There is one thing that has become very clear to me over the past few weeks of dialogues here at the Lab in Mumbai: those currently engaged in the upper echelons of conversation about the city are very good at framing the problems. They’re even good at articulating the theoretical solutions. But if the Meet in the Middle dialogues are any indication of the general mode of operation, at least, they very often fail to take that last step and go so far as to propose or even discuss a tangible plan for implementation in order to move that conversation into the realm of reality.
Before this became clear to me, I was admittedly quite critical of Lab Team member Neville Mars’ Landlink proposal. The idea behind Landlink is to convert a set of soon-to-be abandoned above-ground water pipes in Mumbai that stretch between Dharavi and Bandra into a three-tiered infrastucture project combining an autorickshaw highway, a public boardwalk, and building space for NGOs, ad hoc businesses, and the like. Development on the pipes currently would be impossible, due to a law prohibiting development within 10 meters of the pipes. But Neville’s concept with the Landlink proposal is to reimagine what these pipes would become once they are rendered defunct.
Upon seeing this, I was indignant. An autorickshaw highway is impractical and unnecessary, and is counter to the purpose of autorickshaws, I said. And the last thing Mumbai appears to need is another large-scale, heavily designed infrastructure proposal! Why not make it a bike lane, at least? And have spaces for hawkers, not buildings!? And above all—what do the people in those neighborhoods think this should become?
But recently I realized that my indignant, I-know-better-and-just-watch-me-prove-it-with-a-better-idea reaction is just what Neville wanted. As he and I took a long walk along the pipeline from start to finish in the blazing sun, it finally clicked that, well, I had it all wrong. The proposal is not really about the proposal itself at all. It’s about pushing some buttons to start a more tangible conversation about key ideas.
First off, he said, it’s a provocative statement about beginning to use what he calls “infraspace”—the space taken up by infrastructure alone. “Any space currently used solely for infrastructure in Mumbai is so often just taken over by other activities —whether [they are] commercial, or leisure, or praying, or whatever—and we can really learn from that. I think from highways to pipelines to flyovers to train tracks, all these spaces make up a vast amount of area in Mumbai that has potential to be redeveloped in an interesting way because there is no other land. So it’s almost about indicating how you can have multiple functions, multiple program[s] stacked on the same purpose, and then the obvious choice is this infraspace,” he told me as we walked.
Secondly, he said, the proposal is a counter-move to the highly controversial Sea Link bridge—a costly development directly adjacent to the Landlink route that connects south Mumbai to north Mumbai by rerouting cars around the city’s congestion via a toll bridge that juts out into the water.
“We’re suggesting that instead of linking, let’s say, formal acknowledged city to formal acknowledged city, we should start linking slums. Slums make up the majority of the people in the city, and they are becoming increasingly mobile. They need connections. They need forms of getting around. If we’re moving toward a middle-class situation, mobility is key,” he said. And naturally following that: “It shouldn’t be about cars, obviously, it should be about high-speed local transport.”
Should it really the shape of the Landlink? “No, absolutely not—it’s got to be organic,” he said. “Should it be community-driven? Absolutely, so in that sense it’s very difficult. We designed something that’s supposed to be not designed. But we felt it was very very important, especially in this political planning culture, to make a concrete statement.”
The set of pipes Neville is looking at with the proposal are actually part of a larger, 75-kilometer-long system cutting through a diverse cross-section of Mumbai’s urban fabric. At times they are underground, and at times above, but eventually the entirety will be replaced by a more modern, underground system, and the current infrastructure more than likely left to rust.
The stretch begins and ends in slums. Though Bandra is mostly a rather upscale area, the section of the neighborhood near the train station that these pipes cut through at the beginning of the stretch is occupied by a rather recently developed slum. When the Lab Team was first in Mumbai last year for their research and development phase, the new-ish houses were only one story high—now, less than a year later, most have three. Here, the pipes are used as equal parts public space, walkway, latrine, and water source. On the other end of the pipes is Dharavi, one of Asia’s oldest, largest, most firmly developed (though often either overly disparaged or overly romanticized) and entrepreneurial slums, accounting for an enormous portion of Mumbai’s economic output.
Between the two neighborhoods, the pipeline cuts across a river and mangrove-like swath of marshy green land. Quiet, green spaces are more than difficult to come across in this city, so the experience of being out on top of the pipes amidst this landscape is actually quite a unique one.
Check out the photos (above) from my walk with Neville along the pipes from start to finish to see the entire stretch. Mumbaikers: can you suggest a real use for this “infraspace” once the time comes? How about other infraspaces in Mumbai? Get specific! Where, what, and how? Non-Mumbaikers: any specific, cool infraspace projects you know of that we could look at for inspiration?
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Photos: Christine McLaren