Monday, May 25, 2015

Public space and a sense of community - Growing up in Mumbai

- by Deepa Krishnan

Yesterday I explored Mumbai with a group of 6 urban planning experts from around the world. In the morning we visited south and central Mumbai, seeing how the city gradually expanded northwards from its small beginnings in the Fort area. After lunch, we went to Navi Mumbai, taking in all the changes that have happened in Airoli, Turbhe, Belapur, Kharghar and Vashi. I saw 500 years of Mumbai's growth, all compressed into a single day.

By the end of the day, I had developed an acute awareness of "public spaces" in Mumbai.

By public spaces, I don't only mean places like the huge Oval Maidan or the popular Marine Drive. I mean space for activities at the neighbourhood level, such as small gardens, places for people to walk or jog, areas for holding community meetings, etc. 

As a child growing up in Sion and Matunga, I had access to many such public spaces. 

Our home in Sion was right next to Sion Fort, and we spent many happy evenings running around there with friends and cousins. There was an "aeroplane garden" there, where we clambered in and out of a concrete art-deco mock-aeroplane. There was a "waterfall" which came cascading down the side of the hill, and we loved climbing it when it was dry. 
With my cousins at Sion Fort
Because of the specifications mandated by the City Improvement Trust, our building stood in a compound of its own. All the buildings in our neighbourhood similarly stood in their own compounds, and each compound had a maximum of only 12 apartments. These compounds formed another type of public space, where everyone knew each other.

There were no cars parked inside our compound, so we had space to play hide-and-seek, marbles, cricket and lagori. We plucked flowers and leaves, and played "ghar ghar".  (A couple of years ago, I came across a building in Matunga, where these girls were running around plucking flowers in the compound; it reminded me of my childhood).
Each building is set in its own compound
Our compound was larger than the one in the photo above. We could string up a net and play badminton. We hosted fun-fairs in the compound. We had a 'club' in the building, where we played carrom in the evenings. We flew kites on our building terrace, gathered there with friends to dry fatakadas for Diwali, and eagerly bombarded each other with balloons on Holi.

But the compound could not really meet all the recreational needs of its children. Older children played cricket on the streets. We were in a quiet lane. There were very few cars in those days, so cricket could be played all day long, with only the occasional interruption by a passing Fiat or Ambassador. In fact, even today, cricket is played in our lane on Sundays.

In Sion, there were many venues for cultural events nearby. We went to dance and music performances at Shanmukhananda Hall and Mysore Association. Children learnt musical instruments, singing and dancing at the Tamil Sangam and various dance schools. We celebrated Ganesh festival and Navratri in small building pandals in the neighbourhood. We enacted skits and dance-dramas for Rama Navami at the temples in Matunga. Because of all these cultural activities, we met many other kids from our neighbourhood.

In fact, when I think about my childhood in the city, I now realise how much public space was available to me! I spent a lot of time outside the home, in the neighbourhood. I now realise how these public spaces influenced my experience of the city. They helped me form friendships and community bonds, and they created in me, a sense of civic and cultural identity.

In the last 8 years or so, I have been exploring the older residential areas in south Mumbai. The more I ventured into the older districts - Dongri, Kalbadevi, Bhuleshwar - the more I felt the lack of  public spaces. The biggest difference I felt was the lack of the "compound". In the older districts, there are houses and shops, all touching each other, with shop wares spilling out on already narrow streets. These older districts have no spacious pavements. They have very few trees. There are no gardens; and there are no places for children to bicycle or to play. 
Jagannath Shankar Seth Road, going from Metro to Kalbadevi. See how the buildings are all stuck together.
Bhuleshwar Road. Shops and residences on both sides, stalls spilling over on the street, no access to pavements.
Although there are no major public spaces for leisure, these older districts do have a distinct sense of shared community and culture. Since people from each religious community cluster together, there is a cultural identity. The community somehow manages to create shared experiences, especially during festivals. Mosques and temples offer physical space for people to come together. Places like the Jain panjrapole offer not just peace and quiet but also the chance to feed and care for animals.

Here is a peep into a quiet temple at Bhuleshwar. In the compound, I often see Gujarati women chatting.
Community space seen through temple door
Here is another example: the local residents have pooled money to decorate this lane in the Chor Bazaar area for a festival. There is a mosque inside the lane.
Mutton Street all decked up
Here's another photo, this one is from Girgaon's now famous Padwa celebrations. The processions begin at the Phadke Mandir (Ganesh temple) and continue through the streets of area. 
Families watching Gudi Padwa processions at Girgaon
In Navi Mumbai, a very different sort of development has taken place. Everything is very large-scale and spread out when compared to Mumbai. The stations are huge. The distances between stations are also significant. But the most striking feature of Navi Mumbai is that there are very few people around, compared to Mumbai.

Among the most impressive places I visited was Central Park in Khargar. It has 300 acres of green space, lots of trees, open areas, a water body, etc. What a boon to the residents. So much open space, and that too, available to the common man. In a city that doesn't have good ratio of public spaces per person, this is really a welcome development.
But will a sense of community form? Will these places - with wide open streets and modern amenities produce a shared sense of civic belonging? Will people form fond attachments to their neighbourhood? It is too soon to tell.

The scale of things in Navi Mumbai is huge. This sort of scale is ideal if you have private cars to go from one place to another; but it can be intimidating when you have to walk long distances just to get home from the train station. Deserted streets with no street-stalls or hawkers de-humanise the place, and stop you from connecting emotionally with it. It especially makes things very difficult for women. A certain scale has to be achieved; yes, but it has to be the right scale, so that small communities form easily.

My personal belief is that our religious spaces - temples, derasars, mosques, churches and gurudwaras - form the cultural core of a new settlement. We are still a very religiously oriented people. Our food and dietary habits are very community-specific and we want markets which can cater to those special requirements. If an area offers the right combination of prayer house + bazaars, it will attract new residents who will form a close-knit community, rather than just a culture-less homogenous urban mass of people. Such people will celebrate festivals, set up cultural associations, and provide a sense of identity to the area. People who live there will develop an attachment to that area.

I'm not sure where Navi Mumbai's new large-scale settlements are heading, or what sort of communities are forming. I really don't know the area well enough. But I am very keen to see how it all plays out. I will be going back there, to check it out more.

6 comments:

Haddock said...

I remember going to that Sion Fort long back.
The lack of space (especially for kids to play and form a bonding) is a matter of concern. Like you said "will people form fond attachments to their neighbourhood?"

Pedro B. Ortiz said...

The large metropolis are like a set of russian matryoshka dolls. They have several scales of city inside each other. Public spaces have to grow from small semi-public compounds, providing service to the domestic scale, to large protected forests with wild animals, for the metropolitan scale and beyond. The smaller the scale the most local community must be involved.
Mumbai has the capacity and the potential to set up right that matryoshka collection. Hope it does.

Dadoji said...

Oh, how I miss that Sion Fort waterfall!

In the older city as well the concept of compound existed in a few places if not everywhere. For example, the "waadi"s and chawls one gets to see in Girgaon area had there large internal spaces where Ganeshotsav etc are celebrated till date. On the other hand they had little to no space between the building and the wall or next building thus giving rise to the famous "gutters".

In Navi Mumbai etc parks will play a role I am sure but generally speaking I have observed greater bonding in clubs than parks (e.g. at Matunga). I am sure Navi Mumbai won't be much different.

Studio Vision said...

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Studio Vision said...

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Vijaya said...

Beautiful observation