The Politics of Leisure

Smriti Bhaya is a young architect, who graduated from Kamla Raheja Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) in 2019. She has interned at Mathew and Ghosh Architects in Bangalore and has worked as a junior architect at JDAP, Mumbai, and as a teaching assistant at her alma mater. Presently she’s working with Parallax Design Studio. Her thesis titled ‘Everyday X Governance’ has been presented at CEPT’s KVD Forum, AOA, IES College of Architecture, and has recently been a part of the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. She is passionate about promoting and designing equitable and resilient public domains and wishes to engage with placemaking design in the future. She also recently completed the Young Leaders for Active Citizenship Fellowship.

A city is a heterogeneous entity – it is a mix of people of all ages, genders, social and occupational backgrounds. A city like Mumbai is almost an amoeboid entity, constantly growing and multiplying and diversifying. Being one of the most urbanized cities in the country, the urban fabric of the city creates and regulates the cognitive relationship that people have with
the built environment. How people live, commute, and recreate are all connected and dependent on this urban fabric. While there is a lot of literature on the live and work socio-spatial relationships in the city, this article primarily throws light on the possibilities of play and leisure in the city.

While a city like Mumbai is being planned and designed to improve on the efficiency of housing and transportation (arguably in a capitalist manner), the spaces in which one can amble
about in their idle hours, are often ignored. How does the way in which our public recreational spaces are manifested and designed (not just in the architectural sense of the word, but also the policies and planning of them) affect how and who occupies them? What messages does the spatial order send out to its users? What are these politics of leisure?

This essay primarily tries to grapple with these important questions listing certain examples throughout the city of Mumbai.

Take for example the gated manicured gardens in the suburb of Mumbai, where there is only one prescribed route to walk, with restricted timings of occupation, and where one cannot idle about without any purpose. What makes this so different from Shivaji Park, or Chowpatty?

Public spaces in neighborhoods that are designed or used by the upper-middle class and upper class of the income bracket tend to be more exclusionary in their planning and design. In Gardens there are minimal seating areas, manicured lawns that cannot be accessed, high boundary walls, which essentially make them a private commodity only to be enjoyed by the
residents of the area.

Leisure spaces, when imposed with excessive order in their planning, tend to exclude a greater percentage of the population, simply because they don’t confine to the image of how that space should function. It creates an outsider vs an insider roleplay.

The surrounding that the open space exists in, creates as much an impact on how a person feels and thus occupies that space.

What makes one feel completely at ease in the open, is not the absence of surveillance, Mumbai beaches have them, rather it is the absence of the elitist gaze. The gaze of a ‘citizen’ who will look at you – the person who is not conforming to the prescribed activities of the public space; the prescribed activities being walking or jogging.

This gaze would also follow you if you were an ‘outsider’ perhaps. In the case of smaller public recreational spaces, people tend to develop a territorial attachment to them – thereby,
accentuating the ‘insider-outsider dichotomy. This gaze restricts and hinders the purpose of using that public space for leisure.

This is what makes it more important for public spaces such as beaches to retain their quality of space. Beaches in Mumbai work well as leisure spaces as they are open to all, at all times, have hawking zones, which ensures there are eyes on the streets. People feel free to play, walk, run, or even pause and sit down.

The upcoming coastal road project boasts of improving the open space in the city with almost 70 acres of green space which will include parks, gardens, amphitheaters, cycling tracks, and
walkways. Barring the environmental concerns of such a mammoth project, these open spaces, as understood by the various renders, are largely cut off from the hinterland by the coastal road.

The promenade walkway, which is the first lane adjacent to the sea, will perhaps fail to garner the footfall that the Bandra promenade receives because it is detached from the hinterland by a six-lane driveway and acres of green space at junctions. The Bandra Carter Road promenade functions well because it’s just adjacent to a two-way road, which is then flanked by residential apartments, shops, and eateries. In other words, there are ‘eyes on the street’ making it a safer, and more active public space. The potential to sit, walk, stroll, grab food, play, and easy accessibility from both private and public transportation is what makes this an eventful space.

Moreover, the open green spaces of the coastal road are mostly going to be in the shadow cast by the overhead roads – thereby being isolated, dark, and dingy. None of which are going to aid leisure and recreation. Largely unrestricted tracts of green spaces, clear of activity of any kind, without any hawker permissible zones, or shops will be under or ill-used.

It may seem that open and unhindered green spaces have the most potential in terms of being a tabula rasa that allows for any and every activity to take space. However, the spaces that see the most traction are often sheltered by an almost intangible and undefined boundary. It follows the same principle as ‘Too much of a good thing is not a good thing.’

A recent article mentioned the reduction of open spaces in the 2034 DP of the K/E ward to 10 percent of the previously allotted space available for public use. The 20 reserved open spaces are parts of hotels in the area. The current plan permits them to retain 90 percent of these plots (50% as commercial and 40% as private parks) It’s important as citizens of this city, that we pause to reflect on what kind of development we are permitting and advocating for – or rather lack of advocating for.

The above-stated examples engender a series of questions we must raise – What is the kind of leisure you are promoting? More importantly, what is the kind of leisure you are permitting
and curating? Who are you allowing and thereby excluding to use these leisure spaces? Will we have any outdoor spaces left to loiter – to simply exist?

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