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The Mumbai Project: To shine, Mumbai must rise

The rules stunting vertical growth are particularly astonishing given Mumbai’s shape – a narrow peninsula with no room to expand sideways. Sumana Ramanan reports.Talk to us...Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:29 IST
Sumana Ramanan

Consider the following scenario, which might at first sound preposterous. Imagine that overnight our policymakers decide to allow all of Mumbai’s buildings to double their heights. Looking to profit from this new policy, developers would naturally rush to make the city’s buildings taller. (

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Let’s assume they take a year to do so. What do you think would be the outcome? This is a thought experiment that urban planners Alain Bertaud and Vidyadhar Phatak like to take people through to prove their point that India’s financial capital needs to grow taller if it is to overcome its housing crisis.



According to Bertaud, Phatak, and real estate agents, the city’s stock of housing would double, so prices would fall. Pranay Vakil, chairman of Knight Frank India, a real estate consultancy, estimated that prices of residential real estate in the island city would fall by a third.



As prices fall, more people would be able to afford proper housing, and would leave slums to buy flats. Slums would gradually disappear, and the city could begin using the land freed up to create roads, parks, schools and public amenities that it desperately needs.



“The city has to go vertical. There is no option,” said Phatak, probably Mumbai’s most knowledgeable urban planner who has three decades of experience with the city’s problems, including a stint with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority. “Otherwise, you will get more and more people struggling for housing,” he said. Is it that simple? Is Mumbai really a global midget? Does it make sense to double the heights of buildings all over the city? Won’t growing taller increase crowding? What about the strain on the infrastructure? What is so bad about the current policy anyway? And why haven’t policymakers adopted such a solution if it is so straightforward? Let’s tackle each one of these questions.



Our lowly stature


This is a fact: Mumbai today is the least vertical of all big cities in the world. For the global traveller who has visited New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo or Shanghai, this is plain to see. But there are more scientific measures. One gauge of height is the floor space index, or FSI, which measures how much floor area a builder can construct on a plot of land, and therefore controls how high the builder can make a structure (see, What is Floor Space Index?).



Since 1991, the prescribed floor space index for the island city has been 1.33, and for the suburbs just 1, which are between a tenth and a fifth of values seen in other large cities in the world, according to a World Bank report.



The government does allow higher values as exceptions, and some districts, such as Nariman Point and Ballard Estate, have higher values because they were built before the 1991 rule came into force.



However, the city’s average FSI is below 5, which is still very low by global standards. Other big Asian cities, for instance, have averages of between 5 and 15.



Let’s also compare the FSIs of the business districts of a few cities: Nariman Point — 4.5; Bandra-Kurla Complex — 4; Singapore’s business district — 10, and New York’s central business district in Manhattan — 17.



The rules stunting vertical growth are particularly astonishing given Mumbai’s shape – a narrow peninsula with no room to expand sideways. Other cities with similar constraints, such as New York and Singapore, have overcome their geographical limitations by going tall. “The current policy on floor space index for Mumbai is draconian,” said Bertaud. “Not only is the floor space index very low by global standards, it varies very little.”



Variation is key


Indeed, when urban planners argue that Mumbai must grow taller, they are actually saying that the average height of buildings must increase, and that the floor space indices of each locality and street must vary according to their unique needs. The key to good urban planning is a fine-grained variation of vertical growth.



But the heights of Mumbai’s buildings hardly change across the urban landscape. In New York, in contrast, the central business district is allowed to go very tall, as are residential buildings encircling it, to give as many people as possible a short commute to work. The tallest residential buildings have an FSI of 15, but as you move away from the city centre, this value drops rapidly, until in the suburbs it falls to a mere 0.5 — a huge and continuous variation.



Similarly, buildings should be tall around transport hubs, big open spaces and close to shopping complexes, and taper off as they go further away from these areas (see, Where Mumbai can go vertical).



Myth of crowding


Many people link increases in building heights and floor space to an increase in crowding. Crowding might indeed increase in one locality if the FSI has risen there. But if the increase happens across the entire city, which is what urban planners like Bertaud and Phatak are arguing for, this is unlikely to happen — because migration to a city will not speed up drastically just because its buildings have become taller. “People mainly come to Mumbai looking for jobs, not because buildings are tall!” said Bertaud.



Phatak pointed out that Mumbai’s population was growing at only about two per cent a year, including both internal growth and migration. Moreover, many people in the city itself would move into bigger apartments, so some of the increase in floor space will be absorbed by the city’s existing population.



Infrastructure riddle


Since raising the heights of buildings throughout Mumbai is unlikely to increase the city’s population, the move will not dramatically intensify the burden on the city’s infrastructure. In any case, civic authorities should ensure that the infrastructure serves all residents, regardless of where they live.



Yet high-rises do come with extra demands on water supply, electricity, parking and other amenities. But experts like Bertaud, Phatak and Vakil insist that improvements in amenities must accompany any increase in the FSI — a caveat that builders and policymakers fail to make.



“The government often allows exceptions to FSI rules, leading to random increases in vertical growth, which is the worst thing that can happen,” said Bertaud.



A big culprit is the transfer of development rights, or TDR. These are building rights — which can be used only in the suburbs — that the government grants to people as compensation for taking their land for a public project. It also offers these rights as an incentive to builders redeveloping slums. “These building rights have doubled the floor space in the suburbs,” said Knight Frank’s Vakil. “But the increase is unplanned. It is random, with no attention to enhancing the infrastructure.”



In many places, said Vakil, floors are being added to existing buildings, without increases in the parking facility, water supply or drainage capacity, and without widening roads or enhancing open spaces.



Dire consequences


All these policies — a low average FSI, little variation and increases in height without additions in amenities — have combined to create the familiar Mumbai nightmares: small flats, high prices and long commutes — in a city that is otherwise visibly flush with money (see, Tycoon in pauper’s clothes).



Look at the data. The average residential area available to a Mumbai resident is about five square metres, a figure that is very low for a prosperous city like Mumbai, according to experts. In Shanghai, this value is about 15 square metres.



Mumbai’s real estate prices are also disproportionately high. In a healthy real estate market, if one’s income doubles, one should normally be able to consume 80 per cent more housing space. In Mumbai however, a doubling in income leads to between just a 30 per cent and 50 per cent increase in housing space, according to Phatak. The artificially high prices sap our buying power.



“If you hold on to FSI, it will be reflected in prices,” said Phatak. “Just because half of Mumbai lives in slums, it does not mean they are all from the low-income group. Many earn reasonably well, but can’t afford housing.”



If house prices continue to rise, more and more people will be forced to live in slums or further away from their places of work in the city.



Real estate Raj


When the current policy for Mumbai’s vertical growth has such negative consequences, why does the government persist with it?


Critics say it allows the authorities to preside over an “FSI Raj” that gives them a lever of power over builders (see, The buck stops here).



Moreover, if policymakers increased the FSI and replan the vertical growth of this city, district by district, street by street, real estate prices would fall on average, and the price patterns would change all over the city. Many homeowners would protest.


Indeed, change of this magnitude across the city is likely to be a long and drawn-out process.



However, a big opportunity to immediately cure some of Mumbai’s ills lies in using sensible FSI policies to redevelop slums. “The good thing about the slums is that they are very horizontal,” said Vakil. “The minute you make them vertical, you are releasing 90 per cent of the land.”



The most glaring opportunity would be in redeveloping Dharavi, which will free up, smack in the middle of the city, 20 million square feet of residential land, or the size of four Cuffe Parades, and 20 million square feet of commercial office space, or the size of five Nariman Points.



Housing activists argue that tall buildings are not economically or culturally appropriate for slumdwellers because they entail high maintenance costs and destroy community life. While there is some truth to this, tall structures can be built that mitigate these pitfalls. A slum redevelopment project in Chandivali, in which a non-government organisation involved in housing played a crucial role, is a good example where this has happened.



Can our policymakers finally do right by Mumbai while redeveloping Dharavi? It will be a tough task balancing the sensitivities and needs of the slum’s residents with the larger planning requirements of a city with global aspirations.



But what is the alternative? Policymakers in Mumbai do not have the luxury of Baron Haussmann, the civic planner who blasted whole sections of Paris to rubble in the 19th century to build a new city.



If policymakers allow Mumbai to grow taller near transport hubs, business districts and open spaces, it would address many problems that residents are forced to live with. Housing prices would probably fall and people’s commutes would shorten. As people move into more affordable houses, slums would slowly clear and make space for parks and public amenities.



What is Floor Space Index?


The floor space index, or FSI, is how much floor area a builder can create on a plot. The higher the value, the higher the building can go. When the floor space index is 1, the total floor area cannot be more than the area of the plot. Here are different structures possible for a floor space index of 1.



Is this enough?


Problem 1: Global midget


Mumbai is the least vertical of all big cities in the world. Since 1991 the prescribed floor space index for the island city has been 1.33 and for the suburbs just 1. Some structures built earlier have higher floor space indices, but the city’s average is less than 5. In contrast, large Asian cities have average values of between 5 and 15.



Problem 2: One-size-fits-all


The rules impose a uniform height for buildings through the city. Yet the key to good urban planning is a fine-grained variation of vertical growth for each locality, block and street. Buildings need to be taller near transport hubs, business districts, big open spaces and shopping districts, with heights tapering off as you go further from these areas.



Problem 3: Random increases


Policymakers have made exceptions and allowed builders to go higher than the prescribed low floor space index, but at random places and without correspondingly improving the infrastructure.



Problem 4: State Govt calls the shots

Right now, the state government’s urban development department, headed by the chief minister, makes most decisions about vertical growth. This city needs an independent planning body — answerable to Mumbai’s citizens — that will minutely plan vertical growth.



Open spaces


The FSI should be high around open spaces, and fall as one moves away from them, as is the case around New York’s Central Park. This way, more people get good views and have easy access to recreation.



Transport hubs


The FSI around a major transport hub should be high and fall as you move away. This way, you cut down more people’s commuting times and ease the burden on the transport network.



Long streets


Buildings in the middle of a long street should be short, while those at the end should be taller as those are closer to other roads,


neighbourhood shops, bus stops and transport connections.



Bridges: What we can do


Once the Trans-Harbour Link bridge is built between Sewri and Navi Mumbai, the FSI around Sewri where the bridge starts should be high and decline as one moves away. This way, you allow more people to live near the bridge, which will reduce their commutes.



A tycoon in pauper’s clothes



By Sumana Ramanan


Along the main street of the teeming Bora Bazaar in south Mumbai stand rows of dilapidated buildings built during the colonial era. This street is within walking distance of the city’s two key business districts, Nariman Point and Ballard Estate. In other words, it is very pricey real estate. Rents in Ballard Estate are higher than in Singapore’s central business district and just slightly lower than in mid-town Manhattan.



So why in this highly dynamic city, and one that is visibly flush with money, have decrepit buildings in a prime locality not been redeveloped? The villain is a rule that allows new structures in this locality a much lower floor space index than what the standing buildings already enjoy. Now which property owner would accept less floor space than what he or she already enjoys?



In 1991, the state government came up with a blanket FSI of 1.33 for new structures in the island city and an even lower value of 1 for the growing suburbs. These are much lower than what most localities like Bora Bazaar enjoyed 50 years ago. Today, Mumbai’s average FSI is the lowest of all big cities in the world — between one-fifth to one-tenth the level of other large cities, according to a World Bank report.



Instead of increasing the floor space index over the years to accommodate an increase in the city’s population and a growing economy in which people can afford bigger flats and offices, government planners have reduced the prescribed floor space index steadily since 1964, when they first introduced the tool to direct the city’s physical growth. So Bora Bazaar is now like a rich man who is not allowed to buy good clothes because the rules do not allow him to.



The buck stops here


Vilasrao Deshmukh, Chief Minister and head of the Urban Development Department


Mumbai is the least vertical of all big cities in the world. Do you have plans to increase the prescribed floor space index?


It all depends on the place in the city. We are considering increasing it in some places — for hospitals, hotels and for low-cost housing.



Mumbai has very little vertical variation. Do you plan to completely review the city’s vertical growth

.


I agree we need a detailed plan. We are studying the whole issue, and we should have something new in the next three to four months.



Do you have plans for the city’s business districts? For instance, real estate experts believe the Bandra-Kurla Complex’s infrastructure can support a much higher floor space index.

The floor space index should relate to the infrastructure. We have to see if the roads, drainage, drinking water and other amenities are sufficient. If we think it is enough, we will consider increasing it.



Independent urban planners say that ‘transfer of development rights’ has led to random increases in floor space in the suburbs, without a corresponding improvement in the infrastructure. Do you plan to rectify this?


Yes, I agree that infrastructure has been a problem. But we will now make sure that developers take care of part of the infrastructure improvement. The municipal corporation cannot do it completely on its own.



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