Gamdevi: Lessons from Mumbai’s past that could help it create a better future


Throughout history, cities have been defined by how they have adapted and responded to crises. Over the last few months, Mumbai has been battling the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread flooding due to the increasingly intense monsoon and longstanding planning failures. In an era of rapid climate change, these challenges will only increase. Mumbai’s ability to provide all of its residents access to decent housing, mobility and security will have important social, economic and environmental implications.

At a surface level, the city’s older neighbourhoods such as Gamdevi, near Grant Road in South Mumbai, offer charm and heritage. But digging deeper to investigate the origins of these areas and the principles that informed their development offers lessons from the past that could help frame equitable and energy efficient plans for the future.

The Gamdevi neighbourhood grew out of colonial Bombay’s need for affordable, well-planned housing at the turn of the twentieth century. From the 1860s, many of Bombay’s wealthy residents had moved into spacious and airy neighbourhoods like Byculla and Malabar Hill. Poor and middle-class Indians remained largely concentrated in squalid conditions on the northern periphery of the Fort precinct. The growing metropolis’s need for improvements in sanitation, housing and living conditions was brought into clear focus by the deadly plague of 1896.

After the plague, the Bombay City Improvement Trust was created in December 1898 with a name that encapsulated its mandate. It set about developing large plots of its northern landholdings to reduce overcrowding in the south. Between 1898 and 1930, it worked on several housing developments in cooperation with the Bombay Municipal Corporation. From Gamdevi to the Parsi and Hindu housing colonies in Dadar, the middle-class neighbourhoods built under the Improvement Trust’s direction were well-planned and community-minded.

Gamdevi’s old buildings are adorned with balconies that serve recreational and social functions. Credit: Aaran Patel

Gamdevi attracted people who wished to live in single-family homes as well as those who wanted to own flats in colonies. Gujaratis like the diamond merchant Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri built mansions like Mani Bhavan, which was Gandhi’s headquarters between 1917 and 1934. Communities such as the Konkani-speaking Brahmins from Chitrapur built the Saraswat Co-operative Housing Society, which was founded in 1915 and is the oldest such society in Asia.

Regardless of whether these were private homes or affordable flats for middle-class families, Gamdevi’s buildings were unified by sound design and development principles. The effect of a well-laid out ensemble was created by standard plot sizes, regulation of “height of buildings in relation to the adjoining open spaces as well as concern for common open spaces between buildings to ensure good ventilation”, as Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra note in Bombay: The Cities Within.

Gamdevi is defined by its scale, which is achieved through a combination of low-rise buildings and high-density development without compromising on people’s mobility and access to open spaces.

“To supplement housing and institutional land for which the city was in short supply, the layouts combined a mix of uses within a pre-determined master plan”, Dwivedi and Mehrotra write. These contextual regulations emanated from an understanding of the city’s needs and trust between…

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