Creating Biophilic Cities: A Roadmap for Mumbai

We are living in an era that will witness the most significant urban growth in human history, with an expected 2.4 billion more people living in cities by the year 2050. Conservation in the urban century acknowledges the need for access to abundant nature in cities as an essential aspect of individual health and wellbeing. Understanding this, the concept of biophilic cities is emerging rapidly and quite necessary as well. Biophilic cities prioritize the integration of nature into urban landscapes, fostering connections between residents and the natural world, while promoting sustainability and well-being. As we look towards the future of urban development, it is imperative for cities like Mumbai and the wider Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR) to embrace biophilic principles to ensure a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. This movement focuses on the understanding that humans have an innate connection to the natural world. Over the years, several studies demonstrate that access to nature is a significant antidote to long term chronic stress experienced by many urban citizens. It also enhances cognitive performances and focuses humans on the larger world resulting in greater generosity and cooperation.  Also with regards to the climate change, biophilic interventions contribute to the overall well being of human kind. We all will agree that cities are the places where the greatest disconnect with nature has occurred.  Biophilic cities movement works by planning and designing cities that prioritize nature as an essential element for the health and well being of their citizens. 

Understanding Biophilic Cities

Biophilic cities are characterized by their commitment to incorporating nature into urban planning and design. This involves the preservation of green spaces, the integration of natural elements into built environments, and the promotion of biodiversity within city limits. By prioritizing access to nature, biophilic cities seek to enhance the quality of life for residents, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and promote ecological resilience. I personally believe this has roots in the concept of ‘Garden City’ movement by Sir Ebenezer Howard. In his publication named ‘Garden Cities of Tomorrow’ in 1898, he described this utopian city in which people live harmoniously with nature. The publication resulted in the founding of the garden city movement that saw several cities in Great Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. His concept was realized and proved to be an effective response for a better quality of life in overcrowded and dirty industrial towns which had deteriorated the environment and posed serious threat to health of the city dwellers.  

The term biophilia was first used by a German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in 1973 and defined as ‘love of life’. The American biologist E. O. Wilson advanced studies in this subject, expanding and popularizing the concept of biophilia as the innate affinity of human beings with all forms of life and their inherent tendency to focus on lifelike processes in his book names as ‘Biophilia’ (published in 1984). One of the most famous Sociology Professor Kellert S. R. defined and described six biophilic design elements and seventy attributes that were later summarized for practical application in urban planning. He considered biophilic design as a means for sustainable development as it could promote care, stewardship and attachment to the place.  In 2011, Tim Beatley, who has long been a leader in advocating for the greening of cities wrote about the concept of biophilic planning and design, imagining and encouraging biophilic cities. Biophilic urbanism was presented as an emerging planning approach that aimed to systematically integrate nature into the urban fabric, igniting the potential to transform barren urban spaces into places that are restorative and conducive to life. The main goal is to improve the connection between the urban dwellers and urban nature and nourish the experience of nature on a daily basis as an integral part of urban living. 

Global Examples of Biophilic Cities  

Several cities around the world have embraced biophilic principles in their urban planning efforts, serving as inspiring examples for others to follow. In the UK, cities like Birmingham and Edinburgh are exploring strategies to co-invest in health and nature through conservation of green and blue infrastructure connection across the city. These efforts have resulted in these 2 cities being selected to participate in the Future Parks Initiative aimed at creative innovative and sustainable solutions to manage and fund parks and open spaces, specifically with a goal of ensuring that parks contribute to the public’s mental and physical health. Also, Austin, a city in the USA runs a campaign called Imagine Austin which focuses on creating healthy Austin city by providing spaces where people can easily walk, bike, play and find nearby healthy food options and healthcare. Also, Edmonton in Canada is working on a biophilic city concept to reduce social isolation during winter months by developing programs and infrastructure that facilitates residents getting outdoors despite winter conditions. Edmonton also runs a Breathe Strategy which ensures that the city always grows and every neighborhood is supported by a network of open spaces at the neighborhood, city and regional levels. Singapore, often hailed as a model of sustainable urban development, has implemented initiatives such as vertical gardens, rooftop parks, and extensive green corridors to enhance biodiversity and promote urban greenery. Similarly, cities like Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, have prioritized the preservation of natural habitats and the creation of accessible green spaces for their residents.
Biophilic cities promotes local biodiversity and uses the urban landscape to strengthen the human-nature connections. Costa Rica government runs a Sweet City campaign for its city called Curridabat with a vision to promote the flourishing of pollinators across the city landscape. The city of Milwaukee in Wisconsin runs the Home-Grown program on the vacant plots of the city which are used as urban agriculture parks, orchards and green spaces. In nutshell, a biophilic city is a city that provides access to nature as a building block for the wellbeing of the individual and larger communities and fosters the qualities that will be essential to  sustainability, resilient and healthy social ecologies.

Challenges and Opportunities in Mumbai and MMR

Mumbai being the largest city of India, capital of Maharashtra and 37th largest city in the world by GDP is constantly evolving. In Mumbai and the MMR, rapid urbanization and population growth have led to significant environmental degradation, including the loss of green spaces, air and water pollution, and habitat destruction. Mumbai is witnessing a rapid pace of urbanization, which is expected to continue in the coming decades. It is estimated that by 2030, the population of Mumbai will be 27 million.  Mumbai, India’s largest metropolis doesn’t exactly fit the definition of a biophilic city because of lack of planned land use and a 20.6 million populace making it world’s sixth most populated city. However, amidst these challenges lie opportunities to reshape urban development policies and prioritize the creation of biophilic cities. Nevertheless, Mumbai has the largest natural forest / national park within its city limits which has been acting as lungs for the city – The Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Suggestions for Mumbai to become a Biophilic City:

1. Increase and preservation of Green Spaces:

One of the fundamental aspects of biophilic cities is the preservation of green spaces. Amendments to DCPR 2034 should prioritize the protection of existing parks, gardens, and natural habitats, while also mandating the creation of new green spaces in developing areas. Community gardens and urban farming initiatives empower residents to actively participate in food production and cultivate green spaces within the city. By repurposing rooftops, and unused spaces and ensuring that all the slum redevelopment schemes must have green spaces, parks and gardens or urban forests, Mumbai can create opportunities for urban agriculture and strengthen community bonds. Community gardens not only provide fresh, locally grown produce but also serve as educational hubs for sustainable living practices and environmental stewardship. These areas serve as vital lungs for the city, providing much-needed respite from urban congestion and pollution. By increasing the number and accessibility of parks, Mumbai can improve air quality, enhance biodiversity, and promote mental well-being among its residents. 

Mumbai’s per capita open space falls far below international standards, with just 1.28 square meters of open space per person compared to the WHO’s recommended minimum of 9 square meters. The scarcity of green lungs not only compromises the city’s environmental resilience but also deprives its residents of much-needed breathing room. As Mumbai confronts the looming specter of climate change, underscored by recent warnings from the IPCC, the need for a comprehensive approach to urban planning has never been more urgent.

1.a. Understanding the Deficit:

Mumbai, India’s financial powerhouse, sprawls over 604 square kilometers and is home to a staggering population of 12 million. Yet, the city grapples with a glaring shortage of accessible green open spaces, a vital component for fostering sustainable urban communities. Shockingly, Mumbai offers a mere 1.24 square meters of accessible open space per person, trailing behind global benchmarks and even lagging behind other Indian cities like Delhi and Bangalore.

1.b. Challenges and Policy Revisions:

The 2014-34 development plan aimed to address this deficit by revising the definition of open space, seemingly catapulting Mumbai’s open space percentage to 46 percent. However, this revision included environmental areas that are often inaccessible to the public, raising questions about the true accessibility of these spaces. While global organizations offer guidelines for open space per capita, Mumbai falls short, highlighting the need for a nuanced approach to urban planning.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), in its 2014-34 development plan, purported to elevate Mumbai’s open space percentage from 26% to a commendable 46% by 2016. However, this achievement was marred by a contentious revision of the definition of ‘open space’, which included inaccessible environmental areas, casting doubt on the credibility of the reported progress.

Despite claims of progress, Mumbai still falls short of international benchmarks set by esteemed organizations. The World Health Organization (WHO) advocates for a minimum of nine square meters of open space per capita in urban areas, a figure far from Mumbai’s reality. Moreover, the BMC’s budget allocations for open space maintenance have dwindled over the years, reflecting a concerning lack of prioritization.

Legislation, particularly the archaic BMC Act of 1888, fails to mandate the maintenance of open spaces, relegating it to a discretionary duty. Efforts to amend this legislative gap have been thwarted, perpetuating a cycle of neglect.

1.c. Proposals for reform are imperative:

The 74th Amendment and the BMC Act require urgent revision to mandate the governance of urban amenities like parks and gardens. Development plans must not merely remain lofty aspirations but be enforced rigorously, with transparent monitoring mechanisms in place. A unified open spaces policy, transcending narrow jurisdictional confines, is essential for effective governance. Crucially, the legal framework governing Mumbai’s open spaces must align with constitutional mandates and contemporary needs, ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come. By heeding these imperatives, Mumbai can redefine its trajectory towards a greener, more equitable urban landscape.

1.d. Highlighting the Urgency: Mumbai’s Open Space Crisis in Numbers

London: 31.68 square meters per capita

New York City: 26.4 square meters per capita

Tokyo: 3.96 square meters per capita

Mumbai’s accessible open space: 15.37 square kilometers

Mumbai’s inaccessible open space: 128.41 square kilometers

BMC’s budget allocation for open space maintenance (2017-18): 1.3% of total budget

BMC’s budget allocation for open space maintenance (2020-21): 0.7% of total budget

BMC’s current land use: 3.7% open space

WHO recommended minimum: 9 square meters per capita

UN recommended: 30 square meters per capita

EU acceptable: 26 square meters per capita

URDPFI guidelines: 10-12 square meters per person

1.e. Path to Reform:

To address these pressing issues, a multi-faceted approach is imperative:

1.e.a. Legislative Reforms: 

The archaic BMC Act and MRTP Act require urgent overhaul to mandate open space maintenance as a mandatory duty. Revising the 74th Constitutional Amendment and empowering municipal bodies can enhance accountability and streamline governance.

1.e.b Implementation of Development Plans: 

Ambitious development plans must translate into tangible action, with streamlined processes for land acquisition and permissions. Annual monitoring mechanisms and citizen engagement forums can ensure accountability and transparency.

1.e.c. Unified Policy Framework:

A comprehensive open spaces policy, encompassing all relevant stakeholders and jurisdictions, is essential. This policy should prioritize accessibility, equitable distribution, and sustainable management of open spaces, transcending narrow jurisdictional boundaries.

In reimagining Mumbai’s open spaces, we must prioritize intergenerational equity, resilience to climate change, and community-centric approaches. As we chart a course towards a greener, more inclusive Mumbai, let us seize this opportunity to forge a new paradigm of urban development—one that places people and nature at its heart. Through collective action and visionary leadership, we can transform Mumbai into a city where open spaces thrive, communities flourish, and future generations inherit a legacy of sustainability and resilience. To address this scarcity, the BMC must incentivize the creation of public open spaces through innovative schemes. Developers and landowners who contribute land for common public use should receive incentives such as property tax rebates, subsidized premiums or approval charges, or additional Floor Space Index (FSI) for the remaining land parcel. This approach not only fosters public-private participation but also expands Mumbai’s open space inventory, enhancing the city’s livability and resilience. These incentives may include:

Rebate in property taxes:

Landlords and developers who dedicate a certain percentage of their land for creating green spaces can be eligible for a rebate in property taxes as a reward for their contribution to enhancing the city’s green infrastructure.

Transfer of Development Rights (TDR):

TDR can be granted to property owners who allocate land for the creation of breathing spaces, allowing them to transfer the development potential of the reserved land to other properties or projects. This serves as an additional incentive for property owners to participate in green space initiatives while still retaining the development rights of their land.
Subsidized approval charges: Developers who incorporate green spaces into their projects can benefit from subsidized approval charges for the remaining portion of the land parcel, reducing the financial burden associated with obtaining necessary approvals and permits for development.
By offering these incentives, authorities can incentivize landlords and developers to proactively contribute to the expansion of green spaces within Mumbai, thereby improving the city’s overall livability and resilience to environmental challenges. Additionally, public-private partnerships and community engagement can further facilitate the creation and maintenance of these breathing spaces, ensuring their long-term sustainability and accessibility to all residents.
This initiative aligns with the broader goal of making Mumbai a biophilic city by integrating nature into urban spaces and fostering a harmonious relationship between the built environment and the natural world. Through collaborative efforts and innovative incentives, Mumbai can create a more sustainable and equitable urban landscape that prioritizes the well-being of both its residents and the environment.

2.Integration of Nature into Urban Planning:

DCPR 2034 should encourage the incorporation of natural elements into urban design, such as environmentally efficient buildings, green roofs, vertical gardens, and permeable surfaces. These features not only enhance the aesthetic appeal of the city but also provide numerous environmental benefits, including improved air quality and reduced urban heat island effect. Incentives should be offered by the BMC for such projects which may include but not limited to rationalization of approval charges, property tax rebates or subsidized utility charges.

3. Promotion of Biodiversity:

Biodiversity is essential for the ecological health of cities and their surrounding regions. DCPR 2034 should include provisions for the preservation and restoration of native habitats, as well as incentives for developers to incorporate biodiversity-friendly practices into their projects.

3.a.  Green Infrastructure Development:

Implement green infrastructure projects such as urban parks, greenways, and nature reserves to provide habitats for native flora and fauna.

3.b. Native Plant Promotion:

Encourage the use of native plant species in landscaping and gardening initiatives to support local ecosystems and reduce reliance on exotic species. BMC should also offer incentives or subsidies for residents and businesses to cultivate native plants in their gardens and green spaces.

3.c. Protected Areas:

Identify and designate protected areas like the Aarey Colony, Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mithi River, Powai Lake, Upvan Lake (though in Thane) and other natural and manmade lakes and ponds in and around Mumbai, and green belts to safeguard critical habitats and facilitate the movement of wildlife within the city. BMC, in collaboration with the Forest department of the State Government of Maharashtra should implement habitat restoration projects in degraded areas to enhance connectivity between fragmented habitats. Sanjay Gandhi National Park, located within the bustling metropolis of Mumbai, is a vital ecological reserve that requires stringent protection and conservation efforts. To safeguard the park’s biodiversity and ecological integrity, it is imperative to remove all encroachments and prevent any further unauthorized development within its boundaries. This includes halting the construction of roads through or over/under the park and implementing measures to prevent encroachments from encroaching on the park’s buffer zones. Additionally, establishing comprehensive conservation and management plans, increasing surveillance and enforcement efforts, and involving local communities in park conservation initiatives can ensure the long-term preservation of Sanjay Gandhi National Park for future generations to enjoy.

4.Access to Nature for All:

In order to truly become biophilic cities, Mumbai and the MMR must ensure that all residents have access to nature within their communities. This may involve the creation of green corridors, pedestrian-friendly pathways, and equitable distribution of green spaces across neighborhoods.

4.a. Walkability index:

In urban planning and development, the concept of walkability has emerged as a crucial matrix to assess the pedestrian-friendliness of cities. Walkability refers to the ease and comfort with which people can walk and access various destinations within their neighborhood or city. It takes into account factors such as sidewalk infrastructure, street design, land use mix, safety, and accessibility to amenities. The Walkability Index serves as a tool to quantitatively measure and evaluate the walkability of different areas, enabling city planners and policymakers to identify areas for improvement and prioritize pedestrian-friendly initiatives. The Walkability Index typically comprises a set of indicators or parameters that contribute to a pedestrian-friendly environment. These indicators may include:

4.a.a Street Connectivity:

The density and interconnectedness of streets and pathways, which facilitate easy navigation and access to different destinations.

4.a.b Sidewalk Infrastructure:

The presence and quality of sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and pedestrian-friendly amenities such as benches, streetlights, and shade trees.

4.a.c Land Use Mix:

The diversity and proximity of land uses, including residential, commercial, recreational, and institutional facilities, which encourage walking for various purposes.

4.a.d Safety:

Measures such as traffic calming interventions, pedestrian crossings, well-lit pathways, and low crime rates that enhance pedestrian safety and security.

4.b. Assessing Mumbai’s Walkability

Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the most densely populated cities globally, presents a unique context for evaluating walkability. With its bustling streets, diverse neighborhoods, and vibrant urban life, Mumbai offers a rich tapestry of pedestrian experiences. However, rapid urbanization, congested roadways, inadequate pedestrian infrastructure, and safety concerns pose significant challenges to walkability in the city. According to recent studies and surveys, Mumbai’s Walkability Index indicates both strengths and areas for improvement:

4.b.a.  Street Connectivity:

Mumbai’s extensive network of streets and public pathways provides good connectivity across the city. However, the lack of proper pedestrian crossings and designated walkways in many areas hampers seamless pedestrian movement.

4.b.b. Sidewalk Infrastructure:

While certain neighborhoods in Mumbai boast well-maintained sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly amenities, large parts of the city suffer from narrow or encroached sidewalks, uneven surfaces, and insufficient pedestrian facilities.

4.b.c. Land Use Mix:

Mumbai’s mixed-use neighborhoods, characterized by the coexistence of residential, commercial, and recreational spaces, contribute to its vibrant street life. However, the concentration of commercial activities in certain areas often leads to overcrowding and pedestrian congestion.

4.b.d. Safety:

Mumbai’s bustling streets present safety challenges for pedestrians, including heavy vehicular traffic, reckless driving, inadequate street lighting, and encroachments on pedestrian pathways. Addressing these safety concerns is crucial to enhancing walkability and ensuring pedestrian-friendly environments.

4.b.e Accessibility to Amenities:

Mumbai offers a wide range of amenities within walking distance in many neighborhoods, including markets, schools, healthcare facilities, and public transit options. However, disparities in access to amenities exist, particularly in informal settlements and underserved areas.

While Mumbai possesses inherent qualities that contribute to its walkability, including its vibrant street life, mixed land uses, and diverse urban fabric, several challenges persist. Improving pedestrian infrastructure, enhancing safety measures, promoting mixed land uses, and fostering community engagement are essential steps to enhance Mumbai’s walkability.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, urban planners, community organizations, and residents must collaborate to prioritize pedestrian-friendly initiatives, allocate resources effectively, and implement innovative solutions to create a more walkable and inclusive city for all. By harnessing the potential of walkability, Mumbai can unlock opportunities for sustainable urban development, improve public health, reduce traffic congestion, and enhance the overall quality of life for its residents.

5.Renewable Energy Initiatives:

Transitioning to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power can help Mumbai reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Implementing rooftop solar panels, solar water heaters, and wind turbines in public spaces and buildings can harness clean energy and reduce carbon emissions. Investing in renewable energy infrastructure not only contributes to a greener energy mix but also creates job opportunities and stimulates economic growth in the renewable energy sector. If cities like Düsseldorf in Germany, where sunlight not during all the 12 months of the year, can reward its citizens for solar panels on their rooftops, Mumbai can surely do better with offering such incentives to cooperative housing societies, apartments and residential and commercial buildings. 

6.Coastal Cleanup Initiatives:

Mumbai’s coastline is a precious natural asset that requires careful preservation and management. Coastal cleanup initiatives play a crucial role in mitigating marine pollution and safeguarding the health of marine ecosystems. Organized beach cleanups, public awareness campaigns, and stricter enforcement of waste management regulations are essential components of these efforts. By actively engaging citizens and stakeholders in coastal cleanup activities, Mumbai can protect its beaches, promote ecotourism, and enhance the overall quality of life for residents.

7.Sustainable Transportation:

Transitioning towards sustainable transportation modes such as public transit, and cycling can significantly reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion in Mumbai. Investing in EV infrastructure, expanding public transit networks, and promoting initiatives like carpooling and ride-sharing can make transportation more environmentally friendly and accessible to all residents. Additionally, pedestrian-friendly infrastructure can encourage active modes of transportation and improve road safety across the city. Introducing a one-day carpooling initiative, where private cars must have a minimum of four passengers, can significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in Mumbai. By incentivizing carpooling for a specific day, such as a designated “Carpool Day,” authorities can encourage commuters to share rides and reduce the number of vehicles on the road. This initiative not only promotes sustainable transportation practices but also fosters a sense of community and cooperation among residents. Incentives such as discounted tolls, priority parking, or public recognition for participating vehicles can further encourage widespread participation in the carpooling initiative.

8.Green Getaways Near Mumbai:

Encouraging residents to explore green getaways and nature-based destinations near Mumbai can foster a deeper connection with the natural world. From national park to eco-resorts and agro-tourism sites, there are numerous green getaways within a short distance from the city. By promoting sustainable tourism practices and supporting local communities, Mumbai can showcase the richness of its natural heritage and encourage responsible travel behavior among residents and visitors alike. All the tourism resorts, hotels and agrofarms which follow the sustainable tourism practices must be incentivized by subsidized taxes or tax holidays for a decade to promote green gateways.

9.Waste Reduction Campaigns:

Mumbai generates approximately 8,000-10,000 metric tons of waste per day. This waste is collected by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) and disposed of in landfills or through incineration. The city has been facing challenges in managing its waste due to the increasing population and limited space for landfills.  Implementing waste reduction campaigns and promoting responsible waste management practices can help Mumbai minimize its environmental footprint and alleviate pressure on landfills. Public awareness initiatives, waste segregation programs, and incentives for recycling and composting can encourage residents and businesses to adopt sustainable waste management practices. By reducing waste generation and promoting a circular economy, Mumbai can move towards a more sustainable and resilient future.

10.Environmental Awareness Events:

Hosting environmental awareness events and educational workshops can empower citizens to take action on environmental issues and contribute to positive change in their communities. From tree planting drives and eco-festivals to sustainability seminars and clean-up campaigns, there are numerous opportunities to engage residents and raise awareness about pressing environmental challenges. By fostering a culture of environmental stewardship and civic engagement, Mumbai can mobilize collective efforts towards building a greener and more resilient city for future generations.

These initiatives, when implemented effectively and collaboratively, have the potential to transform Mumbai into a thriving biophilic city that prioritizes the well-being of its residents and the environment. By adapting to nature-inspired design principles, promoting sustainable practices, and fostering a culture of environmental stewardship, Mumbai can lead the way towards a more harmonious relationship between urban life and the natural world.


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