Let Streams of Linear Open Spaces Flow Across Urban Landscapes

PK Das, Mumbai. 
12 August 2015

Many voices. Greener cities. Better cities.

Can we re-envision our cities with a stream of linear open spaces, defining a new geography of cities? Can we break away from large, monolithic spaces and geometric structures into fluid open spaces, meandering, modulating and negotiating varying city terrains, as rivers and watercourses do? This way, the new structure of open spaces would relate to and integrate with many more areas and provide access to more people across neighborhoods and the city. Why? Because a linear park passes near more people than a square part of the same size—that is, more people are within a short walk of a linear park than a square one of the same size in the same neighborhood. And linear parks are parks of opportunity. Where would one create a big square park in Mumbai? But streams and other naturally linear features provide opportunities to create park access in an otherwise crowded urban zone.

Over the years, across cities, we have been planning and building parks and gardens and other public spaces as geometric blocks that, in most instances, stand out in sharp contrast to the character of the neighborhoods in which they are placed. Such decisions that impose such blocky parcels of land seem guided by intentions of promoting exclusive spaces, spaces that could be contained and controlled, with access to them regulated. In many urban situations, such blocks have led to class and community polarization due to the very nature of their design and governance structure. A public space has significant socio- political colour that cannot be ignored or masked under the guises of city beautification programs and limited environmental objectives.

Today, we are confronted by many critical questions that need to be answered. Can public spaces in various forms be conceived to harness social and community relationships? Can they bring together the disparate fragments of spaces within cities, otherwise characterized by forced ghettoisation and gated communities? Can sensitive ecological assets that have been classified, colonized, and/or treated as backyards of development programs be put into the public domain and turned into social and cultural fore-courts? How can we alter the established blocks of barricaded spaces and structures into open and clear spaces for all, forever? Can more people freely access and exercise control over common property in order to democratise the ecology of cities? Alternately, can we work towards developing linear structures of open spaces as an answer to many of the above issues, while significantly altering the established, dogmatic order of public spaces in the planning and development of cities?

These are key questions for the future of city building. It may be a tall order, but worth pursuing, as it is rooted in the idea of a new urban rights agenda—governance models that strive to achieve integration, equality, and socio-environmental justice. In most instances, public spaces have been shrinking with city expansion. Open land, including that reserved for gardens and playgrounds, has either been converted by governments for building construction purposes or is being grabbed and developed for real estate projects, as has been experienced in the case of Mumbai. In such an event, collective or community ownership of common spaces becomes crucial for maintaining a desirable balance between open spaces and built-up areas. It is in this regard that linear streams of open spaces achieve significance. This is not to say that larger parcels of land for open spaces are not necessary at all. Rather, that the interesting possibility of linear systems is that small residual or marginal spaces that are often ignored or neglected can be stitched together with other open spaces and natural areas into a larger structure of open spaces. Such an approach would greatly aid our struggle for expanding open spaces in dense cities where open lands are in short supply, helping us to achieve minimum open spaces standards.

Pimpri Chinchwad Networking Plan: Central Park. A network of green corridors and a central park in a plan by this author for Pimpri Chinchwad town in the state of Maharashtra, India. Credit: PK Das & Associates
Pimpri Chinchwad Networking Plan: Central Park. A network of green corridors and a central park in a plan by this author for Pimpri Chinchwad town in the state of Maharashtra, India. Credit: PK Das & Associates

In terms of physical planning, at P.K. Das & Associates we aim to develop contiguous open spaces by interconnecting various facets of areas open to the public. This would produce a network of green corridors throughout the city and its various localities, nourishing community life, neighbourhood engagements, and participation. With public space being the main planning criteria, we hope to bring about a social change: promoting collective culture and rooting out alienation and a false sense of individual gratification promoted by the market. By achieving intensive levels of citizens’ participation, we wish to influence governments to devise comprehensive urban plans and to integrate disparate developments. The ‘open and clear forever’ public space policy will truly symbolize our democratic aspirations. This is a significant way to rebuild humane and environmentally sustainable cities.

In Mumbai, the ‘Mumbai Waterfronts Centre’ and architects PKDas & Associates have made an attempt to re-envision the city by proposing such a linear public spaces structure, bringing together the vast extent of the natural assets and the available open spaces within the city. An illustration of such an idea shows how a system of linear parks and other public spaces can radically alter the socio-environmental character of the city. More importantly, by this plan, it is possible to mobilise neighborhood people’s participation in the development and expansion of open spaces as much as their participation in the development and expansion of the city, as seen in the plans for Juhu, a neighborhood in the western suburbs of Mumbai.

In order to Re-Vision Mumbai and democratize its public space, we have launched the ‘Vision Juhu’ plan as a pilot project.

A public campaign poster, published by area residents and this author to popularize the idea of linear open spaces structure in the Juhu neighbourhood of Mumbai, currently under implementation. Credit: PK Das & Associates
A public campaign poster, published by area residents and this author to popularize the idea of linear open spaces structure in the Juhu neighbourhood of Mumbai, currently under implementation. Credit: PK Das & Associates

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A rendering of the green corridor onto a Google image of Juhu area. Credit: PK Das
A rendering of the green corridor onto a Google image of Juhu area. Credit: PK Das

As Mumbai expands, its open spaces are shrinking. The democratic ‘space’ that ensures accountability and enables dissent is also shrinking, very subtly but surely. The city’s shrinking physical open spaces are of course the most visible manifestation of this, as they directly and adversely affect our very quality of life. A new order of linear open spaces must clearly be the foundation of city planning.

Open Mumbai Exhibition and inauguration photos
Open Mumbai Exhibition and inauguration photos

open mumbai exhibition 3open mumbai exhibition 2Through this plan we hope to generate dialogue between people, governments, and professionals and dialogue within movements working for social, cultural, and environmental change. It is a plan that redefines land use and development, placing people and community life at the centre of planning—not real estate and construction potential. A plan that redefines the ‘notion’ of open space to go beyond gardens and recreational grounds to include the vast, diverse natural assets of the city, including rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, mangroves, wetlands, beaches, and the incredible seafronts. A plan that aims to create non-barricaded, non-exclusive, non-elitist spaces that provide access to all our citizens for leisure, relaxation, art, and cultural life. A plan that ensures open spaces are not only available, but are geographically and culturally integral to neighbourhoods and participatory community life.

Such plans for cities will be the beginning of a new dialogue to create a truly representative ‘Peoples’ Plan’. Let streams of linear open spaces flow across urban landscapes, defining a new ecology—socio-environmental order—of cities the world over

PK Das

On The Nature of Cities

PK Das

About the Writer:
PK Das

P.K. Das is popularly known as an Architect-Activist. With an extremely strong emphasis on participatory planning, he hopes to integrate architecture and democracy to bring about desired social changes in the country.

PK Das

PK Das

Architect-Activist Mumbai, India P.K. Das is popularly known as an Architect – Activist. His priority has been to establish a very close relation between architecture and people by involving them in a participatory planning process. His wide spectrum of work includes organizing slum dwellers for better living and evolving affordable housing models, engaging in policy framework for mass housing, reclaiming public space in Mumbai by developing the waterfronts, Re-envisioning the Open Spaces of Mumbai, urban renewal and conservation projects along with an architectural practice involving urban planning, urban design, architecture and interior design assignments across the country. He is the Joint Convener of the Housing Rights Organization called Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti, Chairperson of the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre, Council member of the Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Mumbai chapter, member of the Steering Committee set-up by MMRDA for the preparation of a Vision Plan for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, member of the National Advisory Council-Working Group on Alleviation of Urban Poverty including Rajiv Awaas Yojna (RAY) and founder of P.K. Das & Associates, a Planning & Architectural firm. He has been widely published and has also delivered talks and lectures across the world. His work in the development of Mumbai’s coastline and his slum rehabilitation projects has won him several national and international awards including the first Urban Age Award instituted by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank conferred to the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre in which P.K. Das is the Chairperson. ‘Struggle for Housing – A people’s Manifesto’ and ‘A village called Puntamba, a Social-Architectural study’, ‘Vision Juhu-Expanding Public Spaces in Mumbai’, ‘On the Waterfront-Reclaiming Mumbai’s Open Spaces’, ‘Mumbai’s Open Spaces– Maps & A Preliminary Listing Document’ are some of the more known publications of Mr. Das With an extremely strong emphasis on participatory planning, he hopes to integrate architecture and democracy to bring about desired social changes in the country.

4 thoughts on “Let Streams of Linear Open Spaces Flow Across Urban Landscapes

  1. As a public servant for the City of LA, I am truly grateful to PK for this article—and inspired that Mumbai will serve Los Angeles as a distant example of the power of linear corridors. Hopefully Southern California will look to this example to help guide (and expedite?) the reality of storm water corridor implementation through funding allocations.
    In 2007 the City of Los Angeles began to investigate how the many multi-benefit stormwater projects proposed as elements of a Prop O $500M City bond could be integrated as a system rather than as regional islands. We have also faced severe and recurring drought, challenges of aging infrastructure, “limited-purpose” agency funding, habitat degradation, and high fines for water pollution to our rivers, beaches and oceans.
    The result was a collaborative effort entered with local leading academic institutions. The name of the effort recognized the need for a GIS and “open-source” philosophy such as founded by early Army Corps (USACE) GIS methodologies–Both acronyms spelled: “GRASS” (for the stormwater plan, this represents Greenways to Rivers Arterial Stormwater Systems).

    These corridors will be available as GIS layers or as a kmz file that public and private designers can use to collaborate and form discussions on runoff sources, linear water distribution, and storage for all scales of harvesting to support our drought-stressed urban forest, and to create more sustainable linear green projects within an arid region. Local organizations dedicated to biodiversity (such as LA Natural History Museum, The Nature Conservancy, and a few visionary City council representatives Have become highly keyed-in to this idea—and have invited presentations on this concept.
    At the appropriate scale, GRASS appears huge—but is a nature-centric construct that is also humble and integrative, and grounded in nature —this is a non-traditional starting point for most design outside of landscape architecture, which along with engineering are key disciplines among the teams that will plan and execute.
    For now, key visionaries and collaborators are aware, and the idea has crystallized. It is only a matter of time when projects find funding, and the results of this nature-restorative process become manifest.
    Funding, and politics ultimately will dictate whether these naturally restorative enhancements will extend from a human lifespan or to the geologic scale, but for now we can enjoy a deep breath knowing that we have offered a technically well-grounded, integrative, solution for this region.

  2. Its amazing how you can also propose the coastal road in Mumbai. I have always admired your work and I find it disturbing to see your signature on the report. I always thought you would be the first to oppose it, guess I was wrong

  3. Hi Jayne, wonderful to have your response. I fully agree with your suggestion that streets must be considered an important part of the linear park or open spaces structure. As a matter of fact, in my attempt to re-envisioning Mumbai with a contiguous open spaces structure, I have considered the streets of Mumbai to be an integral part. The ‘Open Mumbai’ plan illustrates this aspect along with relevant data. Also, through the ‘Equal Streets ‘ movement in Mumbai of which I am the chairperson, we are demanding to convert the car dominated streets for walking and cycling with trees and landscapes and their networking with other open spaces of the city. I hope you succeed in your very important endeavour in Montreal.Best PKDas

  4. Thank you, PK, for this wonderful set of arguments for the creation of linear parks in cities and for sharing your contributions toward bringing them to fruition in Mumbai! It seems to me that in addition to the approaches that you mention, that transforming certain city streets into linear parks represents an enormous opportunity for transformative change to more people-centred, ecological cities. I’d be curious about others’ views and experiences with transforming existing streets into linear parks. We have a fantastic proposal to create such an ecological corridor here in the heart Montreal; I hope the project will eventually see the light of day!

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