Reimagining Versova Koliwada; A Placemaking Initiative
Reimagining Versova Koliwada
A Placemaking Initiative, 2021
Bombay 61, alongside members of the Versova Koliwada community and Ministry of Mumbai’s Magic, have transformed public spaces in the village through an innovative place-making initiative. The project supports the community to reclaim public spaces in the heart of the village to strengthen connections of the villagers to each other and to their cultural heritage.
To say that the koliwadas of Mumbai have been transformed from their original incarnation as fishing villages would be an understatement…and Versova koliwada is no exception. Home to Koli communities for over 600 years, and more recently to migrants from across the region, Versova koliwada has evolved from a village on an island, to a village within a bustling mega city in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. And as any Mumbaikar can tell you, life in this city doesn’t allow for much open space.
Contrast this with the traditional fishing village, where plentiful open spaces are at the heart of village life. Open spaces are like extensions of the home – people gather to socialize, play, entertain, make decisions, and sort out differences. Open spaces foster connections and enhance village life. In short, they are a fundamental part of the identity of the village and the people who live there.
In the koliwadas of Mumbai today, open space is a highly contested commodity. And as space becomes the subject of demand and conflict, open spaces fall victim to neglect and degradation, or simply disappear, changing the very character of the village itself.
Bombay 61's place-making initiative seeks to remedy that.
Place-making is a process that seeks to transform open spaces by putting them into the hands of the community, allowing residents to dictate the form they take and the functions they serve. It is essentially about creating spaces that hold meaning for communities, and that are conducive to authentic experiences and interactions. While improving the quality of life for community members is one aim, the process is also about empowerment and inclusion. Ultimately, place-making can be a way to turn the visions and aspirations of a community into reality.
The idea for the project came in response to concerns raised by the community members themselves. Villagers had lamented the loss of open space, as sky-high land values fuel the demand for development. The trend also introduces conflicting claims of ownership, which translates into a lack of use and neglect of spaces as time - and court cases - drag on. All of this directly impacts daily life in the village: through the darkening of streets as new buildings crop up in close quarters, the spread of litter and hazards from endless construction activities, and the sight of buildings falling into disrepair. Essentially, the growth-oriented, space-hungry urban development pattern that plays out in Versova Koliwada today with little benefit to the community is a contrast to the organic, people-centered form of development that had guided the evolution of the village for generations.
Bombay 61 proposed place-making as a way for the community to reclaim communal spaces and counter the dominant development trends. Harnessing the idea, talents and creativity of the community, the team created welcoming and accessible spaces by cleaning up and redesigning degraded spaces. The spaces also feature art, in the form of murals, to showcase unique features of the Koli culture. The aim was to draw people to the spaces, foster a connection to the community’s heritage, and strengthen the associational value of the culture, particularly among the youth. The community, including local leader Vikas Motiram Koli, with Jagdish Bhandari, Kalpesh Kaskar, Vishal Mandvikar, and Nilesh Dhakle, was involved in every step of the design and implementation of the initiative.
Bombay 61 first worked with the community to identify two suitable sites: one at the Bhandari Well and the other at Mandvi Gully, both of which hold significance for the community. The well is one of a series of wells that previously provided the main water source for the community and were popular spaces for socialization. It continues to be worshipped by residents and serves as a source of domestic water for some migrant communities. The building at Mandvi Gully, a busy junction in the heart of the village, had degraded into a dilapidated state through years of neglect as it sat at the centre of an ownership conflict.
Following site selection, the team identified two young Koli artists, Sairaj Shigwan and Rujvi Sankpal, to create the murals at each of the sites. The artists developed their vision for the artwork through conversations with the community, ultimately choosing to depict some of the most meaningful and symbolic aspects of Koli culture. While both murals feature fishers and fish markets, Sairaj chose to showcase the central role of women in a fishing life, and Rujvi, the pride of the Ganapati Visarjan festival and the local brass band that accompanies the annual procession.
Along with the murals, fresh coats of paint were applied to buildings, debris and litter were cleared, seating was installed, and trellises were constructed. Once the project was underway, more people got involved, chipping in with the clean-up and bringing in plants. Such participation of local residents is integral to place-making, as it reflects ownership on the part of the community, and ensures an inclusive, community-led reclamation of spaces.
Since their installation last year, the spaces have taken on a life of their own. The site at Mandvi Gully, which was previously something of a dumping ground for waste, including garbage discarded by transient commuters, has remained litter-free, and vendors have set up shop alongside the mural. The space at the Bhandari Well has become a community gathering space, including for women who regularly socialize at the site. The space has also drawn the attention of the youth, who have rediscovered a connection with the community fixture.
Flower and vegetable vendors reclaiming the space that was previously littered with garbage
It was gratifying for the team to see the youth excited about the initiative. Resident Rakhi Kharde says “The project made us realise how minimal interventions can transform the spaces of our village making them beautiful and more livable. I feel proud of having the luxury of having access to these kinds of spaces.” The new experiences and opportunities afforded by the renovated spaces are enjoyed by Koli and non-Koli community members alike, while instilling pride within the koliwadas also translates into a wider appreciation of Koli communities and their contributions to city life. Versova, like koliwadas across Mumbai, serves important purposes to other city dwellers, many of whom rely on the space and activities of koliwadas for fish, recreational opportunities, thoroughfares, and much more.
Perhaps most tellingly, Bombay 61 has been approached by community members with ideas for the next place-making project. Be sure to follow us to hear about the latest updates!