Cities aren’t only identified by their monuments or signature buildings. A tale on the city of New York is more likely to feature someone on a skateboard in one of the parks around the city or an example of London shall most probably refer to Kensington Palace garden. Open spaces are defined as areas that are green, accessible and open to the sky. Urban studies use a vast number of formal terms and definitions to refer to ‘urban open and green spaces,’ including green space, urban greenery, open space, public space, public gardens and parks. In cities around the globe, it is proved that transforming public spaces markedly affects the diversity of what people do in them. 

The idea that public space is a public good that belongs to everybody has been increasingly challenged in recent years with the rise of privately owned public spaces. Cities fail when they are not designed for everyone. For a city to be good to its residents, those in charge of planning and designing have to be aware of how it is being used and what people are doing in its spaces. City Planning have to be focused on and geared towards people’s daily lives.

Over the past decade, many concerns have been raised over the way city’s public spaces have been suffering.  The data of housing ministry under the URDPFI guidelines categorize the open spaces under 3 compartments:

  1. Recreational Space
  2. Organised Green Space
  3. Common Open Spaces 

Mumbai, India’s engine of economy, is spread over 604 sqkm  and, according to the 2011 census, is home to a population of 12 million people. It is imperative to have accessible and sufficient breathing spaces to make Mumbai a smart and sustainable megacity. Nevertheless, Mumbai has an abysmal 1.24 sqm of accessible open space per person, ahead only of Chennai, which stands at 0.81 sqm per capita. In comparison, Delhi has 21.52 sqm and Bangalore has 17.32 sqm of open space per capita. Other global megacities fare better than Mumbai as well; London has 31.68 sqm, New York City has 26.4 sqm and Tokyo has 3.96 sqm of open space per capita. (Data Credit : Sayli Udas Mankikar, Observer Research Foundation)

The 2014-34 development plan for Mumbai, drafted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), bumped up the percentage of open space in the city from 26 percent in 2012 to 46 percent in 2016 by changing the definition of open space. The new plan includes open spaces in the revised definition of ‘environmental’ areas, and views it as areas under coastal regulation zones I (ecologically sensitive areas like mangroves, coral reefs and biosphere reserves) and III (relatively undisturbed areas, and rural and urban areas that are not substantially developed); beaches; areas under nullahs, creeks and rivers; and areas formed because of sedimentation in the city’s creek regions. This revision has put Mumbai at par with Singapore and Sydney, Australia, in terms of percentage of open space. (Data Credit : Sayli Udas Mankikar, Observer Research Foundation) However, most of the newly-added environmental spaces are inaccessible to the people.

Mumbai is an archipelago of seven islands, flanked by the sea on the east and west, and with a designated national park in the north. While there is no defined international benchmark for how much space should be accessible per capita, global organizations have made an effort to set some norms. The WHO has set a minimum limit of 9 sqm of open space per capita in urban areas, the UN has pegged this figure at 30 sqm, and the EU considers 26 sqm of open space per capita as acceptable. In India, planning agencies follow the URDPFI guidelines that suggest that 10-12 sqm per person are desirable. 

 In all, Mumbai has 15.37 sqkm of accessible open space, providing free and fair entry to all citizens. However, accessibility and infrastructure remains a concern for many of the open spaces, recreation grounds and parks. The inaccessible spaces, such as those occupied by private organizations having controlled access, add about 128.41 sqkm of open space for the city.

Although Mumbai’s total geographical area is 458.28 sqkm, the BMC’s 2014-34 development plan covers only 415.05 sqkm. The rest falls under the state’s special purpose authorities such as the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA), and under state and central agencies such as the district collectors, Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), Mumbai Port Trust, AAI and the Indian Railways. The BMC’s current land use shows that open spaces form 3.7 percent of the total area of the city. The current development plan aims to achieve an open space standard of 4 sqm per capita for the entire city.  (Data Credit: MCGM)

It is suggested that rather than a narrow-focus adoption and caretaker policy, there should be one overarching open spaces policy for all plots. The umbrella policy should go far beyond the issue of jurisdiction and ownership of these spaces, which currently lies with the central government, state government and Municipal Corporation.

Bringing together complementary policy instruments could be far more effective than banking on one single narrow-focus open spaces policy to solve the issue of public spaces in Mumbai. A successful smart city with sufficient and well-maintained open spaces will be backed by a policy that encompasses all other spheres such as urban renewal, housing and transport. It is essential to understand that the policies to protect open spaces go hand-in-hand with those that manage urban growth. Thus, innovative regulatory approaches in urban growth must be introduced to ensure that amenities and facilities are available to residents of cities like Mumbai, which is observing rapid development.

It is felt that there is a need to tackle the problem of overlapping territories and responsibilities between the authorities and parastatal agencies on issues like open spaces. For lands belonging to the central or state governments, an arrangement must be made with the BMC for these spaces to be kept open and used by people while the ownership remains with the respective agency.

It is respectfully suggested that besides creating a new open space ‘garden’ policy, the BMC and Maharashtra government shall consider the very pillars—the constitutional amendments, the Acts and plans—on which the policy stands to ensure a green future for this megacity.

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