Fiona Fernandez Column: Marine Drive musings

Fiona FernandezThe timing couldn't have been more apt. Last week, residents of Marine Drive went into celebratory mode, when they saluted their beloved showpiece, the 'Queen's Necklace', arguably, one the city's most iconic landmarks, along with the Gateway of India and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. A hundred years ago, on December 18, work on the famous Kennedy Sea-Face had begun, as a road that was meant to connect Malabar Hill to Fort. The road was extended, with land being reclaimed from the sea, and the rest, remains etched as part of the city's urban history.

I use the word 'apt' because the city is in the grip of countless battles to save spaces. Whether it is gardens and playgrounds or mangroves and heritage precincts, citizens have had to fight tooth and nail to ensure the city doesn't lose its fabric, and its character, lest vested interests bulldoze the city into becoming a pale shadow of its unique identity.

While browsing through the chapter on Marine Drive in Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl an exhaustive, fascinating title by respected city architect, Kamu Iyer, this columnist got a fair idea of the thought, dialogue and debate that went into planning Marine Drive – the sweep of its buildings, its promenade and the sea wall. Of course, it wasn't all smooth sailing in those days even. Drafts, redrafts, master plans, alternate plans, cost escalations and charges of corruption dogged each step of work on the prestigious landmark. Yet, historians, town planners, architects and chroniclers who have studied this humongous plan from start to end will more or less agree that it was conceived and built keeping specific aspects and elements in mind. Façades and roofings were discussed, street plans and architectural blueprints were tabled, heights of buildings as well gaps in between to allow sea breeze to benefit the inner city were debated to no end. At the end of it, one factor was clear – that the city was at the centre of the idea.

All of this, sadly, remains a far cry from what is happening today. One look at the frenetic pace in which boroughs and neighbourhoods have been at the receiving end of crass redevelopment and planning makes one stare at the uncomfortable reality. Be it the Dadar-Matunga stretch, Bandra or parts of central Mumbai, the changing skyline is a frightening indicator of the extent of disfiguration that the city faces, relentlessly.

Public memory is short, agreed. But the optimist that one is, we hope that with this renewed interest in the city's first planned promenade will act as an invaluable, timely lesson (read: wake-up call) and nudge planners and the powers to ensure that Mumbai doesn't become one of India's many concrete jungles, minus the soul.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana

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