Every breath you take

Published: 01 November, 2013 15:18 IST | Fatema Pittalwala |

In the congested concrete jungle that is our home, even a hint of breeze comes as relief. And yet, Mumbai's open spaces its lungs, as some call them are fast vanishing. The result has taken a toll on our quality of life

The city with the big heart has ailing lungs. Over time, we have suffocated Mumbai’s open spaces with high-rises, malls and parking spots. Poor availability of open spaces is one of the many reasons Mumbaikars feel disillusioned about their city. There aren’t enough parks to stroll in and grounds to play in, not to mention the city’s green cover.

Before the OCRA committee took over; Oval Maidan was a hub for prostitutes and druggies. Pic/ Atul Kamble

With over 19 million residents, Mumbai is well known to be a packed city. Being jostled in crowded spaces is a part of our daily life. But unlike other crowded cities in the world, like Tokyo or Mexico City or cities in India like New Delhi and Ahemdabad, Mumbai does not have enough open and public space to compensate for the lack of personal space. Open spaces like parks, waterfalls, gardens and so on, does not only affect the physical well-being of a person but also has a large impact on their psychological well-being. Gardens and beaches are known to be stress-busters and a great place to unwind.

Today most of the city’s children are confined to home or in tiny concrete playing spaces. Pic/Suresh K K

As per the open space policy of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), 2,398 acres of space is reserved for parks, gardens and recreation grounds. But in reality not even 50 per cent or 2.1 per cent of Mumbai’s land is acquired by the MCGM. Most of the ‘open’ space is encroached upon. Of the open space available, 60 per cent is neither developed nor accessible, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Environment Improvement Society found.

Of Mumbai’s 30 square kilometres of open space, only 10 square kilometres is available and being used a minuscule 0.88 square metres, or approximately just 9 square feet, per person. According to P K Das, architect and activist, a change in mindset of the people, along with not-so-radical changes in the development plan, can make this city very eco-sensitive and a sustainable urbanized centre to live in.

Poor planning, haphazard construction and unabated encroachment of public spaces have resulted in deteriorating living conditions for the city’s residents in terms of air, light and healthy environment. Although the city’s total open space is small, most Mumbai residents are within walking distance of some open space. However, factors like insufficient visibility, poor signage and lack of access from roads restrict the use of some of these spaces. Mumbai is also underutilizing its natural assets, including its 35-kilometre western coastline and the 50-square-kilometre national park.

Das says, “We need plans that redefine the ‘notion’ of open spaces to go beyond gardens and recreational grounds - to include the vast, diverse natural assets of our cities, including rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, exhausted quarries, mangroves, wetlands, beaches and seafronts. Plans that aim to create non-barricaded, non-exclusive, non-elitist spaces that provide access to all citizens. The objective for any city should be to expand its open spaces by identifying its natural assets, preserving them and designing them to turn into public spaces for recreation.”

Popular Malabar Hill resident Anita Garware recently organized an ‘Art in the Park’ festival at Priyadarshini Park on Napean Sea Road. The two-day festival was held with an aim to share neighbourly love and create an example for preserving open spaces in other areas of the city. She says, “The idea is to encourage residents to think and act like a cohesive community, revive traditional culture and make proper use of public spaces within the legal framework.

This festival is not charged, held in public spaces, and acts like an equalizer. We had people from all kinds of backgrounds attend the event. Art in the Park is an event where, irrespective of your caste, creed, social background, age, sex and so on, everyone can participate. It is a participatory event, where every individual can actually be a part of activities and not just a bystander.”

Like Garware, many citizens have taken it upon themselves to protect the open spaces in their area. One of the NGOs working in this direction is CitiSpace, which undertook a survey of Reserved Public Open Spaces, completed this year. About 1,800 spaces in the city were surveyed. The first phase of the survey was published in a book entitled Breathing Space: A Fact File of 600 Reserved Public Open Spaces of Greater Mumbai in June 2010. “When you look at Mumbai, the first thing you notice is its population.

Our city is highly populated,” says Neera Punj, convenor of CitiSpace. “Now at the same time, when you look at our area as compared to our population, it is almost a joke. Open spaces directly reflect a good quality of life. It helps with the mental, psychological and physical development of people. Open spaces give us an opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds. If you see Marine Drive, you will see people from across the city. It is always crowded at any time of the day.”

Knowing that it is difficult to get things done in the city, she says, “Sometimes we see that between high rises, there are little pockets of land. These are, firstly, not accessible to locals, and also sometimes people are not aware about these places. Secondly, if such places remained unused, they are abused and used for commercial use. Residents always go, oh my gosh, look what happened to that street or look what happened to that park or look what the MCGM is doing/not doing.

I feel that citizens should be more involved in their community’s well-being. They should be more aware and they should question more. Residents should form associations and organizations, and go to the relevant authority to get the work done. Also, with all the open spaces that are available, they have to be well maintained. Basic things like electricity, water, grass, security and so on are needed. Keep it simple but provide the basic things. I know it’s not a cake-walk. But change is possible with adequate persuading.”

Clinical psychologist, Nita Mehta says, “Lack of open spaces in our city has definitely created a problem, not only for children but also for adults. In the past 10 years I have noticed the children are not participating in outdoor activities. Their lifestyle has become more sedentary, due to which behavioural problems are caused and kids eventually lead the same lifestyle in their adulthood. When children don’t involve themselves with outdoor activities, they tend to be loners and keep to themselves. They are more dependent and kids today don’t reach out to their parents, teachers or family. They don’t tend to share their emotions and experiences.”

She continues, “I have seen children telling me, I love cycling and swimming or I love running. But sadly today, in our city with lack of open spaces, kids are not given the opportunity to go out and play. They need open spaces for basic exposure. This basic exposure is life’s best teacher for a child. They will learn more about things than they do in schools. But where are the open spaces?

According to developmental therapist Anuja Gawde, many kids today are hyperactive, clumsy and distracted. With no parks or grounds to play in, they have a lot of bottled-up energy. Due to of this, kids also tend to be more impulsive. Exercises like mild jumping, swinging or hopping are encouraged to release their bottled-up energies.

Playgrounds and schools are the only place where a child-to-child interaction takes place. Since we all are social animals, this interaction is very important. “Another reason why open spaces are very important today is because they are a great equalizer. Children from all background learn to play with one another, and children also learn to be cooperative and accommodate each other.

President of the Malabar Hill Citizen Association, B A Desai says, “Today Mumbai is filled with cars and buildings. It is concrete jungle with a lot of pollution. Open spaces are not just required but they are necessary. They are our lungs. Today for a child, a flat is a prison. A child has no place to play and grow. Whenever I see a family come into the park, the children are always holding their parents’ hands. But once they are in, they let go and they run. Kids feel free and they need space to run.”

Lamenting the entry fee at parks and grounds, Desai says, “Sadly, today parks charge entry fees. I am completely against that, as a park should be free for all. Fresh air and good health is everyone’s fundamental right, and parks are on the only way to get these. Though our city does not have a lot of open space, we citizens don’t even utilize what we have! There is no community participation in preserving and at time, even acknowledging an open space. Communities and societies should come together and form associations and NGOs to save open spaces.”

Steps you can take to preserve open space
Open spaces should be physically visible
The quality of open spaces is also important. Overgrown grass, broken benches are not acceptable
Once the open space is identified, if there are encroachments the people responsible should be asked to move out
Residents should form an association and request the MCGM for their rightly deserved open space
If matters get worse, residents’ associations can contact various NGO groups fighting for open spaces in the city
Know your rights. File an RTI application and get the information to fight your case
Communities should work together to preserve and maintain an open space

Citizens act for land

First Pasta Lane, Colaba
Residents and tourists alike today are pleasantly surprised and pleased to see the block of garden space among the densely stacked apartments in the heart of Colaba. It all began 24 years ago when residents started raising their voice against an eatery’s kitchen, a godown and a garage that were encroaching on the land. Though the movement initially fizzled out, an RTI enquiry in 2006 by the First Pasta Lane Association revealed that the BMC had acquired three plots in 1974 for recreational spaces. Along with the NGO CitiSpace, the residents’ association filed a case against the BMC and in January 2006, the High Court ordered the BMC to ask its tenants to vacate the premises. With about 120 court appearances made on various counts, finally the kitchen was demolished.


In 1998, the bhelwallas moved the High Court against the BMC’s orders to demolish their stall. In reality, this movement was not so much to save their open space, as it was to save their income. In March 2001, a committee was appointed to plan out an improvement plan for the beach. This led to structures such as the bhel plaza and subsequently changed the daily Mumbaikar’s experience at Chowpatty beach. The improvement plan included gardens, beach cleanup, play area, water sports, restaurants and so on. Even today the committee continues to have a say in all of the beach activities.

Oval Maidan, Churchgate
Till 1997, Oval Maidan, named because of its shape, was owned and run by the state government and was poorly maintained. It was frequented by beggars, prostitutes and drug peddlers. In 1997 the area, under the Oval Cooperage Residents Association (OCRA), petitioned the Maharashtra government to maintain it. The government did not respond, and the group took it to the High Court. The court ruled in their favour, forcing the government to either maintain the maidan or hand it over to the OCRA. The ground was subsequently handed over to the OCRA. The OCRA fenced the ground and built a jogging track around the periphery. A lane was made across the ground to facilitate thoroughfare, and the maidan where Sachin Tendulkar played is a now popular recreational ground in the city.

According to CitiSpace convenor Neera Punj, during a recent MCGM meeting, a committee was formed to deal with concerns about open spaces in Mumbai. The members will include officials from MCGM and Government of Maharashtra, activists and various NGOs and architects. This committee’s aim is to not only create more availability of open spaces in the city, but also preserve and maintain the existing open spaces. Also, recognizing different water bodies such as creeks and rivers, and their maintenance, is on their agenda. 

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