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Reclaiming (the urbanism of) Mumbai - Review - Reclaiming Coexistence

by Beatrice De Carli

“The Battle of Bombay is the battle of the self against the crowd (…) the battle is Man against the Metropolis (…) we are individually multiple, severally alone. (…) The crowd is the self"
S. Metha, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Random House, 2004

Reclaiming (the urbanism of) Mumbai revolves around a question which is as simple in its formulation as multi-fold in its repercussions: “how to intervene as an urbanist in Mumbai, a context so fundamentally defined by conflict?”. Following on-field explorations and a vis-à-vis confrontation with change, the volume is born out of a creative effort to imagine how the city could manage its many resources and criticalities while seeking its own way towards a sustainable modernization.
The adoption of the future as a point of view and the quest for a projective vision lead editors Shannon and Gosseye to give voice to “a virtual roundtable debate” (1) that counts on an remarkable array of Indian panellists (academics, activists as well as practitioners) to effectively photograph the present urban scenery and bring to light its difficulties and contradictions. Made of a series of essays and an important visual apparatus which complements them, the volume can be read, like Mumbai itself, through several topics and lines of interpretation. It explores ‘problematics’, ‘resources’ and ‘metaphors’ in form of a dialogue between heterogeneous speakers from India and abroad (2) who seek for alternative and more balanced forms of development. It provides relevant insights on the sharp contradictions that cross the present city and it questions the possible forms of its future development, testing its hypotheses through a selection of maps that give a clearer perspective on the physical consistency of the issues at stake. It finally investigates the potential roles of the contemporary urbanistic discourse within the vibrant context of rapid change, tension and contradiction that Mumbai is today. Together with Navi Mumbai and Thane, Mumbai forms an urban agglomeration of about 20 million living over less than 800 sq kilometres. A megacity, a city of slums, a world-class city, simultaneously place of radiant opportunity and striking conflicts, the city apparently escapes any stable or given definition.
In search of a key to enter its “complexly layered narratives of contested territories”, Shannon recognizes reclamation – meant as “land recovery, repossession, renovation and recuperation” – as the ultimate drive of Mumbai’s permanent states of change, strongly reverberating both in the physical and cultural structures of the city (3). The Author draws particular attention to the rapacious nature of this unending process of re-development, stressing how, throughout history, the city’s ecological structures were repeatedly knocked and resources were at any rate exploited “to ensure the economic success of the artificial landscape”. In this cyclical process of “growth, stagnation and decline”, the contemporary super-dense super-crowded megalopolis would eventually rise. Although still precariously relying, as Correa highlights (4), on the same DNA of public transports that structured the growth of British Bombay; although suffering from an enormous lack in safe and sustainable housing conditions, from prominent social and cultural conflicts, as well as from an increasing vulnerability to natural disasters, Mumbai is nevertheless still exceptionally capable of major changes – and above all rich in human resources.

The need for change in the present process of urban development is evident and manifold, whereas the relative weakness of planning overtly pictured by Pathak (5) is proving to be highly treacherous as it makes the city equally unprepared to deal with any upcoming event – whether they involve natural catastrophes or simple growth.
As several contributions suggest throughout the volume, the problematic condition of Mumbai (multilayered, interwoven, and strongly unbalanced as it daily proves to be) is indeed a political issue. In a place where “different worlds share the same space but understand it very differently” a concrete framework for negotiation is ultimately lacking. This void of a concrete platform to support and test the urban debate constantly challenges the very same definition of democracy – not only in urban governance, but in its physical and spatial arrangements as well.
Nonetheless, as the volume shows, urban debate is vigorous and constitutes a key resource to the city’s management and future improvement. Although currently “overtaken by private development”, Mumbai is in fact rich in citizens’ associations, social activists, independent researchers and non-governmental organizations (such as UDRI (6), SPARC (7) and countless others) that untiringly speak their voice advocating the public good and determinedly work towards the upgrading of the urban environment.
Reclaiming (the urbanism of) Mumbai’ assesses the hypothesis that this permanent struggle for the city’s development cannot be disconnected from the physical environment where it takes place: the numerous resources and problematics highlighted by the book’s contributors demand to be investigated, clarified and finally negotiated through concrete spatial explorations. In their closing essay, Shannon, Loeckx and De Meulder (8) state that facilitating the dialogue between different understandings of the city and organizing the co-existence of its multiple players is exactly the challenge that the urban project needs to face today in Mumbai. Strategic urban projects, they argue, could make in this regard “not merely a difference – a fundamental difference”. Strategic projects are meant by the Authors as media for the investigation of a feasible future on a short- to medium-term perspective. They are instruments to translate policies and visions into reality, to construct circumscribed synergies on precise objectives, and inventively envision the spatial platforms of a trialogue between public, private and civil project-partners. Strategic projects could aspire in Mumbai “to build coalition, re-orient policy and initiate interventions” (9).

Although a design-driven approach to social and spatial negotiation could indeed be a primary vehicle for the consolidation of land tenure security, access to urban services, adequate public space and the protection of the city’s fragile environment, one is left wondering whether the urban project in Mumbai would presently find the public and civil interlocutors it aims for, given the overwhelming market-driven framework that the book so vividly describes. In this reference, the empowerment of a largely neglected public opinion to participate in the ‘formal’ contest for the city is nowadays crucial to define the ability of Mumbai to reclaim itself once more, and constitutes an issue that the volume’s “virtual debate” undoubtedly opens to the next future.

(1) A. Loeckx, Towards an Urban Debate. Questioning Mumbai’s Voices and Issues, p.178.
(2) C. Correa, N. Adarkar, R. Mehrotra, A. Loeckx, V. K.Phatak, K. Sharma, B. De Meulder among many others.
(3) K. Shannon, Reclaiming (the urbanism of) Mumbai, p. 9.

(4) C. Correa, Learning from Bombay, p.134
(5) V. K. Pathak, The (Im)Possibility of Planning the Mumbai Mega-region, p.106.
(6) Urban Design Research Institute (
(7) Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (
(8) K. Shannon, A. Loeckx, B. De Meulder, Framing the urban project in Mumbai, p.192.
(9) On design as a tool for negotiation see among others: A. Loeckx, K. Shannon, R. Tuts, H. Verschure eds. (2004), Urban Trialogues. Visions, projects, co-productions, Nairobi, UN Habitat.

Beatrice De Carli teaches landscape and infrastructure design at the Polytechnic university of Milan. Her PhD thesis (2011, ‘Between Permanence and Change. Decoding and Reframing Residuality: a Case in Milan’) was developed at the Polytechnic university in collaboration with KU Leuven, ASRO/OSA. She studied architecture in Milan and Delft.


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