For old times’ sake | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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For old times’ sake

The garden suburb is on the BMC’s new proposed heritage list as a protected precinct. A study nearing completion offers a plan to involve residents in balancing conservation and development, Aarefa Johari reports.

mumbai Updated: Sep 09, 2012 01:52 IST
Aarefa Johari

As a child, Gajendra Chile spent his evenings running down the narrow streets of his village, swinging from trees onto his neighbours’ open verandas and hurling pebbles into the communal wells.

During the Ganeshotsav and Janmashtami festivals, the village squares would become lively social spaces as families gathered to celebrate.

Chile still lives in his family’s single-storey home in the same 150-year-old gaothan, but it is now in the heart of what has become urban Chembur.

About 2,500 people continue to live in this gaothan or urban village, where the homes still have sloping tiled roofs and wooden external stairways.

So far, they have managed to preserve their close-knit community’s way of life, despite the new high-rises that have shot up around the village over the past decade.

“I love living in a place that is quiet, green and friendly, where people can live close together as one community,” says Chile, now 18 and a second-year engineering student at a Nerul college. “It would never be the same if we had tall buildings here instead.”

As the high-rises inch closer, there is some good news for the area.

Chembur, called the garden suburb of Mumbai because of its relatively lush green cover, is on the municipal corporation’s proposed list of protected precincts, released on July 31.

As newer residents and developers worry about what the heritage tag will mean for construction and redevelopment plans here, a project that could allay such fears is nearing completion.

In 2010, to promote heritage conservation in Greater Mumbai, a state government body — the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Heritage Conservation Society — roped in five city-based consultants to study as many areas and offer recommendations about how to balance conservation and development.

One of the areas in this pilot project was Chembur; city-based architecture firm Adarkar Associates has been working with residents and urban planners here ever since.

The Adarkar Associates project has studied three distinct sub-precincts within Chembur — Chile’s gaothan, St Anthony’s Society and Old Chembur.

The firm will upload the study online by the end of the year, to allow all residents to participate in a democratic discussion.

“A top-down approach of imposing development regulations is not sensitive and makes people react harshly to the heritage tag,” says Neera Adarkar, partner at Adarkar Associates, who has teamed up with Chembur-based architects Anil Nagrath and Shivani Singh for the project.

“Our joint approach was to first interact with local residents in the three sub-precincts to find out what they wished to preserve in their

surroundings and culture and what they dislike in the current development patterns.”

Gaothan residents, for instance, cherish the informal, asymmetrical housing patterns that nurture a village-like lifestyle.

St Anthony’s Society and Old Chembur, on the other hand, were part of the first town-planning schemes in the city a century ago and are eager to protect their low-rise bungalows, grid-like layout and quaint, nine-metre-wide streets.

Today, several high-rise apartment buildings stand between old Art Deco and Portuguese-style bungalows; posters pasted on old, red-brick boundary walls hint at more to come.

“The neighbourhoods in Chembur were not designed for such large-scale redevelopment,” says architect Anil Nagrath.

As a solution, the architects have suggested a more systematic form of development that preserves the height and key architectural features of significant structures.

“In the six years since the first draft of the new heritage list was drawn up, Chembur has lost nearly 30% of the structures that featured on that list,” says architect and urban planner Shivani Singh. “If this pace of development continues, we could lose everything.”