Evolutionary Mumbai: Making of the ‘Island City’

There are few places where the composition of land and water demands the creation of a city. The natural harbor of New York, the bay of Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro are prominent examples. So is the opening of Thane Creek, the largest natural harbor on India’s west coast. Yet, there is no city more bridled by the topography of its surroundings than Mumbai. The city’s linear geometry and the Arabian Sea surrounding the city on three sides constrain its expansion to accommodate the ever increasing population. This has resulted in Mumbai becoming the densest populated region in the world. One third of Greater Mumbai’s population lives on the small southern finger of the island, the original ‘Island City.’

While Mumbai booms it is also experiencing a civic emergency. The shortage of land for development and continuing influx of migrants has resulted in high real estate prices, shortage of housing, large slums and poor living conditions. There has therefore been a noticeable slippage in the dimensions of economic growth and the quality of life in the city. The city has also not been able to add any significant road space; nor any significant green space owing to a scarcity of land in the city for development of gardens, jogging tracks and recreational areas. While the long coastline of the city is its asset, the sea fronts in the city are either abused by unsightly encroachers or happen to be private backyards of the chosen few and not available to public unlike beautiful waterfronts and gardens/promenades adjoining the sea in major coastal cities of the world. Alongside these urgent needs, the city must cope with the constraints of its compact physical geography. Where to find space, how to shift growth to peripheral zones, and how to knit the original ‘Island City’ with the surrounding region?

MUMBAI ‘ISLAND CITY’ PENINSULA. Originally composed of seven islands, the current ‘Island City’ has emerged from centuries of land reclamation. Today, the fragile boundaries between land and water are still apparent.

These are not new challenges in the history of Mumbai. Originally a collection of seven islands, Mumbai has evolved through several generations of land-making: first to link the seven islands, followed by efforts to develop specific districts for port and business activities, and finally the gradual filling and settlement of mudflats and saltpans to the north of the ‘Island City.’ Given current stresses and demands on the existing land mass, land-making is again being put forth as a tool to overcome the existing physical limitations of the city. The recently released Regional Concept Plan for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region proposes a series of aggressive land reclamation projects which would add the equivalent of a second ‘Island City’ within Thane Creek, radically transforming the city and region. Meanwhile, a series of small-scale reclamation proposals – designed to engage the city as is – have been developed by local architects to address the immediate day-to-day needs of the city and its residents. It is essential that the question Mumbai’s physical expansion be considered across multiple viewpoints, scales, and degrees of engagement between the existing city and its projected form.

Linking and Filling: The Once and Future Growth of a City

“A city which by God’s help shall be built.””
— Gerald Aungier, Governor of Bombay from 1672 to 1675

Mumbai’s history of growth and development was enabled by the process of land reclamation, slowly filling in the low-lying wetlands in-between the seven islands and setting a precedent for the city’s relationship between water and land. This process established the foundation for urban form in the city and determined the resulting spatial structure as major infrastructural routes were organized around the relationship between reclaimed land and the location of original islands. The evolution that transformed Mumbai from seven modest islands into the productive ‘Island City’ is today being replayed at the scale of the region. Much as early causeways and provided the first sense of unification between the original islands, new transport linkages across Thane Creek, the harbor, and the western waterfront seek to unify the ‘Island City’ with the larger region. Once linked, new sites will gain strategic potential – nexuses of infrastructure, commerce, and housing – opportunities for expanding the city, perhaps through reclamation. Understanding the first generation of this evolutionary process, as follows, provides a framework and basis for invention when considering Mumbai’s future development.

HISTORICAL CO-DEPENDENCE BETWEEN RECLAMATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE. The development of infrastructure in Mumbai is closely associated with historical land reclamation initiatives. From the earliest causeways, many reclamation efforts have been understood in terms of movement and connectivity – not merely static beds of land, but rather dynamic sites of passage, interchange, and exchange. The construction of Mumbai’s rail network directly reflects this co-dependence. Beginning with the Central Railway, today ending at Victoria Terminus, and followed by the Western Railway, which concludes at Churchgate Station, the rail catalyzed and conditioned a succession of 19th century reclamation works. The above diagram indicates the current extent of reclaimed area in blue and the expanse of Mumbai’s railway network in white.

From the 1760s, the East India Company had used land reclamations to consolidate the different land masses that comprised the archipelago of Bombay. However, till that point there had been no real impetus for development outside the Fort area where all major activities of importance were concentrated in a contained area. An important factor in giving further impetus to the growth outside the Fort was the fire of 1803. Although it did force the authorities to improve congested conditions within the Fort area, the importance of the fire lies in the inducement which it offered to the growth of the town outside the limits of the Fort. As Bombay began to grow into a major trading town, the population swelled with the influx of migrants from across India and more space was needed.

HORNBY’S VELLARD, 1791-92. The breach causeway, or Hornby’s Vellard, was commenced in 1782 and completed in 1784. The structure acted as a tidal barrier and prevented the daily flooding of the flats between the original seven islands. Following construction of the causeway, the flats were gradually transformed into habitable ground.

+ click image to enlarge

To solve the problem a major civil engineering project was proposed to join the islands together, known as the Hornby Vellard Project, after the British governor who commissioned it. Work began in 1782 to connect the islands by draining creeks and constructing a series of causeways that would initially join the islands together; at the same time it was necessary to protect the land from being flooded at high tide. Most of the 22 hilltops that made up the seven islands were razed and their debris was used to fill the gaps between the islands and to create a large sea-wall embankment around the low-lying areas.However, the real planned intervention and additions to Bombay appeared only after the moulding of the islands into one large land mass which began in 1836 with the founding of Bombay’s first reclamation company, the Elphinstone Land Company. By the middle of the nineteenth century a fair portion between the islands was reclaimed and the creation of Colaba Causeway in 1838 welded the southern island of Colaba with the rest of the Bombay islands. This was a significant effort to constitute the seven islands into a singular island of Bombay, although by then little had been done to reclaim the foreshore. In spite of the various reclamation efforts, the Bombay shoreline on both the east and the west remained largely underdeveloped. The subsequent share mania and commercial delirium of the 1860s changed that. The unexpected influx of wealth gave Bombay the capital required for regulating and advancing the reclamation of the foreshores of the island as a strategy to open up additional usable land for the rapidly growing town which was steadily metamorphosing into a city.

VIEW OF THE ISLANDS OF BOMBAY AND SALSETTE, 1803. The natural geography of Bombay is defined by water: a tidal estuary of bays, inlets, rivers, and mangroves. Hornby’s Vellard is out of the frame to the right.

Simultaneous with these efforts of creating new land, strong impetus to urban redevelopment was provided by the removal of the fortifications surrounding the town. Besides producing great opportunities for expansion, the rampart removal also allowed for the restructuring and reinforcing of the Fort area – the historical center for the larger urban area of Bombay. In fact, the magnificent ensemble of Gothic buildings (the High Court, University buildings, Post and Telegraph offices, the old Secretariat etc.) that was built along the sea edge on the new land reclaimed from the ramparts, represents the attempt to create urban design gestures in the renovated Fort area. This obviously transformed Bombay’s skyline and visually structured its western edge. But more than that, the government had seized this opportunity of urban renewal to restructure the form of the town to reflect more accurately its aspiration to become a premier city in the colony where urban technology (both infrastructure and buildings) were employed in an extremely skilful manner to create a cohesive city center – the symbol of a prosperous city.

BACK BAY RECLAMATION PROPOSAL, 1911. The initial scheme to reclaim 973 acres along the western waterfront was never realized as envisioned. Between 1860 and 1970, three separate smaller scale reclamation projects were completed in the guise of the original plan. Today, the reclamation remains conspicuously incomplete, as evidenced by the large bay at Nariman Point.

+ click image to enlarge

This approach of simultaneously physically and visually structuring the city to read as a cohesive whole was furthered by the constitution of the Bombay City Improvement Trust. Its inception in 1898 heralded a new era of systematic planning and urban design in Bombay. Through various schemes, the Improvement Trust introduced not only an approach to planning for the city which anticipated growth and grappled with real problems at various levels but also used urban design to evolve the city’s form- an approach that combined concerns for sanitation and infrastructure with those of aesthetics. In this context, another significant piece that was added to the city in the beginning of the twentieth century was the Ballard Estate scheme. With the restructuring of port activities and infrastructure north of the Town Hall (adjacent to the Alexandra Docks), this new commercial development was planned by the Bombay Port Trust in 1908. The Ballard Estate scheme can really be viewed as a move by the British administration to decongest the Fort area in terms of office space – a reaction to the dense congestion. It also took on a symbolic role of representing a new image for the city as a symbol of mercantile power. Interestingly, the new docks on this estate then became the point of arrival for foreign ships and connection for rail traffic going upcountry – a gateway to the city. Similarly, the Apollo Reclamation (south of the Fort area) which was completed in 1869, over the next three decades facilitated the erection of buildings like the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Yacht Club, and later the Gateway of India. This not only led to intensifying the “grand” image of the city for the visitor arriving by sea, but also led to the creation of residential buildings between the Apollo Bunder promenade and the Colaba Causeway. Following the ground rules now established by the City Improvement Trust, this area evolved as another well articulated precinct in south Bombay.

Although a number of smaller schemes kept city authorities busy up to the 1920s, the next significant proposal that caught the imagination of planners was for Back Bay. In 1929, a large government loan was floated to back a scheme which reclaimed over a thousand acres of land west of the renovated Fort area with Marine Drive – a sweeping promenade and road that was to be laid out along the magnificent natural bay, across the newly reclaimed western foreshore. In 1940 it acquired its present state; however, the entire promenade was never completed – even today it peters off at the southern end, protected by four-legged concrete tetrapods. But what this sweeping gesture gave Bombay was an incredible promenade that captured and welded the entire bay edge into one. This proposal began with high standards regarding the type of accommodation it was going to provide with the inclusion of public amenities and social institutions. However, the government was determined to maximize profit from the scheme, and thus rationalized the layout and subdivisions on the land with a view to obtaining maximum densities. Thus, a project overlooking a beautiful bay, that had started with great potential, degenerated into a commercial venture. This was a clean break from the densities and space standards that the British had followed in their upper-class housing layouts at Cuffe Parade, at Worli Seafacat the Apollo Reclamation. It was, in a sense, heralding a new era of contemporary urban development which is founded on narrow intentions, overly pragmatic requirements, and extremely limited urban design considerations. Nevertheless, this scheme added an incredible amount of housing stock to south Bombay, causing the old center to swell further rather than the city diversifying in the form of new growth centers further north.

A  Mahim-Sion Causeway
B  Umarkhadi
C  Pydhonie
D  Worli-Mahim Causeway
E  Hornby Vellard
F  Colaba Causeway
G  Sion-Kurla Causeway
H  Lady Jamsetji’s Causeway
I  Bandra-Worli Sea Link
J  Proposed Future Linkages
1  Filling of Great Breach
2  Dharavi
3  Carnac Bunder
4  Fort George
5  Further Filling of Great Breach
6  Filling at Mahim Bay
7  First Back Bay
8  Dockyards
9  Apollo Bunder
10  Tank Bunder
11  Filling of Flats at Matoonga
12  Filling of Flats at Nagaum
13  Ballard Estate
14  Hay Bunder
15  Worli Sluice
16  Filling of Mahim River Flats
17  Filling of Salt Pans
18  Filling at Malabar and Cumballa
19  Second Back Bay
20  Filling of Thane Creek Flats
21  Filling of Mahul Creek Flats
22  Third Back Bay
23  Bandra-Kurla Complex
24  Naval Dockyard
25  New Financial District
26  Creative & Innovation District
27  Diplomatic District
28  Expo District
29  Recreational District
30  Port Expansion
31  Proposed Airport

+ view drawings as pdf

The practice of simply extending the city’s boundaries further north while retaining the high concentration of jobs on the reclaimed southern promontory was more or less successful for much of the eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. However, by the early 1960s things were reaching a critical pitch. Bombay’s population growth was exploding, driving up prime real estate prices in the south and threatening to push much of the city’s poorer and lower-middle class population – the backbone of the city’s workforce and wealth generation – out into ever more distant suburbs in the north. The city was quickly turning into an urban “sprawl machine” attracting more and more migrants. This led to the rapid growth of the informal sector and formation of slums in inner-city locations, as many workers preferred to live in inner-city slums rather than in proper accommodation in far-away suburbs. At the same time, the two main north south commuter train lines were becoming dangerously congested. The city was becoming the most densely inhabited place on the planet with some of the lowest open spaces per capita. Bombay’s population jumped from 1.5 million in the years leading up to the Second World War to 4.5 million in 1964, and was predicted to double by 1984. By 1965, municipal limits had already reached the northern end of Salsette Island – today’s suburb of Mira Bhayandar – meaning that the city sprawled over a continuous 45-kilometre stretch from the south to the north. The very advantages that the sea and land reclamation had offered Bombay were rapidly turning into an unmanageable burden. There seemed to be no practical conception of how to deal with this self perpetuating “one-way street” of urban development, had it not been for the vision of Charles Correa.

Along with two of his colleagues, Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel, Correa submitted a memorandum to the Bombay Municipality in 1964, suggesting to re-structure the north-south developmental pattern into an east-west one centered around Bombay Harbor. The proposal would also integrate the areas on the mainland rim, some 20 kilometers east of the old center of Bombay, into a new polycentric urban structure This was innovative thinking. It opened up entirely new perspectives on the future development of Bombay and its hinterland, and represented the first concerted effort at decentralizing the urban functions of Bombay. Following much public support and extensive deliberation, the basic proposals were accepted by the state government in 1970. A new city was to be planned, called New Bombay, which would eventually become the largest planned city of the twentieth century.

The city plan that Charles Correa envisioned was intended to diversify and decentralize growth and employment around Bombay Harbor, and to ease the burden on a city that was becoming increasingly congested. New Bombay was planned for two million inhabitants. The city was structured around two arms along the eastern rim of Bombay Harbor and Thane Creek, meeting in the middle at the site of an envisaged new city center around Waghavali Lake. Each arm was planned around several developmental nodes, from Airoli in the north to Uran in the southwest. Navi Mumbai’s population, approximately 1.1 million in 2011, continues to grow. Recent developments include a new container-shipping port at Nhava in Navi Mumbai, the largest in India, a new information technology “knowledge corridor” passing through Navi Mumbai along the Mumbai-Pune highway, a new special economic zone (SEZ), and a new international airport just south of Navi Mumbai’s city center, to be opened by around 2015.

NAVI MUMBAI. Charles Correa’s 1970 proposal for a new twin city across Thane Creek was made viable by a series of transportation links connecting the ‘Island City’ with its otherwise dislocated neighbor to the east. Forty years later – and in spite of significant development at Navi Mumbai – these connections have not been implemented. The recent Regional Concept Plan restates the urgent need for strong linkages across the Creek and Harbor – similar to the San Francisco Bay Area or more radically Kenzo Tange’s 1960 Tokyo Bay plan.

Involution and Evolution: Strategies for Engaging the Future
The significance of these two landmark changes in the planning approach is that they both addressed diametrically opposite and, in a sense, contradictory issues. While the New Bombay idea was concerned with diversifying into more dynamic and long-term options, the underlying thrust of the FSI concept was the rationalization of the process of growth within what was perceived as underutilized urban areas. The idea was that through the standardization of by-laws and building limits (FSI) across the city, landowners were being equitably dealt with. In other words, everyone in the city was allowed to build the same amount in the same fashion, in a sense overriding the more logical earlier approach where the buildable area on a piece of land was determined by the use designated to it. It is for this reason that in Bombay there now exists a ridiculous situation where public authorities such as the Railways and Port Trust all “desire” to exploit the FSI available to them and re-develop their landholdings to realize the incredible monetary gain that would automatically accrue on account of extremely high land values. Similarly, the present pressure on the textile mill lands stems from this shift in policy. For once a millowner recognizes the buildable potential on his vast tracts of land, it becomes clear that developing the available FSI is far more profitable than running an industry. This pressure to develop land designated for public and other specialized uses is directly linked to land values, and as values increase in the city, the pressure on areas such as the mill lands, warehousing zones, port-related facilities, and railway properties becomes immense.

This has not only negated the intrinsic character of the city in which each new addition was being dealt with differently, but has also created a situation which implicitly in one fell swoop raised the total amount of built-up area in the city. While this was a result of the government’s response to the anticipated growth in the city and its desire to simplify administrating building sanctions, what it did was to create enough opportunity for the city to densify within the by then established Greater Bombay region. This, in the coming years would not only retard the growth of New Bombay but result in an irreversible densification of the city, an overburdening of its existing infrastructure, and a deadening monotony in its urban form. Simultaneously, in spite of the recommendations to ban any further growth in south Bombay, the state government proceeded not only with the reclamations at Nariman Point, Cuffe Parade, and New Navy Nagar but continued to expand its own activities in south Bombay (instead of moving to New Bombay), thus further intensifying activities in the old center.

Strangely enough, as the city sprawled out on the north-south axis, the “drama” of capturing prime locations played itself out in the east-west direction, with development taking place around and adjacent to the old core area or image center, as well as the Back Bay. With these events, the involution process was complete – the city authorities sought more to re-engineer the existing fabric without simultaneously diverting into new modes like New Bombay. This resulted in the city stretching out to the north, following the pattern of dormitory towns that the New Bombay plan had warned would be detrimental to the long-term interest of the city. Thus by the 1990s, the city sprawled out in the north toward Versova, Vasai, Virar and beyond in the form of unchecked pieces of urban areas grafted and organized around and along transportation lines. There now existed an inability by city authorities (who had resorted to standardized building laws) to consciously give any form or expression to the built environment. What finally manifested itself was a sharp physical duality with kinetic growth, in the form of squatter settlements and slums, forming the majority of the built environment of Bombay. In any case by the 1990s issues and problems had transcended the question of style and design. The issues of the physical urban form had been replaced by abstract mechanisms to define the form of the city – economic equations, city revenue and taxation data, and demography had replaced architecture and urban design which had earlier been the prime instruments in defining the city’s form.

OVAL MAIDAN. In the early 20th century, the maidan formed a portion of the area known as ‘Esplanade,’ an expansive sea-facing parkland which marked the western edge of the city. As a result of the reclamation at Back Bay, the maidan is now a considerable distance inland. The current waterfront – Marine Drive – makes no accommodation for green space. Given the lack of open space within the city, the maidan remains the public and recreational heart of Mumbai despite the loss of its waterfront position.

MARINE DRIVE. The so-called ‘Queen’s Necklace,’ Marine Drive defines the current western seafront of the ‘Island City’ and is one of the few waterfront areas that remains publically accessible. Due to heavy traffic congestion, a second sea-facing roadway is being considered parallel to Marine Drive. Local architects have proposed a land reclamation strategy which would accommodate the new roadway, provide waterfront parkland, and allow land bridge structures connecting the city proper to the new sea edge. In addition to providing public space and strengthening access to the waterfront, the reclamation scheme represents a significant cost savings in comparison to favored ‘sea link’ designs.

In examining the evolution of the city the fact emerges that historically in its development, outward expansion was consistently balanced with inward growth – involution. However, what becomes evident in the city’s evolution after the 1950s is the diminishing scale of interventions that were needed to propel its outward growth. This resulted in a situation where efforts were limited to engineering the existing fabric – a process of involution where the city took on the function of absorbing more and more people and activities on the same space rather than diversifying to more dynamic modes. Thus the city continued to become internally more complicated and susceptible to malfunction. Today, with the massive shifts in demography where the urban poor form the majority of the population and live in the city’s interstitial spaces, the process of involution is more acute. Thus to untangle this web of internal complexity, Bombay would naturally have to again aspire to evolve in the larger region simultaneously by opening up serviced accessible land for its swelling population. In fact, given the combination of two crucial inputs – an emerging employment base and a completed rail link – New Bombay once again holds the potential to become a critical big move in the evolution of the city and possibly being able to entirely alter its relationship with the hinterland.

Also, as the probability of a major reversal in population concentration in Bombay is unlikely, efforts should simultaneously be aimed at improving the internal efficiency of the existing urban form. This would include exploring the possibilities of re-use and approaches to recycling land and buildings – working with existing centers and weaving these environments into the larger growth patterns of the city. For, the existing city must respond and regenerate itself if it has to survive the accelerated pace of transformations that are engulfing all of urban India. Thus it is critical now for Bombay to decide what must be conserved and what renewed. That is to identify the components of the urban system that can be transformed to other uses (perhaps for an interim period) without destroying the essential physical form or architectural illusion that the city presents. In fact, the essential components of the city would have greater ability to survive on account of the adaptability of its more flexible parts.

‘Evolutionary Mumbai: Making of the ‘Island City’’ is part of a series of essays analyzing the role of land reclamation in the (re)formation of eight coastal cities: Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Incheon, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and Venice.