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 Trupti Amritwar Vaitla—an architect and urban designer who lives and works in Mumbai—is the second 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.
Let’s start at the beginning: can you describe your own work briefly, and tell us how you are applying your skills here at the Lab?
Currently, I’m working with the Mumbai Environmental and Social Network (MESN), which is an NGO. Our focus is more in transportation and mobility in Mumbai, and we also work on development of open space at Lotus Nagar, one of the slum areas. There, with community participation, we help establish advanced locality management, with a focus on waste management. We are also working to improve public transport in Mumbai by providing solutions based on bus priority on the road and improving bus information systems. And we have done studies on proposed metro station area improvement, to give strategies on future land use, traffic network, intermodal connectivity, and street designs. So, this is basically our work. We talk to all the possible authorities and . . . we try to push sustainable solutions. There’s a long way to go, but we are hopeful. Many times we do get frustrated, but that’s a part of it.
For the Lab, we’ve selected one traffic junction that is very critical in Mumbai as the subject of a design competition. With my background in traffic studies, this is my kind of thing. We do know lots of officials, so it’s possible to interact and really take this competition to the implementation stage.
You live and work in Mumbai all the time, which obviously makes this much different for you than for other Lab Team members. How does the work that you’re doing on a day-to-day basis in Mumbai differ from the work you’re doing with the Lab?
I feel like, with the Lab, I actually have the opportunity to work with some tangible solutions. Currently, [in] the work that we’re doing, much of the time it just remains as a proposal. We are not seeing things really getting implemented as such. But with the Lab
. . . we have both design proposals that may take a long time to implement and very clear-cut, tangible kinds of projects that we really are going to see come out—so it’s not just talk.
See, the problem here in the city is also that everybody is talking about mega-projects.
. . . Nobody is talking about small interventions, [though they] actually really bring about a lot of change. We wait years and years for a metro to come or some [other] big things to come. It is rare, I feel, for people to feel empowered when they work on solutions that they can do, that they can participate in. So I think this is a very important aspect of the Lab.
Can you give a little more background on the traffic junction that is the focus of the design competition you are helping to implement for the Lab?
The traffic junction [that is the subject of the Lab competition] marks the end of Island City—the area that holds the traditional center of the city—and after that, the suburbs start. It is a very high-volume traffic junction. Mumbai is very north-south [in orientation], and there are two important east-west connections. This is one of the most important. If you look at it in terms of location, it is basically the geographic city center—and the new commercial hub, the Bhandra Kurla Complex is [also] very close to the junction.
Slowly, the city center is shifting from the south to the north, so the traffic here is really growing at a phenomenal speed, almost 10 percent per annum. You know, that is huge! It is higher than the population growth. Population is growing 1 percent in the suburbs and traffic is increasing 10 percent, at this junction particularly.
We also have these skywalks all over Mumbai. Basically, they are supposed to be for pedestrians, but they are not as actively used as was intended. Some of them are practically lying vacant, and there’s a huge, 1.2-kilometer-long skywalk along this junction, and we’re looking at how we can reuse that. This junction has many of the elements that we also face in the city’s other areas and brings up a lot of questions about mobility.
As the one Mumbaikar on the team, you know the city better than anybody else. What specific city dynamics do you think will come into play at the Lab in Mumbai?
People here have sort of lost hope—there’s really the attitude of “nothing is going to change,” because there are so many problems, and there are so many people who have power that manipulate it. So in that sense, we’re not dealing with simple issues. We’re dealing with absolute basic hard issues. See, Mumbai is not just one community or homogeny. It is divided into class, caste, and different religions, and there are so many layers to it, so to reach out to Mumbai [in its entirety] is not possible. We are actually trying to reach some of these different communities by going to several locations with the Lab—but unfortunately there is almost no way to effectively reach the whole city.
Can you speak a bit about the experience of working in Mumbai with people on the Lab Team who come from elsewhere?
It becomes a bit personal, because it’s my city, suddenly. All of a sudden I’m wearing a different lens [when looking] at the city, and I feel responsible for everything. It was difficult initially, but then all around it was fantastic, great energy.
In Mumbai, when I talk to other professionals, many have this thing where they say, “What are these foreigners going to come and tell us? They don’t know anything about our city,” or, “They think we’re not good enough.” So during the Lab, we just have to be careful when we suggest certain things for the city. It’s not, “We know something better and we are trying to tell [you].” We are more sensitive in our approach and are really aiming to work with people in the city. It’s fine to have all the good intentions to help the city. And the city, well, I hope the city has a similar mindset to understand that.
What’s your greatest hope for what will come out of the Lab in Mumbai?
I hope that at least it will create a platform for dialogue to talk about issues that people typically want to put under the carpet. I think that is a very important thing: at least to discuss openly. For instance, in the Meet in the Middle program, there will be a lot of stakeholders that come face to face and have a dialogue about many different planning issues. I think it can show that in order to conduct urban projects, we need to at least have these kinds of stakeholder meetings, and that at the end . . . these can be very helpful for the planning process. Also, with the other tangible projects, I hope that the government and other stakeholders get inspired to invest in small-scale projects. I believe it will help the city more, instead of just focusing on these big projects. I think that is a good starting point for many of the conversations we wish to have.
Read my Q&A with Lab Team member Héctor Zamora, and check back for pieces on the other two Lab Team Members in the coming weeks.
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Photo: Arjunan Sanjayan