Live! from Mumbai. Is the future ‘Infraspace’?

When Cllr Graham Quirk was elected Brisbane’s Lord Mayor he famously said we have to ‘squeeze the lemon’ and he wasn’t talking about smoothies and juices. Quirk was talking about sweating assets and getting every last drop of usage out of the infrastructure that we already have; using roads to maximum capacity and making public transport more efficient. And that’s exactly what we talked about today at the BMW Guggenheim Lab in Mumbai.

In Mumbai; a city where two-thirds of its population live in slums there are many urban challenges to consider; air pollution, poor sanitation, congestion, urban sprawl and the world’s highest road fatality statistics. Fifty years ago people rode bicycles. Now there is nowhere safe to walk and no space to safely ride a bicycle. Like many developed and developing cities around the world, Mumbai needs to redefine the role of the private car, as well as roads and transit, in the city.

‘Meet in the Middle’, a fantastic ongoing Lab program that aims to address some of the biggest urban concerns, then generate ideas, agree solutions and finally create a manifesto for a United Mumbai, was the backdrop for the “Visioning the Heart of Mumbai’ workshop which I presented at today alongside the eminent Nicholas Humphrey.

Engineers around the world use design principles and standard drawings to build things in our cities. Mumbai was not created that way. Mumbai is the result of continual interaction of people, of organically growing neighbourhoods and of communities that function sensibly but could function much better with some intervention.  For this reason one of the Lab’s visions for Mumbai is ‘infraspace’.

Whether you are in Bombay, Berlin, Birmingham or Brisbane much of our cities mega infrastructure has underutilised or unused space. Many cities have elevated rail tracks, roads and motorways. In Berlin, as one example, the ‘wasted’ space beneath the sections of elevated S-Bahn is used as informal unregulated car parking. By contrast, in Brisbane, one section of space under the elevated busway was used to build a multi-million dollar bicycle centre with cycle parking and showers for hospital workers.

In Mumbai, the focus of our workshop, the wide spaces between and above the cities extensive water pipe network is perfect for conversion to transport and mobility corridors.

Mumbai Lab team member Neville Mars, a Dutch architect and planner in China, has two rather fantastic ideas. The first is a double-decker skywalk above the pipelines, expanding on the existing Bombay skywalks, which connect people with train stations (more on Skywalks later in the week) and the second is Rickshaw Highways; roads dedicated to auto-rickshaws in the unused space between the water pipes.

My idea involves bicycles – of course! – and is, utilising my Cycling Super Highways concept, to build a plastic structure, using the waste plastic technology developed by pioneering civil engineering companies like the Vertech, over the pipes to create a 7 metre wide bike lane completely separated from parked and moving cars.  I’ll just say now, watch this space, because several people got very excited about using plastic yesterday!

If we really want our cities to be places for people, to be more economically and environmentally sustainable and to be ‘home’ to increasing numbers of residents then we really need to challenge existing engineering design principles, we need to understand infrastructure in social terms not merely in engineering, financial and costs terms, we need to debate using public spaces as tool for quality of life and public dignity and we need to challenge the ‘build more’ syndrome.

Perhaps ‘Infraspace’, the unused places and spaces in our cities, might just provide unique and exciting opportunities to challenge our current thinking. I reckon many an elected member would have to agree!






I think the best way to learn about cities is to talk with, and learn from, people who live in cities and so for the rest of the week I am going to be blogging and tweeting (and uploading photos) from Mumbai about slums, food, traffic congestion, public transport, motorbikes, bicycles and street life as well as the conclusions from the technical session at the BMW Guggenheim Lab – I would really love you to stay tuned and follow my adventures in Mumbai!