Can Urban Rivers be avenues of future development?

“In a developing society, architecture and resources must reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, every element of the society must show the world that it has the potential to be changeable. And can help the society to change as per need.” ― Ernst Fischer

For the most common understanding of the term, Urban decay (also known as urban rot and urban blight) is the process whereby a previously functioning city, or part of a city, falls into disrepair and decrepitude.(Wikipedia)

Many cities around the world today face a pressing issue of decaying urban infrastructure. Most modern cities stand witness to buildings, highways, flyovers, railroads and more such human casted concrete fall into oblivion and despair. Factors driving decay vary between infrastructure falling obsolete, ageing of materials to human cruelty for the sake of development. It is justifiable that what was constructed decades ago is destined to age, and what has aged essentially raises concerns towards its restoration or complete demolition based on its relevance and need in the city fabric. It is also fair to say that construction, restoration and deconstruction are all a part of an inevitable urban cycle. American cities in specific have seen the most dramatic drives of urban renewal radically transforming cities making way for new infrastructure to be laid upon.

But somewhere in between of all this chaos and desire for a better and well facilitated urban life, we have often ignored, disrespected and constantly abused a layer of infrastructure that was not an intervention of mankind but a benefaction of nature. It is the infrastructure that centuries ago acted as the corner stone of settlements which grew to become the modern towns and cities of today. Rivers, lakes and many other natural resources constitute this layer of urban infrastructure. They act as a medium to an eco system of which human beings are a part. It is often said, where there is water, there is life, and vice versa, but what humans have given back to these valuable natural resources is a pure reflection of our auto centric practices and hunger for land and power, to an extent of these rivers and lakes being plagued by the phenomenon of Urban Decay. Instances like the condition of Yamuna River on the banks of which dwells the capital city of India, New Delhi, exemplifies the state of water infrastructure in the city as the river today is merely an open sewer carrying large quantities of industrial and domestic waste rendering the water black. The Yamuna River today stands null to any social or public importance as the citizens who for decades exploited the river have now abandoned it to its own state lacking any concrete plans for its revival back into the city. A river or stream could have never gone obsolete to its function, unless falling prey to human negligence and atrocities.

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Garbage collectors on the banks of Yamuna River, New Delhi

Time and again, such water resources have been polluted and encroached to reclaim land for development and often a result of an unmonitored urban sprawl. Cities around the world face severe challenges of restoring these ecologies that have been disturbed and drastically affected by persistent inhuman activities forming districts of deteriorated and poor quality of life. Biologist Edward O. Wilson states that "21st century should be the era of restoration in ecology." If man is the one who hurts, he is also the one to heal. The term 'Restoration' though comes last in play in the chronology of events, and is generally a 'Response' to an alarming or a crisis situation. This brings in the discussion of how a response to decaying urban infrastructure is different from restoration of the same. In many a situations, the initial response to such challenges are more inclined towards immediate solutions and hence ill conceived, leading to dreadful repercussions.

Pearce, Fred. "A Successful Push to Restore Europe’s Long-Abused Rivers." December 10, 2013.

The Cheonggyecheon River in Seoul, South Korea went through its course of time and is one that best testifies the journey from Response to the urgency of Restoration. The Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project dealt with excavation of a 5.8 km stretch of river which during the 1960'-70's was buried under concrete as a 'response' to its decaying condition. A two tier highway was decommissioned and torn down to put the river back into the city fabric reviving the lost history of the Seoul. Until the 1960's, Cheonggyecheon river ran through the heart of the capital city of Seoul and merged into the

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A before and after(post restoration) imagery of Cheonggyecheon

Han's River, a river that was responsible for Seoul being chosen as the capital city of Korea. So why were the highways at all built if they were destined to be demolished and why was the river at all laid over with concrete if it had to be restored 30 years later. By 1950's South Korea had suffered the scars of World War II and the horrific Korean War and was in a need to restructure its economy and cities. Cheonggyecheon by then had become an open sewer with high density of slums dwelling on its banks. The high influx of immigrants as a result of these wars lead the homeless to take refuge on the banks of the river. The river become a threat to human life and the cost of cleaning or restoring it unmanageable for the post war economy. The response then under an urban renewal drive was to not 'restore' but to completely cover the river which would eventually help erase the slum footprints. Work began In 1958 and in a span of 20 years, the stream had vanished under layers of concrete and a two tier highway that crawled through the hustle bustle of the city of Seoul.

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Shanties along Cheonggyecheon in the 1950's

'The result was, in some ways, a classic modern transportation system that allowed and encouraged the smooth flow of automobile traffic across the city, but it also helped to install a cultural and economic divide within the city' .

It didn't take long before the authorities realized that the river needs to be 'Restored' to retrace nature back into the city by reviving a spine of green infrastructure and reinforcing a healthy public oriented urban experience. In a mere span of 3 years (2003 - 2006), the highway was demolished, surface excavated and the river restored to its new landscape with plants, fishes and occasional birds. Today, Cheonggyecheon is not only a stream flowing through a busy business district of Seoul, but an extension of the public realm providing the citizens mesmerizing landscapes and knitting back a layer of ecology into the city. It has become a stand point reference for urban designers and landscape architects to devise solutions for similar challenges in other contexts across the world.

Busquets, Joan. Deconstruction/construction: The Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 2011.

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People enjoying the landscapes of the restored Cheonggyecheon River

But Can such strategies of urban restoration of decaying infrastructure be applied to more distressed localities with utmost need of revival?

Once, the triggers of advanced civilization, Rivers and other urban water bodies are now the breeding grounds for haphazard development. The farms and industries dependent upon the river basin in the past are proving to be reasons for its destruction today. Industrial waste generated is dumped into the rivers, harming the river ecosystem, making it a critical decaying infrastructure of the city , which is often over looked.

" Our rivers are dying. We, the educated ones , still remain ignorant of the repercussions of their death on our health and quality of life. Today there is not a single river in all of India whose waters may be considered fit for drinking. They have all been reduced to dirty nalahs ... " – Rajendra Singh (water man of India)

Home to the Mithi River - Mumbai, the commercial capital and the most populous city of India has been molded by man in ways like never before. The city initially constituted of 7 islands when given to the British by the Portuguese. The British soon realized the potential of Mumbai as a port city and started mass reclamation of land to unify these islands to make the mega city of Bombay. After independence this reclamation was exploited through mass migration into the city which resulted in haphazard encroachment on land similar to the case of Seoul post Japanese rule. Mumbai was transforming into a megalopolis and was out numbering the people it could hold, the resources it could sustain.

One of the most exploited natural resource that is doomed by the rapid growth and development of the city is the Mithi River itself. Mithi, with barely an existence of 15 meters today is largely unknown even to the people of Mumbai. The river Mithi bears a name that is suggestive of both sugar and salt, an apt metaphor for its origin and its end. The influxes of people to the suburbs lead to rapid development creating residential, commercial and industrial encroachments on the banks of the river. These encroachments further developed narrowing the river and molding the course generating ecological imbalance. Industrial effluents were let into the river. Within no time the river got converted to a Nullah(thin stream) carrying sewage and effluents. For those who couldn’t afford land ownership costs and rental housings schemes took the slums as a last resort thereby leading to unattended waste being let into the river. But its waters were not meant to carry toxic pollutants and garbage as they do today. Its banks were not meant to be pavilions for exhibiting the unspeakable squalor of slums. At this point, the parallel between Cheonggyecheon and Mithi becomes interesting and alarming owing to an identical set of challenges and issues. Mumbai though, continues to meekly address the situation with similar do away interventions nowhere nearing restoration.

Ray, Malabika, and K. Sitaramn. Urban Ecological Issues with Special Reference to Mumbai.

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Evolution of the city of Mumbai and the deteriorating reach of the Mithi river

Current land use and development patterns of the city show a strong degree of anthropocentrism, undermine important ecological processes and destroy the natural environment. In view of growth and economic progress, the development plans for the city for the past 60 years, neglected environmental and ecological imperatives. Planning processes have been replaced by short term opportunistic decisions that destroy the environmental safeguards, neglecting the needs of a majority of the city dwellers and are implemented without considering their long term impact, ecological values and environmental costs.

A shift of capital from the primary circuit of production to the secondary circuit of the built environment has led to mega construction activity like business districts, sophisticated office complexes, luxury housing , numerous flyovers and many more. Acres of mangroves and wetlands have been reclaimed and the edge of the Mithi which was once a free flowing river meeting the Arabian sea with a grand estuary has been diminished to a mere concretized channel abutting slums on one side and lusty developers on the other.

This wasn’t a gradual process. Rapid, haphazard growth of the city due to mass migration during the mega reclamation of the 7 islands of Mumbai, burdened the city with a high demand of livable land and house stalk. The cheapest places to live were near these new reclaimed areas , once a high land value enterprise , now became home to thousands of migrants from the entire western India and beyond . The reclaiming continued due to high amount of waste disposal on the basins , which would be later packed and compressed and become foundations to new houses. The present land use regulations neither recognize natural processes, nor allocate responsibility to the acts of the land owners or developers.

Today Mithi barely extends fifteen kilometers and its existence is largely unknown even to the people of Mumbai. The Mithi river faced the odds of urban interface and started to get trained as a drain that would perform to demand , by the civic authorities.

Bhagat, R. B., Mohua Guha, and Aparajita Chattopadhyay. "Mumbai after 26/7 Deluge: Issues and Concerns in Urban Planning." Popul Environ Population and Environment, 2006.

Banerjee, Swapna. "Urban Restructuring in Bombay." Economic and Political Weekly, 2002.

The residents of Mumbai and most of the responsible authorities, lost their appreciation and accommodation of the temporal complexities of a monsoon landscape 3 main factors that burden the physical existence of the river are Land uses – informal and formal , Behavioral patterns – by residents & civic authorities and interaction modes – tangible and intangible.

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Mithi River now a concrete channel with slums on one edge and developer owned land on the other

The physical character of the river is divided into 3 parts – the National Park , The urban interface and the estuary .

The river in the last 20 years has reduced in width by a staggering 75% and in depth by 50%. The edges of the river are concertized and the abutting infrastructural developments make the river flow as a channel or nallah.

Goenka, Debi. "Agenda for Urban Renwal." Mumbai Vision 2015, 2006.

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Demarcating the regions of the river

The main area of concern is the region of urban interface – the portion of the river where it meets the urbanized land. The modes of interaction are in terms of sewage thrown into the river by slum residents, effluents let out in the river by small and big scale industries and over demanding transportation infrastructure.

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Mithi River is slowly regressing towards the fate of Cheonggyecheon post Korean War. The encroachments and the concrete walls are highly synonymous and extending to what the river suffered as a response to the issues of a chaotic urban sprawl and mass migration. Mumbai has abused and is now eating up its own treasure. 2 main highways run along the river and the planning of which has contributed to many changes of the course of the river. One vital transport infrastructure that has impacted the river is the extension of the Mumbai airport’s runway , that made the civic bodies turn the river 90o four times. The abruption in the direction of the flow of the water, and concretizing the channel has created many hazards for the airport itself and the settlements in the locality . Moderate to high floods and a part of the runway is under water.

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The airport infrastructure at the rim of the Mithi River

As the SOAK book by Aniruddha Mathur firmly mentions “An estuary de a demands gradients not walls, fluid occupancies not defined land uses, negotiated moments not hard edges. In short it demands the accommodation of the sea not a war against it which continues to be fought by engineers and administrators as they carry sea walls inland in a bid to both, channel monsoon runoff and keep the sea out.”

Politics though has had its toll on Mithi River, contrary to Cheonggyecheon where an elected Mayor had considerable financial autonomy and a strong political base to act upon. It was an easy strategy for the Mayor Lee Myung Bak as the project was a part of his election manifesto and helped him get nominated and eventually be elected as the President of South Korea in 2007 . It has been one of the most expensive river restoration projects with an expenditure of roughly 380 million USD. For Mithi, we are talking about 5 times the scale and budget and it is an extremely tough call for a developing nation like India where political parties can stand as serious oppositions to such expenditures.

Saving the river should be the prerogative of the city civic authorities. But they seem to intentionally turn a blind eye on the problem .The industries who find an easy way out by dumping the waste into the river and save millions of dollars by not treating the waste are not the only ones profiting by this system.

Green, Colin. "“SWITCH – Managing Water for the City of the Future." Int J of Cl Chan Strat and Man International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, 2012.

The corrupt officials get hefty amount of commissions in doing so and have had a long history of filling their pockets (as mentioned by the Ex-Chief Minister of Maharashtra -Vilas Rao Deshmukh in his article – Mithi Nadi syndrome). But these industries also provide jobs to over 85,000 residents of the city and it is a growing employment market. Also, with the extreme high pollution and current state of the river the adjoining land prices are receding very rapidly – another incentive for industrial investment in cheap land.

How can Cheonggyecheon's approach help Mithi?

  • Mithi if restored could function as a 10 mile long green infrastructure helping Mumbai revive its lost ecologies back improving living conditions of people dwelling on the edges of the river by reducing pollution.
  • It can supply the much required open space to Mumbai – offering pockets of breathing lungs along a river spine.
  • Programs could not only be public oriented but a strong working cum recreational riverfront can be incorporated
  • It can intangibly help in building not only the ecological but a strong financial district the city as Cheonggyecheon did to its surroundings by increasing property value and bolstering the business district.
  • Mumbai needs to learn from Cheonggyecheon but be percipient in planning concrete steps towards its restoration. It lacks the financial resources and governance to fast track a restoration project of this scale, but the propositions if planned progressively and involving the community as a whole could make a huge impact. A bottom up strategy could be the immediate solution by fostering the community as stakeholders in improving the edge conditions of the Mithi River. Although, certain strict policies need to be implemented that shall restrict industries from disposing waste into the river, penalize encroachments and lay a better framework of land use along the edge of the river. There is undoubtedly a lot that Mumbai can benefit from a prudently conceived restoration of the Mithi River.

    - Ar. Karan Daisaria
    Project Architect, Daisaria Associates

    Ar. Dhruv Batra
    GSAPP (Urban Design) Alumni

    +91 22 6111 0504

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    Nr. Jolly Gymkhana, Vidyavihar (W)

    Mumbai – 400 086, MH, INDIA.