Housing and Public Space, Part 2

By: Siddharth Nadkarny, AHI Associate

[Continued from last week’s Part 1.]   

By the 1950s, as Mumbai grew northwards, the gaothan was enveloped by ‘urban’ development – four to five storey tall multifamily residential buildings. Formalized codes regulating floor area ratios made it easier to build more than what already existed on the small plots in the gaothan. For a neighborhood with a growing population, this should have translated into larger houses when the next round of rebuilding took place. However, the introduction of better public infrastructure around the gaothan – roads, schools, open spaces, piped water and sewerage connections – helped keep the balance between the private home and public space. While larger families had to be accommodated in shared bedrooms, or smaller subdivided areas within the house, the access to a larger quantum of public space and infrastructure maintained or increased living standards. This is evident in the size and type of built form staying fairly constant in the gaothan right up to the 1990s.

But in the 1990s, this seemingly happy balance begins to change. The usual allocation of space for public activities during each phase of rebuilding houses comes to a stop. By the early 2000s, the public space network is severely reduced.

So what was Lorenz’s butterfly that changed the ecosystem here? The slow reaction of public infrastructure to changes in the population of the neighborhood. It was actually the result of a flying elephant – changes in economic policies at the national level that brought in more investment in housing at the local level. Pressure to allow more area per plot resulted in changes to FAR codes all over the city. In the neighborhood of the gaothan, four and five storied apartment buildings transformed into nine stories. The resultant higher population led to a competition for public infrastructure and the emergence of privatized open spaces, controlled by citizen groups that fiercely protect their turfs.

The change in FAR codes made it easier and more profitable to redevelop small plots within the gaothan as well. Combine this with the reduced availability of urban infrastructure, and the balance in the ecosystem shifts to favor a more conventional land use-ownership relation. Houses that got rebuilt in the gaothan in this phase did not look anything like before.

New buildings – Note the “pitched roof” in the first image, the fig leaf for contextual design

The guarding of private resources manifested in seemingly mundane devices like water pressure boosters and electric generators that prioritized the private at the expense of the public. The infrastructure coming into the gaothan did not change much, and the protection of private resources reduced its share amongst others who did not get a booster or a genset. This started a domino effect with most houses being rebuilt along the same lines and more damagingly, resulting in the loss of large parts of the public space network. Perhaps a proportionate augmentation of public infrastructure to maintain the balance would have prevented this transformation.

Parts of the network lost to the public

Severely reduced public space network

What happened to community capital exchange? Somewhere down the line, the unsaid negotiations that protected public space didn’t happen anymore. This could be a chicken-and-egg kind of situation, but my sense is that the shift in private v/s public came first, and that broke down the negotiations.

This point is clear by talking to residents. Now, as anyone who’s done this before knows, older residents tend to have a ‘how-green-was-my-valley’ longing for an imagined past. Confirmation was talking to residents who were about ten years old in the 1990s, old enough to remember how good things were, yet young enough to not forget how bad they were either. These conversations clearly identified a trend when residents who were in their teens in the 1990s remembered seemingly mundane events and activities (‘playing football’, ‘sitting on our bikes’) in spaces (‘mad mr.x’s yard’, ‘next to the big red house’) that stopped when these spaces got rebuilt (‘he sold his house and that building came up’, ‘they put a fence and we had to stop hanging out there’) to protect the private. Reduced playtime couldn’t have been due to TV, video games or computers – these only emerge in the late 1990s or early 2000s in the gaothan.

Unfortunately, the limitations of internet attention spans do not let me discuss other aspects of this transformation – changes in demographics, income levels and perception of living quality – that further establish the radical change in the gaothan’s ecosystem. To summarize, the loss of the public space network has increased dependence on private public spaces (normally accessed by paying a fee for use), increased flooding within the gaothan and further reduced space in the gaothan by the spillover of activities from the private-public space into the actual public space. Residents who chose to stay in the gaothan are paying more for the same level of infrastructure and services they had twenty years ago. In this ecosystem, the grass WAS greener a while ago.

1 thought on “Housing and Public Space, Part 2

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