The ‘idea’ of Bandra

Published January 2012 in Evergreen Rachana, Journal for Design, Art, Architecture, Environment & Planning at the Academy of Architecture, Rachana Sansad, Mumbai

Following is an edited transcript of a live discussion, Zameer Basrai in conversation with Nandita Patel (Of Thinking Mumbai), ‘Why should Bandra care: Does conserving and regenerating Ranwar make a difference to our lives?’ held on Sunday, 15 May, 2011 at the Carter Road Amphitheatre, Bandra (W).  The event was hosted by Thinking Mumbai: The foundation for building community through the arts and literature and Marico Evenings. The event was free and open to the public.

Acknowledgements: Nandita Patel for hosting the show, asking the right questions and discussing every little thing in detail beforehand. The Martha’s Vineyard Commision, for providing an invaluable precedent to the project. Vivek Sheth for his meticulous research on Ranwar and everything surrounding it. TheBusride Design Studio for sponsoring and guiding Vivek’s research. Aldo Van Eyck and Kevin Lynch for producing remarkable ideas for a better city.

NP: Why should Ranwar or any other heritage precinct in Mumbai—or across India—be conserved and regenerated?

ZB: I assume you ask this question in a rhetorical sense so I’ll answer it in the abstract followed by a personal account. Conserving heritage always raises questions of value and meaning. What and how much value do we assign to heritage in the city? First the British Fort, then the mills, the chawls, now villages. What do all these precincts mean to us today? Are they just relics of the city’s past? At some point after independence Fort, Bombay was going to be torn down to make way for the city’s new financial district. It was perceived as a symbol of oppression, of British imperialism. Now can you imagine Bombay without the fort? It has become so intrinsic to the character of the city.

We need to understand that the city is an organism. It grows. People grow with it. Value and meanings change, they aren’t undone. The city doesn’t start from zero each time. That’s because poeple’s associations with places have very deep roots. Conservation is a method for mediating change. In fact it delays change, so that we get a chance to re-assess if change is good or bad. We do realize that Bandra is changing. And we also realize that we are steadily losing some things precious in Bandra. I am sure the urgency is felt unanimously. Simply put, the question is: “We love our life in Bandra, how can we keep it that way?” We aren’t only saving the buildings here, we are saving a quality of life that we have come to cherish. We do believe, very strongly, that the architecture of Ranwar is intrinsically bound to life in Ranwar. And that places like Ranwar are microcosms of the idea of bandra.

At a personal level, Ranwar for us is simply about immediacy. We have sensed an urgency to act. Mediocre buildings have replaced beautiful cottages. A certain sense of street, and a pedestrian scale is lost. High compound walls  restrict views from the streets. Bandra has always taken pride in its environment. We feel that if nothing is done now bandra will be any other suburb in no time.

NP: Who are Ranwar’s stakeholders? Please list them. What’s in it for each of them if Ranwar is conserved and regenerated? Please list every perspective.

ZB: We are new to these processes. There are stakeholders we know and many we are going to find out about. Each time you try to do something, you find out a few more stakeholders in the project. We cleaned up a small vacant patch of land  (with a toilet on it) outside our studio, painted it, put a few potted plants and a bench to create a small public sitout. Within 12 days of its making, it was demolished and a small single-room building was built in its place. Its as though we had unlocked the true potential of the toilet. We concluded: The primary stakeholders are the residents of Ranwar. A few weeks after the demolition, we set out to design a public garden on an existing dumping ground and this time with complete support from the residents. We cleaned up the site. Within half a day, the police came and stopped work, threatening to put the workers away. It has become a dumping ground ever since. We concluded: You cant just go around making public gardens without the proper permissions from the government and the police.

To list the stakeholders we know: the primary stakeholders are the residents of Ranwar, land-owners, their children, and their future generations. Next in line, the developers investing in the area. The government, who is largely responsible for the welfare of the people, their safety, and maintaining infrastructure. We must also include the larger community of Bandra in this list, since Ranwar is an important part of the character of the suburb.

Whats in it? In this case we cant be myopic. If its a monetary ‘whats in it’, I am afraid there’s not much in it. In fact conserving Ranwar would only mean added responsibility for each stakeholder. The govt. needs to recognize precincts like Ranwar as distinct from the rest, have a progressive set of agendas. Builders and developers need to be sensitive toward the user, and the environment. And ofcourse, residents need to take an active part in forming what becomes of Ranwar in the near future.

We do not realize how delicate the situation is at the moment. Bandra is on the verge of losing character. There are certain elements of each building, each streetscape, each demographic that lend heavily to this character. Places like Ranwar need to be conserved to keep Bandra unique. Imagine a worst case scenario at Ranwar Square: Demolish the three cottages surrounding the square, build an immaculate tower at the centre of the square that commands views in all directions, and build a high compound wall along Veronica street. Where residents once prayed rosaries, there would be a tower. In place of the cottages, a parking lot. Tell me, how can there be anything in it for anyone? The characterless, odourless, environment cant appeal to residents much longer. Nor can it appeal to developers or the government. We all have to realize that the reason Bandra is such a cherished place is because there is still something (like Ranwar) left from the past, that is influencing our contemporary life for the better. Once that is gone, this life is gone and so is every real estate deal. Whats in the conservation of Ranwar is a list of intangibles: a suburb where there is respect for a way of life, a unique character, goodwill and most importantly community pride (because pride is a highly sustainable emotion).

NP: When stakeholder interests are in conflict in a democracy, how must we arrive at a consensus?  Or, put another way, if the residents of Ranwar are to be included in decisions about Ranwar’s future, how can the government empower their participating and decision-making ability?

ZB: We all know that a single, clear voice is more likely to be heard by people in power, decision makers rather than individual attempts. Consensus is everything. And consensus is built up through dialogue, much like what we are doing here, today. And dialogue between all the stakeholders is essential. These days, mega-politics have obscured a very important relationship between the individual and the government, politicians, and people in power. ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. Somehow our conception of this relationship is completely lost. Is anything i want ever implemented? Can i affect change? Will they even listen?

Bandra has successfully implemented a very significant bottom-up decision making process. Bandra pioneered the ALM (Area/Advanced Locality Management) movement in the sixties and has an active community that takes its own decisions about the environment. Different ALMs have worked in unison to produce projects of great magnitude and complexity. Whether fighting for the Bandra Fort, or against the road widening schemes, and especially with building the promenades, Bandra has used the ALM model in its entirety. Decisions are taken by these de-centralized bodies, and forwarded methodically to the government. We need to use the ALMs to the fullest to make sure we are a united voice.

Another significant method for consensus is public exhibitions. All decisions must be put out for comment, critique and suggestions from the public. The government or any other invested organization must follow this method to build consensus.

But producing a single, clear voice isn’t everything. There needs to be a suitable body formed in the government as well, a commission of sorts that has regulatory powers on par with the planning dept, the public works, housing and development boards etc much like the Urban Arts Commission in Delhi. This body would be committed to the welfare of all the stakeholders, but with a larger, sustainable vision in mind. I have had the privilege of working at one such organization: The Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which as a government institution, audited builder proposals, heard and moderated resident appeals, and advised the planning depts, public works dept, housing and development boards for the benefit of all concerned.

NP: On a broader level, what is the role of the government with regards to policies related to sustainable development in the city? How far along are they towards achieving the goal of sustainability in Mumbai?

ZB: Sustainability has many aspects and can be defined in many ways, for example:

1. Technical, Technological, Infrastructural solutions which the government implements every now and then

2. Resource-based sustainability (that includes issues of heritage), be it natural, built or intangible (community based). The government has been sensitized to this kind of sustainability because almost all resources are becoming scarce.

3. Social sustainability where happiness and quality of life are at the forefront. Pride included. This is obviously resident-driven and not a government initiative.

4. Economic sustainability we are all familiar with. It is the most crucial kind. Somehow, the entire approach to conservation is contradicted by economics. This is something we want to change. We need to start viewing conservation as an economically sustainable practice. Market forces cannot be combated by nostalgia, economically sustainable models have to be developed.

The government (in fact any political organization) recognizes each of the above individually. Where it sometimes fails is to co-relate them. The govt. recognizes technical problems the easiest. It is committed to ‘standards’ of living whether safety, health and sanitation, mobility, communication and access. But there are immediate shortcomings to the technical (non-aesthetic, non-social) approach to sustainability. It is a technical outlook on things that will make an old building a ‘dilapidated or decripit’ structure rather than a ‘heritage’ bldg. So if a roof caves in, we bring the entire building down, and not simply fix it! Another shortcoming of the technical standards approach is in judging happiness or quality of life arguments. A family of 10 living in one of the houses in Ranwar insisting to live in it all together in spite of owning houses all over the city simply because “What better life than this, all our friends are here, we meet every evening for drinks.” Location is everything, because lifestyle depends on it. It doesn’t matter then if you’re squeezed into a small room at night.

At a larger level, there must be form-based rules and design guidelines in place for developing properties in Bandra. So much of Bandra is about the beautiful balconies, about the stylish compound walls, the front gardens, setbacks from the street. With a blanket by-law about balconies being included in FSI calculations, no one in Bandra makes balconies any more. This is just to illustrate how a small technical change impacts the aesthetic of a place.

Sustainability is co-ordination. There are plenty of well-wishing government organizations that are doing good by themselves but aren’t co-ordinated to have maximum impact. I had mentioned the Martha’s Vineyard Commission as a government organization of professionals committed to organizing the various agencies within the government itself. Common direction is required. Heritage, Public works, planning depts, housing, neighborhood management: Far from working with each other they often work in spite of each other. This is the government’s responsibility, to co-ordinate itself.

NP: Please outline some potential win-win solutions for Ranwar, so that if this development model succeeds, it can be replicated elsewhere in the city and country.

ZB: Win-Win. We’ve got a bunch. A couple of years ago we had sponsored a student from NID, Vivek Sheth, to study Ranwar and everything related. His research culminated in a matrix that co-ordinated various needs to produce common solutions. He mentions various scales of intervention from the level of the household to the suburb. I’ll explain two that represent the micro and the macro perspective:

Micro: A significant amount of money is spent on the general upkeep of heritage properties. Many of the houses in Ranwar can afford to rent out a room or are already renting out a room. There are some stunning living rooms and terraces in these houses. One option is to upgrade the space, utilize it completely, rig it up with some technological solutions and then rent it out for much more. Here certain designed elements could help. Our studio designed a 160 sq. ft. apartment with a double bed, a study, a walk-in wardrobe and a walk-in library. Now why wouldn’t someone pay a higher rent for these amenities. It’s what anyone owns in an apartment simply compacted into one room. The second option was to use the space of the house for an event – like a Gypsy Kitchen where a household cooks a home-style meal for some guests (interested in the authentic) and earns a good amount of money either once or twice a week. This way the entire house is not used but spaces accommodate the event when required.

In both cases, there is a small intervention made such that a household benefits monetarily and can afford to maintain a heritage property.

Macro: The macro is Bandra. Ranwar needs Bandra as much as Bandra needs Ranwar. We cannot solve Ranwar’s issues without locating it in Bandra. This is the biggest problem with Khotachiwadi. There is no one around Khotachiwadi that is invested in the place as much as its residents. Ranwar and all the other pakhadis are intrinsic to the character of Bandra. And Bandra must be invested in its sustenance. What we suggest is an area plan, with priority areas, grading and zoning re-assessed. Together with this, an elaborate localized TDR (Transfer Development Rights) system that works only at the scale of Bandra. We decide where we want tall buildings, we decide where we want old cottages, we decide where the commercial areas are, where we want mixed land use, and the clues are already there, we just need to formalize them together. Some things are preserved, some are restored, some are kept in essence, the city is allowed to grow, and people change for the better. What is most important is that life in bandra stays the same.

Nandita Patel is a Mumbai-based opinion columnist who writes about social, political, and environmental issues.

Zameer Basrai is an architect living and working in Bandra. He has been an associate to TheBusride Design Studio since 2006.

All Photography and mapping courtesy: Vivek Sheth

Age of Buildings_Ranwar

Unchanged Built-Scape_Ranwar Village

Built-Scape 2010

Aerial view_Waroda Road

Ranwar Square

Oratory at the Trellis

Grotto

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