Mill-ion dollar question

While local architects and planners debate on whether redevelopment is a boon or bane for the city, the 4th International Holcim Forum concluded recently in Powai. The forum was organised by the Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction, a Switzerland-based non-profit organisation that promotes ways in which architecture, engineering, urban planning and construction can work towards building a sustainable future for various countries.

Abandoned mills stand next to housing built for rehabilitation of mill workers. Pics/Asha Mahadevan

More than 320 delegates from all over the world attended the three-day event to discuss various aspects related to the forum’s main agenda: Economy of Sustainable Construction. This was the first time Mumbai hosted the event.

One of the topics discussed was ‘Compact city - Sustainable or just sustaining economic law?’ A compact city is a city designed in such a way that it will have a pretty high residential density and an efficient public transport system. Amenities are located near each other so a citizen won’t have to commute far distances.

Forum participants get an overview of the mills

This is considered to be an advantage, but according to Gwendolyn Kerschbaumer, Head of Research at Laboratoire Bale, “What is saved (on commute) is spent on leisure travel and goods. So the ecological footprint depends on the disposable income.” In compact cities, prices for housing are quite high. This compels people to live in smaller areas, “leading to overcrowding, causing health issues.”

Dr Shlomo Angel, a professor at the New York University, said that in Mumbai, the local train system is monocentric - it has lines running from the perimeter to the centre and there are no commuter lines between suburbs. So you can’t take a direct train from Mulund to Andheri. “The system should be made more polycentric.

Build bridges (connecting the suburbs), Chinese style, not the Indian style as that takes too long,” he said to chuckles from the audience. The next speaker was Rahul Mehrotra, who is a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, USA. “Planning in Mumbai has become rear garde instead of avant garde - we are still mopping up our mistakes,” he said, adding, “The city extends itself to accommodate expansion according to need.” That’s why the same ground is used to play cricket and host a wedding.

Site visit
On Day 2 of the symposium, the 60-odd delegates who attended the discussions about the compact city toured three sites - the Hiranandani Gardens at Powai, the old mills in Lower Parel and the reconstruction project at Bhendi Bazaar. Mumbai-based urbanist Prasad Shetty guided the tour group. After a drive through Hiranandani Gardens, the bus made its way to the now defunct textile mills at Lower Parel. Shetty said, “In the 1930s, about two-thirds of the labour in the city worked in textile mills. Twenty-five per cent of the labour force was female.

The workers’ homes were next to the mills, so women found it convenient to work and take care of their families.” A walk through the leafy lane adjacent to the mill reveals families living in small apartments surrounding a courtyard. The courtyard was an important feature of such housing. It was, and still is in the few such housing left, the main area for the residents to get together for community activities. “The mills were the backbone of the city’s economy till the 1980s,” said Shetty.

Era ends
By the 1980s, the mill owners realised that the land the mill stood on was more valuable than the mill and they began to shut down the mills. “It was tough for labour, who had no other skill, to move to another job. The unions’ resistance that earlier worked for fair wages, now struggled to revive the industry. By the 1990s, the government stated there is no place for industries in the city,” said Shetty as he took the group through a slideshow presentation at a former mill that is now being redeveloped.

Governments and private institutions have drawn successive plans to help convert the mill area into a much needed open space for the city, but so far, all of them have failed to arrive at a consensus. In fact, several mills have been redeveloped into malls and luxury housing. While standing on the terrace of one such building, a delegate from Mexico asked Shetty what is the rate of floor space in the redeveloped residential building, and was shocked when told it works out to between Rs 25,000 and Rs 30,000 per square foot.

New beginnings
From Lower Parel, the group visited the last site of the tour, Bhendi Bazaar, to look at the redevelopment planned for the area. The project, called the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project, aims to revitalise Bhendi Bazaar by demolishing unsafe dilapidated buildings (most of them are more than 100 years old) and constructing highrises and increasing open spaces for its residents.

When asked whether that wouldn’t kill the charm of the area, Abbas Master, CEO of the project’s executor Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust, said, “Our main objective is to enhance the quality of life for the residents. Charm is mainly for the people coming from outside. For the residents, it (living here) is a very difficult thing.” 

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