Widespread clamour against Mumbai’s Draft Development Plan forced the Maharashtra government to order a review. Many people are worried that raising floor space index (FSI) limits will fuel congestion, favour developers and jeopardise an important source of public revenue. While rise in congestion has been raised as an issue, the opposition on that ground is misguided.
Mumbai’s planners first introduced FSI limits in Mumbai in 1964. The limits regulated the amount of floor area that could be built in various zones of the city. If the FSI in a zone was say 1.5, then, on any plot in the zone, floor area amounting to one-and-a-half time the area of the plot could be built on it.
In some zones the FSI limit was set higher than the prevailing norm. This meant that in that zone additional floor area could be added to most buildings. In other zones, the FSI limit was set lower than the prevailing norm. These zones were thought to have too much floor area. The lower FSI limit implied that, most existing building, if torn down, would have to be replaced by ones with less floor area. Mumbai’s planners wanted to regulate floor area to regulate congestion. They wanted to allow more floor area to be built in zones that they thought could take more crowding and decrease floor areas in zones that they thought were too crowded. They believed that controlling floor area could regulate congestion. Was this correct? The simple answer is, no.
Old school planners believed that simply by specifying the amount of floor area and simultaneously specifying the amount of floor area that should be consumed per person in that zone, a fixed number of people will live in that zone. They did not realise that for their desired outcome to come about, the zone would have to be strictly policed to ensure that people are, on average, consuming the specified amount of floor area.
Without effective policing, crowding in an area depends on how many people want to live there, how much floor space they are willing to do with and how much they are willing to pay for it. If demand to live in an area is low, crowding and prices will be low. If demand rises, and if no floor space is added to the existing amount of floor space, more people buying into the area will raise prices along with crowding. Rising prices will deter more people from moving in — but only deter. If demand mounts, it is also possible that people will learn to make do with lesser floor space, pay even more for it. They may even build more floor space illegally, crowd into slums or dwell on pavements.
Without strict policing it is simply not possible to regulate crowding by regulating floor space. When confronted with this conclusion, old school planners justify their actions by conveniently insisting that ‘people should follow the rules’, or that, ‘we are not responsible for policing people’, as if policing of this sort is possible at all.
Not convinced? Imagine that FSI limits are doubled across a city. Imagine that, everyone, incentivised by this policy change, builds atop their buildings and the total amount of floor area in the city doubles. ‘Floor area density’ in the city will double, but for ‘people density’ — crowding — to double the city’s population will also have to double. Will millions be lured to Mumbai simply because FSI has been doubled? Even if FSI is freely available, building new floor area costs money. Free FSI cannot lure people. Nor can restrictive FSI deter them. Limiting floor space, to limit city growth, is akin to limiting food supply to limit population growth. It will only increase deprivation. This is what has happened in Mumbai.
Restrictive FSI limits have sustained an artificial scarcity of floor space, forced people to make do with crowding, driven up property prices, made legal housing unaffordable and fueled the expansion of slums. Allowing planners, instead of households and firm, to decide how much and where to build has promoted inefficient use of land and impeded the transformation of land uses in the city.
Scarcity of floor space has also helped sustain the illusion that relaxing FSI limits results in increased congestion. In conditions of scarcity, when FSI limits are relaxed on a plot or in a small area, people will immediately flock there. Seeing this, it is natural for people to conclude that increasing FSI results in increased crowding. It is unlikely that they will carefully consider how people are likely to behave if the scarcity is dispelled. In the long run, to ensure that population growth does not congest cities one can only do what all great cities of the world have simultaneously and incrementally done. Ensure availability of rights of ways; set minimal building standards with an eye on affordability; enable people to build as densely as they desire, where they desire; enable easy and affordable cross-city transportation, and; enable the city to expand out into the periphery.
It is senseless to do what Indian cities have historically done. Disregard importance of rights of ways; set unaffordable standards; let planners specify where everyone should live and work; neglect cross-city transportation; restrict growth within cities; discourage peripheral expansion; and hope that villagers will remain in villages. Mumbai’s Draft Plan rejects this old licensepermit-raj approach to liberally allow more growth where people naturally want to be.
Projects to improve cross-city transportation and to develop peripheral areas are also underway. These moves are all sound, pragmatic, in the right direction and long overdue. They should be whole-heartedly welcomed.
The writer is an Architect & Urban Planner. President, CEPT University & Director, HCP Design, Planning and Management.
Views are personal.