Mumbai Eastern Water Front: Challenge and Opportunity for the City

Comments made for Workshop on Eastern Waterfront, Mumbai, August 22, 2008,
at Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institut), Mumbai.



Both Jakarta and Mumbai face some similar problems with regards to their northern (in Jakarta) and eastern (in Mumbai) water fronts and their general urban developments.

Jakarta has a threatened mangrove ecosystem with some indigenous mongkey and birds species, while Mumbai has its flamingo mudflat also squeezed between industrial polluters and a future bridge. Both have very little—if none of—public access to the water fronts. The available planning exercises available are equally rudimentary, lacking imagination and confined to very narrow interests, that might even be counter-productive to solving their city-wide problems. Both have the ports, industrious informal economies, and pressure from capitals that ever demand more space for development.  A fundamental difference is that Jakarta has only one water front, while Mumbai has two—eastern and western ones—if not many, if we included Mumbai metropolitan area. In terms of economic growth and consequential development in real estate sector, Mumbai is now experiencing what Jakarta experienced until a decade ago, between 1985 and 1997. Between 1990 and 1997 I worked in real estate sector as planning director of a 3,000 ha new town development, and mixed use high-rise, high-density developments in the heart of Jakarta central business district.

Despite the saying that things never happen quite the same twice, some fundamental lessons are sufficiently general to inform Mumbai or even many other developing metropolises, provided that careful considerations are given on their respective contexts.



Mumbai Eastern Water Front is the city’s tremendous asset amidst its current high rate of economic growth on one hand and its city-wide multifacets problems on the other. The Eastern Water Front is an opportunity to provide solution at least to parts of Mumbai’s city-wide problems, not just to its own problems.


The economic high rate of growth would demand space for development. It might want it quick and easy. New land development in the suburbs is often the answer. In many cities, that have resulted in a paradox: a quick and easy, low qualiy land speculative development in the suburbs, further encroaching upon the nature and enlarging ecological footprint, vis-à-vis abandoned and dilapidated inner city with its hundreds of years of sunken investment in both physical infrastructure and situations of  social-economical relationships.


The local informal economy in the area is so industrious, contary to the decline in  formal industry. I would appreciate more information and a closer look at the the informal economy in the area, in fishing, boats breaking and steel recyling businesses, on how this economy really work, on how they are linked or can be linked to  small scale investments both into the existing businesses, into creating new ones, or into community upgrading improvement, and how do the different trades access resources, and what kinds of assets exist at their disposal. This kind of knowledge is so important as an antidote to over dependence on big external capital investment that often results in eviction and buldozing of social situations and natural and cultural heritage to make a wide way for it.


The problem with the inner city areas is always that they are mostly entangled in conflicting interests, legal issues concerning lands and other things, and institutional incapacity. Over time it has developed into complex and dense relationships that are not easy to disentangle.


Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for spatial recycling and reorganising that is supposedly more sustainable and restorative with regards to the whole city.


It is not unreasonable for a city, its government and its citizens as a collective entity, to require that every piece of land within its territory contribute to the city as a whole, taking into consideration that private interest is accomodated as well in a balance, as it is the source of wealth that a city requires. It is equally not unreasonable for private sector, companies and individual citizens, to generate revenues, taking into consideration that it needs its surrounding to sustain profits. 



An important factor as not to lose such great urban restorative opportunity is a well articulated public interest on behalf of the city as a whole.


The study by UDRI is a brilliant, revealing document to inform the public. It is a fundamental prerequisite to further articulate the public interest. It provides the information necessary to build a cause for the city, and at the same time a platform to consolidate public awareness of the opportunity. It made the unseen part of the city visible. It might be an eyesore to some; but with little imagination it is easy to see it as windows to a more sutainable future. It makes us able to peep into the future.



Further arguments on the sustainable benefits of spatial recycling and reorganising need to be developed and, at the same time, be used to generate public imagination and consensus.


I would argue that architectural exercise should be paralel, and not just consequential, to planning execise. By architecture I mean the language that details possibilities into forms that are easily perceivable by general public, who are mostly non-technical.  I would also argue for inconventional methods and tools of exploration that would enrich public understanding and imagination. Artistic approaches, such as the photography workshop that the Max Mueller Bavan has initiated, is one of such approaches that I have in mind.



Articulation of public interest requires also fora and healthy channeling. It should also be challenged in open negotiation with private sector and, if any, other interests.


It is normal that public interest is difficult to define, let alone to reach a consensus about it. The so called public is often fragmented, uninformed, and indifferent, especially after a long silence or being cut off from the unseen parts of the city. But there is no other way to guarantee a sustainable spatial re-organising. And, by now, there are enough technigues and methods to facilitate such process. I believe there is also increasing concern among the general public, including a more diverse group of elites. This is an incredible energy to make the public process feasible. 


The public is generally interested in quality growth, and never anti-growth. It is not about growth or no growth, but about what kind of growth.


In Mumbai’s eastern water front, just by having a simple stroll along it’s 30 km stretch, it is easy to imagine that quality growth could not mean anything else but to respond to the need of the whole city: social justice, environmental restoration and representation of  both cultural and natural heritage. And this would have to face the pressure from the capital that naturally would require space and land as well, due to the high growth rate.

One could say that “quality” would represent the general public interest to help motivate sustainable profit making by private sector.


The environmental challenge of development/growth has moved from minimum impact, to neutral impact, and recently to restoration and regeneration. This cannot be less important as public interest for the Mumbai Eastern Water Front as the city’s biggest opportunity.


It is not easy to argue for environmentalism vis-à-vis high rate of growth. It requires convincing principle and implementable techniques. However, there are new dicoveries and experiences now growing in number and depth all over the world that we can learned from, provided there is will and chances. Many of these are often better solutions in terms of cost-effectiveness and long term viability. But it requires change of both heart and mind. Sometimes it means reverting to old good practices, which might have been made to look awkward in the context of contemporary lifestyles.


There is also a sense of urgency with global warming. A recent studies by UN already indicated the cost for not adapting early. Because, even when we will stop it, the impacts will still be immense in the next couple of decades. (e.g. Sea level at Jakarta Bay is rising at the rate of 0.57 cm per year).



I am aware that all the above are easily said than done, especially by an outsider. Successful undertaking really eventually depends on specific politics of different sites, local, state, and national/federal. But I feel strongly that these initiatives by UDRI, its board, members, constituents, and its partners, including the Max Mueller Bhavan, are consolidating a lot of energy that cannot be stopped. I hope for more and deeper further studies on the environment, local economy and institutional possibilities. At the same time: more and wider public interest and engagement to be facilitated by easily accesible tools and methods, including architectural visioning and participatory mapping. I would rely on the city’s capacity to organise public sphere to generate more knowledge, dialogues and eventually consensus. The Task Force for Planning and Redevelopment of Eastern Water Front, that have been established in 2002, could be an institutional starting point.  





Marco Kusumawijaya,



Notes on “real-estate” session:


Real estate sector is certainly one important avenue for provision of housing. The challenge is to develop and give space for other avenues (ways, mechanism, institutional set-ups), not just innovations on the real estate sector. At the same time, it would not be fair to critise the (conventional) real estate sector on what they cannot do, such as working outside their own discipline of reasonable profit making. It is the job of the government, politicians and civil society to think about the “other avenues,” that could include, for examples, cooperative housing, self-help housing (a scheme that the International Slum Dwellers Federation so passionately advocates) and other avenues that basically look at housing as more than just a usual market commodity.


The limitation of real estate sector to provide housing lies at the fact that conventional logics of supply and demand cannot be applied to housing for very fundamental reasons:


  1. Housing products cannot be completely standardised. Even appartment units of the same size within the same stack on the same plot, but on different floors, will have different values.  
  2. Housing is a basic need for human natural and cultural reproduction, not just a product that people can choose not to have without compromising their basic dignity as human beings.
  3. Increasing supply do not necessarily decrease the price when there is extremely huge demand, because the demand will simply overwhelm the incremental supply. The supply driven policy in Singapore worked only because the demand is limited and there existed a totalitarian regime. Increasing supply in housing can neither be easily done on the same location without destroying the existing supply.
  4. Housing is linked to its location also in terms of social and cultural relationships that cannot be displaced as such. The “location” has much more values and meanings other than being functional in economic flow.
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