is in greater supply on the mainland.

How have other cities dealt with similar pressures?
Cities grow in two ways: by recycling land within their existing organisms or opening up new land. In cities like San Francisco or the metropolitan region of New York – many of the cities that we admire and love going to – these balances are very finely managed, between metropolitan imaginations and improvements within cities, between the recycling impulse and the opening-up of more land impulse.

In Mumbai, it’s all rearguard action. In my mind, the New Bombay idea that Shirish Patel, Praveena Mehta and Charles Correa proposed in the 1960s which Mulk Raj Anand facilitated through MARG magazine, was the last avant-garde gesture that appeared in planning for Mumbai. We’ve never gone back to that scale of thinking. The absence of that large scale in our imagination of the city will never lead us to an appropriate or sustainable solution.

It’s akin to a patient with heart disease or clogged arteries being asked to change their lifestyle and become a new person over a year or two – or to do multiple bypasses as a quick fix. The coastal road is like a bypass to the problem of traffic and mobility in the city at a massive cost. It’s going to ruin our coast, it’s going to detrimentally damage fantastic residential zones along the coast and it is not going to achieve what we need in the long run.

Architect and urban planner Rahul Mehrotra.

Mumbai is home to more billionaires than any other Indian city. Why don’t they have an interest in making the city more livable?
I think they are no different from the politicians. They lead insulated lives. They don’t have to do meetings in ten different places across town – people come to them. It’s the penthouse view of the world. And this is a fantastic city if you have a penthouse.

Gated communities are emblematic of this. They have taken two forms: vertical towers where you have the gaze of the city from above (it’s really quite beautiful after the 20th storey) or on the perimeter of the city, such as Alibag, which is described in advertisements as the Hamptons of Mumbai. The superrich manage to enjoy the city using air filters and air-conditioning.

But think about where these billionaires get their kids married and spend their vacations. The world is their playground. These destination weddings are perverse. A wedding is supposed to be when you’re proud to welcome the baraat into your home and you share the pride of where you live – show it off!

Clearly the rich are not proud of where they live and so flee for important celebrations to venues they can afford across the world. Spatially, Mumbai’s billionaires are not grounded or invested in the city – they don’t depend on it. It’s the middle class that does. But that is the constituency that unfortunately suffers.

What does it take for citizens to get the authorities to effect change that will make life better for the majority of Mumbai’s residents?
I don’t think there’s a dearth of ideas or intellectual capital about how to make Mumbai more livable for all its citizens. Let’s identify the structural problems that the city has in terms of how it is run and by whom. At a structural level, it’s one of governance: money in the city and votes in the village. The politicians in the state capital of Mumbai who make decisions for the city are actually elected from constituencies elsewhere and their accountability is to people far away.

Mumbai doesn’t elect anyone who is directly accountable to it. We have a municipal commissioner who takes his orders from politicians. We need a mayoral system. We need someone who is directly accountable to the people who elect them. All cities that have effective implementation are those which have a mayoral system. In a democracy, that is the way to run large cities like Mumbai. This has been discussed for decades by so many people but we have not got any traction on this idea.

Credit: Aaran Patel

The problem is that there is such an imbalance between the economic power of the city and the rest of the state that it’s in the interests of the politicians to control Mumbai – it’s a golden goose. There’s a well-established nexus between politicians and real estate developers: the elected officials clearly make the policies that benefit real estate. There is absolutely no doubt about this.

Let’s say we are pragmatic and accept they are never going to let this governance structure change. Then “urban planning” for civil society becomes just a project of resistance, which is what has happened. It becomes a project of resisting change and resisting manipulations and deviations in say the development plan and other policy but not a project of speculating about how the future could be better. How planning as an instrument could help us imagine better ways in which we could spatially organise our lives in the city. So now instead citizens are constantly going to court to stop urban disasters. Is that what our role should be as citizens?

I suppose when the aspirations of those in power and the citizens on the ground deviate and vary so much you have this condition of the lack of planning as a framework for common good. Instead we are now in condition that the Chinese art critic Hou Hanru has referred to as post planning. Any planning in this situation is systematically “posterior” – as a recuperative and securing action.

Clearly in this situation, economics and profits are the priority. They replace ideological, social, environmental, historical, and aesthetic elements as the main driving forces behind the creation and expansion of cities...creating a new landscape consisting of dramatic, chaotic, and unexpected visual arrangements. And so this is what everyone seems to be focused on resisting. While critical in the present condition of the city, I am not sure it will lead us to a better Mumbai.

What is it that makes cities livable?
In the mid 1990s, I wrote an essay called “A City is Made, Not Found”. I was reacting to people at that time saying, “We found a fantastic place to move to, a fantastic place to retire.” That place used to be Bangalore, which is now a complete urban mess in terms of traffic and infrastructure breakdown. But basically, I realised that cities are made by the people who live in them and are not just found objects. The moment you start hearing people saying I found a nice property somewhere, they are parasitic in a sense: they are not invested in the making of it and because they can afford it they celebrate the finding – not the making.

The making of a good city is a deeply collective act. Cities historically were not made by laws – they were made by neighbours accepting and mutually agreeing to certain norms. All the cities we admire, whether Jaisalmer or cities in Italy, they were not made by a patron who laid down some rules, but were made mainly by mutual agreements between its citizens about light, air, access etc.

That’s what the definition of the Smart Cities Mission should be: it should be about connecting communities to collectively participate in this process through the democratic system that we are blessed to have – rather than think about networking forms of infrastructure that don’t exist. This is what makes the Smart Cities Mission so ridiculously detached from realities and comes down finally to essentially just a branding exercise.

Credit: Aaran Patel

Cities are made by three things, a tripartite pact of livelihood, mobility and housing or dwelling. The healthy relationship between these three things are what makes a city livable. If you have livelihoods in South Bombay but people live in Vasai in the north and mobility that takes two hours, you’ve failed. That balance and healthy relationship of this trinity is what creates good urban form.

Is there any other city that is so hellbent on exploiting real estate and not looking to the future?
Look at New York or Hong Kong. These are cities with hyper-real estate prices too but they are not shortsighted like Mumbai and invest a lot in opening up new possibilities for the city’s growth so that there is a balance between developing the center and the periphery. They are both cities that have very robust metropolitan plans and take these seriously. But in Mumbai, we continue to develop incrementally, opening by land either organically resulting in unplanned development or densifying within where the land values are the highest and thus tend to go even higher.

In cities, to keep a balance in the price of land and by extension housing the demand and supply has to be carefully calibrated. And so opening up new development possibilities either at the center or the periphery must be studied within the framework or a larger metropolitan imagination as that’s how a city can decide where to emphasise development. That’s how you can create a spectrum of possible ways to live in the city – a housing stock across the spectrum of price , type etc.

Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, wrote a book called Agricultural Involution where he talked about Indonesian rice farmers who got very ambitious and started to multicrop a single piece of land. It became highly efficient. Instead of doing two crops, they would do four. But it also became an internally complex system so if one crop failed if the monsoon came late, it would take them two years to recover.

I think Mumbai is experiencing urban involution. We’re making the same space far too complex – but it’s susceptible to malfunction. We are not looking at evolutionary moves, like New Bombay was.

All the way until the 1960s, Mumbai managed to achieve this balance. The city had a forward-looking planning culture and anticipated the demand and development followed that impulse. Planning whether it was through the [British] governor or later the Bombay Improvement Trust and then the municipality, it was ahead of and led development. In fact , growth followed infrastructure – that’s how Mumbai’s suburbs developed and so seem planned. Witness Dadar, Matunga, Vile Parle etc.

But at some moment that broke down and planning followed growth, not led it. If this city has to survive in the future, planning will need to be central and recognise internal improvements as well as forward looking ideas. Planning that straddles scales all the way from how the sidewalks in the city function to metropolitan imaginations and connectivity. A planning that brings back the equilibrium of involutionary and evolutionary moves and it is this balance that, I believe, is what finally makes a great city.

Credit: Aaran Patel