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Meet the Mumbai Lab Team: Neville Mars

BMW Lab Team member Neville Mars

Neville Mars

In each city, the Lab takes on an entirely new face. Part of this is due to the individual context of the city, but equally responsible for shaping the Lab is the Lab Team at its reins. The four new Mumbai Lab Team members were announced recently, and the mix this time around is really exciting again. This interview with Neville Mars—a Dutch architect and planner who works in China—is the third in a series of interviews with Lab Team members to get to know them, their work, and what they are bringing to the table for the Lab in Mumbai.

First, can you describe your own work, and how you are applying your skills here at the Lab?

That’s quite easy. Collaborative teams are really inspiring and interesting in a conceptual phase. But when things need to be done, everybody will soon revert to what they know how to do, and the same goes for me. I’ve been approaching this project along the same lines as I have done my own projects for the last ten years here in China. Basically, it’s design research. I do projects that start as research and end up being concrete design proposals. Or, if it’s a commercial design project, it will surely have a strong research contingent underlying it. I believe, in my field, combining these two aspects is essential for a good project. Large cross-disciplinary studies like the one I’m working on for this project really benefit from tangible goals. And for me personally, if a project is purely theoretical, I soon get itchy and want to figure how concepts could be realized.

Obviously, design alone wouldn’t make sense for projects that aim at urban sustainability or projects that relate to so many aspects in society. So, design research has become my format, and it’s what I’ve embraced with this team and this project.

Working in Shanghai, you’re no stranger to working with the urban fabric of megacities. What are some similarities or differences you’ve noticed working in Mumbai?

Coming to Mumbai, it was intriguing to see that everybody immediately asked me about this comparison—China and India. It always happens to me in China as well, when I mention I’m active in India. There seems [to be] a strong rivalry. I think it has to do with the fact that they’re both developing countries, both roughly the same population size, and both dealing with similar issues caused by extreme density. But it’s also fired up by statements like those from government officials suggesting that Mumbai should be made into Shanghai by 2020.

I think that’s a misguided statement for exactly this reason: Mumbai is a split city. Two-thirds of the population lives in slums, while Shanghai is very rapidly becoming a global metropolis of serious financial impact with more glitz than slums. I think [such statements] underline a common but misguided way of looking at Mumbai. The slums are here to stay, and in fact are still expanding. If the informal settlements are not incorporated in the vision—let alone acknowledged—the problems of Mumbai will be augmented. Left unaddressed, the socio-spatial divide that defines “split city” Mumbai will prevent planners from tackling the root cause of many of it most urgent problems, from water security, to congestion, to pollution and public health. These problems are so overwhelming—for me arriving as an outsider and local planners and policy-makers alike. It’s an understandable reaction to reach for large top-down and technocratic solutions. This is what seems to have worked in China. But the fragmented reality of Mumbai makes these tools increasingly ineffective.

And there are other fundamental differences [between India and] China, and specifically Shanghai. There is serious investment capital for infrastructure and utilities, which in unique—and somewhat bizarre—public-private collaborations can be unrolled with precision and great speed. So, however dubious, the top-down approach is simply more relevant to China . . . Luckily, Mumbai has seen strong grass-roots efforts emerging that engage with many urban issues. What I’m trying to do is promote collaboration between individual projects so they can have an impact at the scale Mumbai requires. This is the theory behind collaborative planning. Now, in public workshops with local stakeholders, we will discuss very concrete design proposals, to test the feasibility of this approach. I have developed quite a number of proposals, from a new pedestrian bridge, to a new center for [the] city that embraces the slums—so, nothing like Shanghai. Together, [these proposals] form an urban vision for which I’ve coined the phrase “united Mumbai.” It is a first [step toward a] comprehensive antidote [for] the split city.

Were there specific things that you came across during your R&D in Mumbai that inspired you?

When I first came to Mumbai, what hit me was the sensation that it seems utterly impossible to address any of the urban challenges at a substantial scale. I honestly feel that is also what has made many local residents quite numb. The sense of urgency is sometimes countered by complacency. People are aware of the problems, but very few people dare to imagine more fundamental solutions. The problems are too grand and omnipresent—pollution, water issues, congestion, etc.—and of course they’re all related. Faced with the complications of bureaucracies, efforts are reduced to the smallest scale. Coming in with a foreign perspective, I felt really inspired thinking about a comprehensive approach that actually builds on and connects the many amazing projects we can find in Mumbai. Zooming out a bit to the intermediary scale has been my prerogative. Here, large urban master plans and local community projects will need to meet for Mumbai to move forward.

What’s your greatest hope for what will come out of the Lab in Mumbai? It sounds like your hopes for the project are on both the tangible and the political scale.

Definitely both. You need both. Cities need an opening of minds on all levels, from policy makers to designers. What really bothers me is this common attitude of wallowing in the glamour of poverty, by foreigners and local do-gooders alike. You know: “Look how well Mumbaikars are coping” with poverty, insane congestion, shocking levels of pollution.

This adaptability to really extreme conditions is certainly heartwarming. For example, walking through Mumbai as an architect, the entire city seems in constant flux—it is more like a dance than an urban system. And the density is so brutal, people are appropriating spaces in the most radical and inspiring ways. The West should surely learn from [this]. But that doesn’t mean that the people in Mumbai, rich or poor, wouldn’t like it to improve, let’s be honest. . . . I want to celebrate Mumbai in all its surprising splendor, but without glamourizing things. Because I do believe there are practical solutions to address these serious problems. That brings me to my final point: if we can open policy minds, we only have to inspire the many brilliant engineers that India has brought forth. The technology is available, but it needs to be applied with Mumbai’s communities in mind and designed for the human scale. This is the spark I hope to see during the debates—talking about micro-insertions that are part of a larger vision of an integrated city, a united Mumbai.

Three words to describe the process so far?

“Me” equals “we.”

Read my Q&As with Lab Team members Héctor Zamora and Trupti Amritwar Vaitla, and check back for a piece on our other Lab Team member in the coming weeks.

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Photo: Arjunan Sanjayan

  • Trupti Amritwar

    Very well structured , insightful