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Mumbai: Building Blocks of Urban Citizenship

On November 12-15, the International Council convened in Mumbai to explore the city’s complexities and the ways that design could be applied in creatively tackling them. Clinging to the western edge of the subcontinent, Mumbai has been India’s cosmopolis and a mecca for migrants for centuries. With India’s integration into the global economy, the city’s density, diversity, congestion, and economic inequality have continued to intensify.

Today, Mumbai is one of the most populated cities in the world. This evolution has put enormous pressure on the building blocks of urban citizenship—public space, social connectivity, and transit infrastructure—issues that the Council sought to examine though three corresponding case studies. Over four days, they conducted intensive site visits, in-depth stakeholders interviews, and a design charrette in partnership with Mumbai’s new School of Environment and Architecture (SEA). The team translated their learning into a series of creative design propositions and presented them to a group of local practitioners.


Day One

Enhancing Civic Life through Public Space at the Ballard Estate


The Council’s first day began with a heritage walk, featuring some of Mumbai’s most important pre-colonial, colonial, and post-independence landmarks. Starting from the 12th century Walkeshwar temple and Banganga Tank complex at the top of Malabar Hill, the Council proceeded to Mumbai’s historic office district, Ballard Estate. Dr. Damyanti Radheshwar, whose research formed the basis of the first case study, escorted the group through the area. The Council then visited the Ballard Estate-based offices of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) for a presentation by principal architect, Brinda Somaya, who shared context on several of her public space projects.   

Case Study: Framing the Issue

Mumbai is a city woefully in need of public space to support the leisure, health, and civic life of the urban citizenry. In examining opportunities to address this need, Team One focused on how the unused, interstitial spaces between buildings in the Ballard Estate could be reimagined to better serve the surrounding area.

Located in South Mumbai, adjacent to the Navel Docklands, Ballard Estate was founded in the early 20th century by the Bombay Port Trust, an entity that operates the ground lease to this day and oversees all commercial tenants. While the area retains its visually appealing colonial character, with wide avenues and neoclassical architecture, it lacks the public space to service daytime users and contribute to the vitality of this central business district.

As a result, the area is filled with blue collar workers and drivers waiting for their clients, who can be found sleeping in their cars, playing cards on the sidewalks, or loitering in the streets. Meanwhile, generous corridors that run between buildings to create a network of connectivity are gated off, neglected, and overgrown.

Posing a Solution

Team One acknowledged the challenges around ownership, regulation, and market forces inhibiting the simple revitalization of the area. In turn, they proposed a program and design for the space that responded to these constraints, with an emphasis on spurring transformation from the ground up.

Embracing principles of tactical urbanism, Team One suggested beginning with the simple, guerilla-style activation of hanging hammocks between the buildings to provide a place for drivers to recline during the day. By drawing in and responding to the needs of the area’s primary users, while introducing color and whimsicality to the space, the team looked kick-start the process of longer-term revitalization.

The next phase of the plan would be to build upon the interest generated and introduce new elements, including food vendors, arts and crafts, seating, and shading devices. And finally, in thinking expansively about the future, Team One proposed moving this public realm activation beyond the corridors to the district at large, reclaiming space from cars, encouraging more sidewalk commerce, and introducing new anchor tenants to the buildings.

Team members: Daniel Elsea, Allies and Morrison; Razvan GhilicMicu, Hassell; Carmen Pereira, Mecanoo; Alan Maskin, Olson Kundig; Pat Arnett, Silman; Jessica Healy

Day Two

Fostering Social Connectivity in Informal Settlements – Mankhurd


Day two focused on exploring social life in Mumbai’s informal settlements. The Council traveled to the north- eastern district of Mankhurd, where they were guided through the area by members of the local community, along with artist collective Samooha and Mumbai-based architecture practice MO_OF Design Practice. From there, they proceeded to the offices of architecture firm Studio Mumbai, where founder and principal Bijoy Jain shared insight on his architectural sensibility, which bridges modernism and vernacular construction.

The day concluded with a fun and fast-paced ideas exchange at the studio of contemporary artist Sunil Padwal, facilitated by architect Rajeev Thakker and Himanshu Burte, Assistant at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. The Council paired up with local artists, architects, academics, and activists to inquire and share thoughts about pressing contemporary issues for urban practitioners in Mumbai and beyond.

Case Study: Framing the Issue

Mumbai’s entrenched social and economic inequality is reflected in the city’s housing crisis, with nearly 7 million people – over half the population – residing in slums or “informal settlements” characterized by overcrowding and lack of basic infrastructure. To curb slum proliferation and reclaim public land, the government has pursued resettlement strategies in recent decades, in which slum dwellers are relocated to newly constructed apartment blocks akin to mid-century housing projects.

While intended to ameliorate living conditions in the slum, such housing often comes with its own host of deficiencies. Team Two explored ways that design could help to provide inhabitants with the amenities and conditions necessary to thrive within and between these two housing typologies, foster social connectivity, and enhance quality of life.

For their case study, the team focused on two adjacent settlements in Mumbai’s north-eastern district of Mankhurd. The first,  a typical Mumbai slum settlement called Annabhau Saathenagar, and the second, a resettlement housing project called Lallubhai Compound comprised of 65 buildings on a former industrial site.

Posing a Solution

The entrenched and politicized nature of Mumbai’s slums made for a challenging set of circumstances to tackle. Rather than proposing a top-down solution, Team Two, like Team One, took a bottom-up approach. They put forth a series of synthesized principles aimed at elevating desirable qualities of both housing typologies and offsetting those that undermine livability.

Team Two emphasized the importance of investing in the human capital of these communities, providing spaces that build local capacity by facilitating their ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit. The dearth of open space, both in the slums and resettlements, was once again a key point of interest. Team Two focused on strategies for adapting existing spaces to be more flexible and functional in order to maximize use and support the area’s micro-industries.

The lack of shade on an underutilized playground, for example, was seen as one such opportunity. Team Two suggested creating shading devices that would facilitate the use of the space and allow access to much needed light and air. They suggested that the devices and other such elements used to activate the space could be manufactured within the communities to help stimulate the local economy. The space could then support a host of uses: as somewhere for women to wash their laundry while their children played, a staging area to deploy critical services to the community, or as a social gathering place.

Team members: Monica von Schmalensee, White; Sasa Radulovic, 5468796 architecture; Denzil Gallagher, Buro Happold; Tom Kundig, Olson Kundig; Mette Nygaard, Schmidt/Hammer/Lassen; Jonas Edblad, Wingardhs; Douglas Healy; Nancy Hudson, Silman

Day Three

Rethinking Transportation for an Exploding Metropolis – Andheri


On day three, the Council moved north-west to Mumbai’s new central business district, the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC). Situated across the Mahim Creek from Mumbai’s infamous slum-industrial district, Dharavi, BKC is another place where Mumbai’s stark inequalities are apparent. The Council spent the afternoon at the offices of Studio POD for a series of contextual presentations, followed by a guided tour of Mumbai’s infamous train networks and the emerging metro railway network. The walk focused on the dense commercial and residential fabric around the interchange of the old commuter railway stations and the new metro stations under construction in the suburb of Andheri. The day concluded in the the neighborhood of Borivali at the School of Environment and Architecture (SEA), where faculty and students engaged in discussion about our research and reflection upon our three case studies.

Case Study: Framing the Issue

Like many expanding global cities, Mumbai suffers from severe traffic congestion and its policy makers and urban planners are thinking critically about ways to enhance mobility. Ongoing investment in the city’s public transport system, including monorails and expansion of Mumbai’s metro rapid transit system, are intended to reduce congestion and supplement the overcrowded railway network. Mumbai Suburban Railway is the current lifeline of the city, but is beyond its capacity and does not align with established patterns of urban growth.

Insufficient public transit coupled with population growth, specifically Mumbai’s middle class, who have purchasing power and ambitions of car-ownership, has resulted in ballooning number of private vehicles on already constrained roads. Gridlock traffic and encroachment of public roads due to lack of sufficient parking spaces in the city are commonplace.

After experiencing this traffic and exploring Mumbai’s infamous train networks and the emerging metro railway network with architects from Studio POD, Team Three considered ways to improve mobility and connectivity system wide.

Posing a Solution

Team Three proposed a framework inspired by the notion of time in relation to the  use of public space. Based on the premise that Mumbai’s public transportation is already sustainable due to its high degree of multimodality, the goal would be to improve upon this foundation and make public transit options more appealing to would-be private vehicle drivers.

This key organizational principle of time-based use underpinned the idea of a transportation regime, in which certain times of day support different modalities and engage different stakeholders. Rather than layering onto the existing network, this regime would promote efficiency and could be tested through a pilot project–without costly upfront investment.  

The team suggested that if the city is to invest in additional infrastructure it should be geared towards promoting a cultural shift towards cycling. Mimicking the network of elevated highways or “flyovers” that cut across the city, there could be a series of slim, shaded bike bridges. Another idea proposed was to reclaim the unused space underneath the flyovers for this purpose.

Team Three posed one final thought about the overall structure of the city to resolve the strained mobility between the north and south connection. By cultivating economic activity in the North and creating live/work communities, the city could lessen the need to commute and relieve pressure on the system as a whole.

Team members: Alfredo Caraballo, Allies and Morrison; Johanna Hurme, 5468796 architecture; Steen Savery Trojaborg, DISSING+WEITLING; Michael Sørensen, Henning Larsen; Armand Paardekooper, Mecanoo; Morten Schmidt, Schmidt/Hammer/Lassen; Niklas Carlen, Wingardhs; Anindita Dasgupta, BuroHappold

Day Four

Western Coastline Walk & Design Charrette


The final day began with a drive along the north-western coast to Versova beach. The Council were given a guided tour by Rajesh Vora, long-time Versova resident and civic activist working to save the mangroves that grow along the shoreline. Rajesh, along with other local residents, led the group through the complex ecology of the beach, mangroves, urban farming and informal residence. The group then spent the afternoon presenting ideas in response to their various case studies to a group of local experts and practitioners.

Big Takeaways:


1. Mumbai’s public space can be best understood from a temporal rather than a physical point of view. Currently, spaces retain a high degree of flexibility and change use over the course of the day, an informal process choreographed by its citizenry. A statement by architect and urbanist Himanshu Burte reflected this point and held particular resonance for the group: “We don’t have a map of public spaces, we have a calendar of public spaces” – Himanshu Burte, Tata Institute of Social Sciences

2. Focusing on flexible, adaptable, and temporal interventions is a way to avoid the challenges imposed by costly and burdensome maintenance while jumpstarting the process of change.  In addition, soft or phased implementation can be used to test feasibility and overcome complex policy hurdles around ownership and financeability, for example.

3. Start small and invest in people. Interventions that enable Mumbai’s citizens to generate their own culturally specific solutions that best serve their needs rather than those that are overly prescriptive have the most potential for success and scalability.