The experience of driving into Powai in Mumbai, India, is like finding an island in the middle of the sea. After miles of utilitarian roads surrounded by housing of all types, entering Powai's well-designed promenades feels like a rush of escapism.
The recent Hiranandani Gardens development project features vast streetscapes with everything from posh restaurants to one of the best hospitals in Asia. Walking on the wide pavements, I feel I can travel into the mind of the urban designer that envisioned Powai. Every design feature is incorporated intentionally and uses cutting edge design principles. However, what stands out about Powai is not only what it has to offer, but also what it lacks.
Downtown Powai has no street-vendors. Look further and you'll see the recently-developed portions have no slums either. I realized this when I did not want to spend money at Starbucks and opted to get a cheap roadside tea instead. Anywhere else in Mumbai I would only have to walk a few meters to find this. In Powai, it could be up to a kilometer, depending on where your local Starbucks is located.
Though overall, walkability is not a very significant issue in Powai, the idea of who can walk there is. Like all of Mumbai, you can still find people of every background walking the streets. However, by omitting informal economies like roadside tea-stalls, the designers of Powai also have made a strong statement: this place is a gated community.
Outwardly, Powai flaunts the latest in urban design, though the same cannot be said about its brand of urbanism. Planning theory is moving towards greater urban inclusivity. These new development models advocate for inclusion of mixed-income housing, accessible street-design, opening up of street-life (something Mumbai and its tea-stalls already do naturally), and opening services for low-income groups. Perhaps taking a cue from international luxury developments, Powai lacks both tea-stalls and this latest version of socially-inclusive urbanism.
Observing these trends made me feel guilty for enjoying the streetscape. However, I could still not deny that the area was very well-designed. I started to wonder if some degree of urban inclusivity is the price we always end up paying for urban beautification? This point hit home when I visited Dubai recently, and also when I read up about the oppressive history that built scenic cities in Belgium. However, these global observations made most sense when reading an article published last month on a residential housing co-op fighting a local slum-lord in Powai itself.
The Powai slum-lord was slowly encroaching on a green-space, and the residents filed a court-case which led to the demolition of the incoming slums. The green space was an important recreational area for the local residents. However, though his actions were illegal and he was taking advantage of poverty, the slum-lord was informally providing something in desperate need: low-cost housing.
In the battle between beautiful urban spaces and real public needs, which one should we prioritise? Could the housing co-op have addressed the situation differently, such as working with community groups to directly fundraise for residents in need of low-cost housing? Or are NIMBY-ism and "business as usual" the only routes we may take while we wait for state intervention?
Beautiful spaces such as Powai get entangled with a sense of local civic pride. After all' everyone, including myself, likes beautiful streets. However, too many of us are willing to pay a price for it, and the cost is often inclusivity. Good urban design must be matched with good urbanism that meets the civic and green design challenges of the 21st century.
Do you know of a project where urban beautification has actually enhanced inclusivity? Is beautification and development synonymous with gentrification? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments below.
Credits: Images by Adwitya Das Gupta. Data linked to sources.