Notes on Suburbia: Mumbai and Baroda
In simple terms, suburbia is understood as urbanization beyond the downtown, or, the Central Business District (CBD). It is assumed that the downtown will have offices and other commercial establishments like restaurants, cafes, and retail outlets, whereas the suburbia will have residences and other establishments which support living, such as shops, schools, hospitals, clinics, and other services. To take this simple distinction ahead, people living in suburbia will travel to downtown to work. Thus, downtown will be high-density, whereas the suburbs will be sparsely dense.
In this short reflective piece, I will be sharing my observations about the nature of suburbia in Sama, a neighbourhood in western Baroda vis-à-vis the suburb of Versova in Mumbai. The observations come from years of having lived in suburban Baroda, and having recently moved into Versova. I will share visual observations as well as my interpretation of the neighbourhoods based on a certain understanding because of my academic training in urban studies.
The first distinction between the two is built-form and population density. Even though both neighbourhoods are suburban, Sama in Baroda has fully-detached bungalows, semi-detached single-family homes, low-rise apartment buildings, and newly-emerging, six to seven story apartment buildings. Versova, on the other hand, has a dramatic mix of newly-constructed high-density, high-rise residential buildings, low-rise apartments as part of Co-operative Housing Societies (CHS), and road-facing shops and other commercial establishments. The bungalow or semi-detached, single-family home typology is non-existent here. Since the neighbourhood has more high-density, high-rise buildings and apartment buildings, the population density is also higher. I noticed how there are a lot more people on the streets here; walking, shopping, eating out, and so on.
The second point of distinction is the continued presence of sidewalks in Versova vis-à-vis the absence of them in Sama, Vadodara. I went for walks a few times around my apartment building in Versova, and noticed how at least 1.5- to 2-metre-wide sidewalks are present throughout the neighbourhood, except at certain spots and junctions where there is a high concentration of informal commercial sheds like car repair shops. This very feature of the neighbourhood makes it walkable and easy to move around. In Sama, on the other hand, sidewalks are almost non-existent. Except a small patch on the main arterial road, where the municipality recently constructed one-metre-wide sidewalk on only one side, the rest of the neighbourhood around the vicinity of my house has only thoroughfares, without sidewalks. This makes it less walkable, and more of a struggle to walk directly on the street. However, lesser traffic volume makes the experience less difficult, but the absence of sidewalks is strongly felt.
The third distinction is the presence of the overhead metro in Versova. The metro station, the line, covered entries/exits on four sides, and the scale of the structure that holds the metro line, has not only created a distinct set of spaces under the line, but also an added floating population which takes on and off the metro. The sound of moving vehicles, honking, metro trains, and of people and other activities, creates a strong echo in spaces immediately below and around the structural system that supports the metro. This echo creates an overwhelming audio-visual urban experience of the areas around the metro line. This kind of intensity is completely missing in Sama. It feels like a quiet suburb with moderate traffic on its main road at certain hours in the day.
Thus, based on the points discussed so far, both these suburban neighbourhoods display clear, observable distinctions of built density, population density, public infrastructure, housing typology, and defining urban landmarks, such as the metro station and its supporting infrastructure.
This note is just a small attempt to think about and share how different neighbourhoods, although similar in nature, not only produce different direct urban experiences, but also different urbanities, shaped by the physical urban form within which they unravel.