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Mumbai: from a post-colonial city to a global financial and cultural centre

Mumbai as a former colonial city with a rich cultural heritage
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Hello, everybody. What role can urban conservation and preservation play in designing and changing a city’s profile? To answer this question, let’s look at the case of Mumbai. Colonised first by the Portuguese and later by the British, Mumbai, previously known as Bombay, rose from a small urban dwelling to an important hub for cotton trade in the 17th century to become in the 21st century India’s financial centre and a global multicultural and multiethnic metropolis with its blend of cultures, religions, languages, cuisines, fine and popular arts.
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Territorially speaking, the narrow promontory of South Mumbai with its British Fort represents the commercial and historical centre of the city, which has expanded quickly during the late 20th and early 21st century in two directions– towards the upmarket residential areas, where the elites live, and towards the large slums that surround the city centre, where internal migrants have settled in dramatically growing numbers. The postcolonial and multiethnic past of this city and its current role as a major cultural and commercial hub have generated important dilemmas of preservation of its urban heritage. Back in 1991, Mumbai was the first Indian city to adopt heritage regulations, which currently impinge on over 574 buildings, one public open space, 14 milestones, and 18 precincts.
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In India, national regulations for heritage preservation were geared towards archaeological sites and ancient monuments. By adopting its own urban heritage regulations, Mumbai has thus made a major step to protect its colonial heritage. The conservation of the important heritage precincts of this city, such as the Victorian Neo-Gothic Fort area, the Art Deco Marine Drive, the temple precincts of Mahalakshmi and Banganga, took up an innovative approach by protecting entire neighbourhoods and not isolated buildings. Urban conservation in Mumbai has been largely led by citizens and civil society associations.
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Let’s look at two interesting examples– first, the preservation of the historic cricketing ground of Oval Maidan, which saw local residents raise over $300,000 US in corporate funding and sponsorships to restore the ground and clean the area. A second example of urban conservation I want to draw your attention to is that of the Dadabhai Naoroji Road Heritage Streetscape Project, which ran between 1998 and 2001 and that changed the look of one of the busiest commercial areas in the Fort precinct. The incredible beauty and heritage value of the arcaded bazaars and neoclassic buildings that characterise this road were obscured by large-sized billboards and signboards and devaluated because of incongruous street furniture.
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The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority established a trust, the MMR Heritage Conservation Society, to fund research studies and draft the guidelines for the restoration of the street. After having surveyed all the elements of this historical streetscape, the society organised monthly meetings with shop owners and inhabitants of the area to raise awareness of the new regulations and inspire compliance. By 2001, most shop facades had adopted the new regulations that indicated dimensions for advertisement boards, and a citizens’ group had been formed to carry forward this public initiative and restore the heritage character of the street through public participation and sponsorship. In 2004, the local authority was awarded the prestigious UNESCO’s Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Merit for this successful project.
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The Oval Maidan and the Dadabhai Naoroji Road projects reflect the importance that private benefactors and participatory governance approaches have played and play in addressing the many cultural and urban heritage preservation challenges a super diverse, postcolonial global city like Mumbai can face. Certainly there are important cultural heritage preservation challenges ahead for Mumbai. Its high population density, combined with dramatic economic and demographic growth, raises important challenges of environmental sustainability, as well as for balancing out architectural preservation, urban planning, transport, and infrastructure. But its past experience allows for confidence that these challenges will be met.
This video explains the case of Mumbai as a former colonial city with a rich cultural heritage.
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