If you look left while crossing Haji Ali into Worli, the brightly lit ground floor showroom of a well-known auto major is emblazoned with the words â€œimproving the quality of lifeâ€. You canâ€™t miss it, because this is a congested junction, with cars queueing up at the next signal to ascend the Worli Fly-Over. Stuck in the gridlock, youâ€™re forced to ponder the shiny cars and hopeful slogan, and try and forget the honking horns, choking exhaust fumes, and street kids trying to sell you fashion magazines, before the signal changes.
Surely the guys at McKinsey and Bombay First, who must also get stuck in traffic jams, would appreciate the irony. Their recent report on making the city â€œworld-classâ€ â€” and yes, improving its â€œquality of lifeâ€ â€” has just joined the long queue of studies, reports, and consultancies on the cityâ€™s ascent to becoming a global city. Recent changes at the state and centre have shown the government is increasingly keen to step in and clear the traffic on the road to Mumbai 2010. Plans and strategies that piled up for decades are beginning to move, and the authorities are trying to play traffic cop between contending visions of the cityâ€™s future.
While McKinsey is a recent entrant into the global game of urban brand-building, city architects and planners are its most usual suspects. For the past several years, the media and corporate world in Mumbai have been arguing over the â€œdeath of the cityâ€. There seems to be neither enough money nor political will to tackle the monstrous problems of housing, transport, infrastructure, and the cityâ€™s slipping position in the global economy. Visions of Mumbai have been stuck between the apathy of our elected representatives â€” the politicians â€” and the elitism of our un-elected representatives â€” the NGOs. While thereâ€™s no sign that state politicians have stopped milking the cityâ€™s wealth, or self-proclaimed â€œcitizens groupsâ€ have ceased approaching the courts to solve the problems in their backyards, the past few years have seen hopeful changes. During this time, a handful of professional architects have stood between bickering politicians and anxious residents, crafting their visions of urban renewal through shifting alliances with diverse clientele â€” from social movements and NGOs to the cocktail circuit and the corporate world (or as Hafeez Contractor puts it, â€œeveryone from god-men to con-menâ€).
Architects are a unique breed of image makers and public intellectuals. Today styling themselves as â€œurban designersâ€, they market visions of turning Mumbai into Shanghai, London, or Gotham City with a few broad strokes. Often treating the city as a blank canvas, their visions frequently resemble science fiction fantasy or picture postcard nostalgia, and are a genre of story-telling which goes back several generations. The late Mulk Raj Anand founded the magazine Marg with a bold vision of a twin city across the harbour â€” likening urban planning to dreaming, and intoning that â€œin dreams lie responsibilityâ€. Forty years later, with the city still mostly growing northwards into Gujarat, rather than eastwards into Maharashtra, architects are still dreaming more than planning.
Two of the largest land-holders in the city â€” the central government-owned Port Trust and National Textile Corporation â€” regard the recent initiatives by architects to redevelop their Dock Lands and Mill Lands as a lot of wishful thinking. Similarly, heritage enthusiasts have consistently failed to devise realistic financial strategies for building conservation, but are the first to protest when a picturesque bungalow faces demolition. To be fair, this is not the fault of the architects â€” the functioning of the cityâ€™s land, housing and employment markets reveals the limits of their vision-making. Beautifully designed buildings and public spaces are good for real estate values, but the same property market excludes the majority of the cityâ€™s population from access to affordable housing and secure tenure.
A higher quality of life requires more than just beautification of parks and monuments, and a smooth drive to the international airport â€” what McKinsey calls â€œquick winsâ€. Serious plans for improving the supply of credit, generating employment, and reforming local institutions are relegated to the footnotes of their Vision Mumbai, and most other vision statements. The roots of our civic malaise lies not in the inevitable decline and death of the city, but in our inability to understand and manage its relentless expansion. While planners and architects have a role to play in the ongoing debate on the cityâ€™s growth, a more comprehensive and accountable public vision is required to clear the traffic jam towards Mumbai 2010. You cannot cut the queue to the departure lounge.
Originally published as Mumbai Vision 2010: Reporting the Future in TimeOut Mumbai, 19 November to 2 December 2004