The racecourse as a public park for all

The racecourse as a public park for all

The racecourse should not be constructed upon — for pleasure or profit. How difficult is it for the BMC and the state Government to guarantee this much?

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Friday, January 06, 2023, 01:50 PM IST
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Mahalaxmi Racecourse | File Photo

The future of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse is being written now. In what shape and form, and with what level of access, Mumbaikars will continue to have this oasis of green in the city will depend on a complex set of factors which will influence the evaluation and decision on the latest proposal.

As always, in a city where land is presumed and projected to be a “scarce” resource, a decision about a large parcel of land is fraught with its own set of pulls and pressures. However, there should not even be a debate on the fact that the green of the Mahalaxmi Racecourse space needs to be open and totally unconstructed upon. Mumbai, as is well known, has amongst the lowest per capita open space in any metropolitan city in the world. Every possible inch of space that could have been transformed into a green zone has been built upon especially in the last two decades.

If the 8,55,000 square metres or roughly 225 acres of the racecourse is left open and green – of course with better and increased access to people – it would be the most ideal gift to the city. But there is a proposal to develop it just as there have been for the last many years. About a quarter of the prime land is owned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the rest by the state government; the BMC has had a 99-year lease from 1914 with the Royal Western India Turf Club for its horse races. This expired in 2013 and was not renewed. Instead, the BMC floated a proposal to turn the space into a theme park.

In the decade since, neither was the lease renewed which meant a loss of revenue for the BMC nor was the park idea shelved or taken forward. The newly-minted MLA and Thackeray scion, Aaditya Thackeray, had mooted the theme park idea – the buzz was that he wanted it named after his grandfather and Shiv Sena founder the late Bal Thackeray – and the Sena-controlled municipal corporation had passed a resolution in a general body meeting in 2013 towards this too.

However, his party’s dominant ally and then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis did not take a decision prompting him to meet Fadnavis three years later with the specific request to move the racecourse to Navi Mumbai or Alibaug. The latest proposal from the BMC is a rehash of the older one but with a difference; the BMC now wants the government, from news reports available, to hand over its portion of the land so that it can proceed with the theme park plan.

At the heart of this story lies the familiar battle for a public place that can remain green and peaceful enough to provide respite from the urban concrete and noise to anyone who might want a slice of it. And at the heart of this battle lies the familiar tug of war in Mumbai – between land as it should be zoned and used for maximum public benefit versus its potential as a profit-spinner for the political-developer industry that flourishes in the city.

The racecourse could have become a large public park with a natural ecosystem or urban forest supporting a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna – with greatly improved access to all Mumbaikars. It could be the natural area in the city counter-placed to the Aarey forest in the north or vast tracts of marshland-wetland in the eastern side – a place that brings families and friends together, a picnic spot, a walkway and perhaps a cycling track. Walkers and joggers use the lush and verdant space now, horse races take place on schedule and have not ceased since the lease expired, and stray groups of Mumbaikars saunter in there occasionally to take in the peaceful green but the racecourse is hardly anyone’s choice when they want to be in the open and amidst green.

Turning it into a comprehensively thought-out and ecologically-sound public park should be the only way ahead if something has to be done with it – a public park, not a theme park. By definition, a theme park calls for intervention and construction to reflect a central idea; it may well have joyrides, amusement machines, clubs, gymnasiums, cafeterias and restaurants, and more.

The racecourse should not be constructed upon – for pleasure or profit. How difficult is it for the BMC and the state government to guarantee this much? In fact, the need now is to get ecologists on board to regenerate the racecourse as an urban forest. It is well worth remembering that Mumbai faces the prospects of severe urban floods and needs as many groundwater aquifers as it can have, besides the area is close to the sea coast though the Coastal Road construction has put a large tract of land between the racecourse and the sea than there used to be. Any plan for the racecourse must be cohesive with the city’s climate action plan.

In discussions about the racecourse, parallels are often drawn with the Central Park in New York. One of the defining features of NY, Central Park is a world in itself. But any comparison would be futile beyond the obvious green space in a concretised city; its history and trajectory as well as its place in NY is different from that of the Mahalaxmi racecourse in Mumbai. The Central Park involved renovation and regeneration of marshy land, wiping out Seneca village populated by African-Americans and the Irish, and repeated interventions of civic-minded New Yorkers to finally create the Conservancy.

The Park was planned and made in the 1850s to offset the congestion and ill-health as waves of migrants came to the city. The then NY administration invited designs through a competition and this one was chosen from the 33 submitted. The plan was naturalistic and involved the creation of wooded areas to replicate the rural greens. It was inspired by Birkenhead Park in Merseyside, England, which is acknowledged as the first publicly-funded park in the world. It too was made to counter the squalid living conditions in the adjoining industrial areas.

The Mahalaxmi racecourse should be a large and verdant, ecologically-rich, public park on these lines rather than a theme park for amusement. Ideally, Mumbai ought to have dozens of neighbourhoods parks, mini–Central Parks as it were, along its length and breadth instead of one large space which makes access and use simpler for people on a daily basis. But if the choice is between “developing” it as a theme park – with inevitable construction – and regenerating it as a central park, the latter would be preferable.

Also, the decision about the future of a place so important to the city is, as expected, made in the corridors of power with the backroom negotiations that such decisions carry rather than making it a consultative process which calls for people’s participation. The government and the municipal corporation are custodians of the land; it belongs to the people, after all.

Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and media. She is the founder editor of ‘Question of Cities.’

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