Stories of Density

Research Fellowship Proposal

There is a process of intensification that our cities are witnessing in the last three decades of liberalization. Old historic areas and informal settlements are undergoing redevelopments on the pretext of the urban renewal of dilapidated or blighted areas. In all these cases, governments give incentives to private agencies to redevelop such precincts. The introduction of numerous laws and building regulations enabling such processes has begun to craft a new image for the city: tall buildings of glass, steel, and concrete, with high densities and shared public amenities.

In this process of intensification, density plays a critical role. However, there are many aspects of density that require immediate investigation. Density historically has been understood as the concentration of people in an area. If there are more people, the density is said to be higher. This is also called population density. Historically cities in India have high densities that help in achieving strong social networks. Patrick Geddes recognized this aspect through his work and thus suggested a conservative approach to developing such cities in India. Presently, there is a call for the compact city (Rod Burgess, 2000), especially in the western world, which aims to promote high-density mixed-use areas to prevent urban sprawl, characteristic of such cities from the early part of the twentieth century. In such cases, high-density assists in achieving sustainability by saving sensitive ecological land and organizing efficient transport.

But, the present form of density resulting from the process of intensification mentioned above, in cities like Mumbai, is a result of built density or bulk density that city governments determine through FSI, ground coverage, and setbacks. It is not always that urban forms that have high built density will have high population density. However, in the case of redevelopment projects, as seen in Mumbai, both population and bulk density can be very high, leading to a debate on the immediate environmental condition due to decreased light and ventilation. Builders promote such development with the intent of maximizing real estate returns. In such cases, they, along with city governments, comprehend density in numbers and figures, to increase profits. Such numerical comprehension of density can be limiting as it does not allow the other aspect of density to be appreciated.     

In this fellowship, we intend to explore the urban fabric of cities with high density that is caused due to multiple factors, be it population density that developed spontaneously due to social or cultural networks or density due to high-density architectural solution. In most South-Asian cities like Mumbai that are still developing, high-density has been natural and spontaneous, be it in the historic city or the informal neighborhoods that have developed incrementally over time. In such cases, the intent for high density also varies. Without understanding such a phenomenon, the need for intensification of such neighborhoods through redevelopment requires further investigation. Moreover, as pointed by various concerned professionals, the new form of density promoted through these redevelopment projects harms the neighborhoods’ amenity, infrastructure, and environment (Patel, 2014). It is apart from the fact that they erase various existing networks, leading to gentrification.  Thus, we need to expand the idea of density for our cities to open alternatives to reimagine the current intensification process.

With this intent, this fellowship wishes to explore the perceptual aspects of density that is often a complex concept involving the interactions of inhabitants’ perception and the concrete realities of the built environment (Alexander, 1993). It begins to push the definition of density from a numerical bias into something qualitative, which can be influenced by an individual or collective, thus affecting their quality of life. The definition of density is often devoid of the human aspect, over-simplified to the point where it overlooks the multi-dimensional nature of density and the human-space relationship. A human becomes an object subject to space, where they act as a self-existing being who is subject to any stimulus of physically dense living space. This concept negates the idea of a human as an enforcer who changes space (Wing Shing Tanga, 2019).

This study explores the perception of residents and business owners in the high density historic bazaar area of Mumbai. Mumbai is the 5th densest city in the world (World Population Review, 2021). Simultaneously the city has developed organically over the last three centuries through the simultaneous evolution of planned and spontaneous neighborhoods. The urbanization has led to a very dense urban fabric, which is now undergoing a wave of redevelopment. The idea is to understand and document the daily experience of the city’s density through the eyes of its everyday users to understand whether it is enabling or disabling. Furthermore, it explores the ideas of privacy, work, and domesticity in these high-density urban fabrics. Understanding density through the lens of the stakeholders would allow us to broaden its understanding, humanizing it, and with it, the architecture that encompasses it.

Dannah DeSouza – Fellow