Tokyo to Mumbai and Back

August 26, 2008

Presentation for the Urban Age Conference Mumbai, November 2 2007 (speech)

Tokyo slum during the US occupation years from Ohio University State Archive

1. Our research focuses on the informal, unplanned areas in Tokyo and Mumbai. These have developed organically and gradually over time. This incremental development has contributed to the economic success of Japan. This story is about this incremental development – which is both simultaneously urban and economic. A story that unfolds in the shadow of the skyscrapers that have come to symbolize Japan’s economic miracle. A shadow that actually stretches over a 100 kilometers around Tokyo’s historical core and largely dominates its landscape just as the informal settlements largely dominate the urbanscape of Mumbai.

2. After the Second World War, Tokyo was totally destroyed. Millions returned to the city to find their homes razed to the ground. They had to begin rebuilding their lives from scratch. In this process local neighbourhoods became the stage of the rise of Japan’s middle-class. The roots of Japan’s economic development are the bazaar economy, the informal street-markets, the family retails, local service economies, local construction industry etc. These still are very much part of Tokyo’s urbanscape and its economy, and more importantly, are processes completely interconnected with Tokyo’s urban typology.

3. Low-rise, high density, mixed use, small-scale neighbourhoods constantly changed and evolved to become what is today uncontestably a modern, high-tech city – that continues to grow and evolve in newer ways. It’s history provides an alternative model of urban development – a default model.

4. We find striking similarities – in terms of the visual landscape – between Tokyo and Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest informal settlement). There are many sections within Dharavi, which are consolidated, neighbourhoods that have spontaneously evolved much like Tokyo. Below is a photoshop montage of Dharavi and Tokyo – which brings to life some of these similarities.

Collage: on the left Dharavi in Mumbai and on the right Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. More here.

5. Behind the typological similarity between unplanned areas of Tokyo and Dharavi lies a complex story of economic organization – involving the informal sector, mixed use of land and space, the presence of street-level shops, pedestrian path networks and the use of the house itself as a tool of production and commerce. In Dharavi, almost every house doubles up as a productive space. In Tokyo, the older and traditional pattern of urban organization too reflected a similar experience. The pre-industrial use of the house as a space of production (live/work) makes a huge come-back in the post-industrial context, responding to the needs of the “creative class”.

6. What allowed Tokyo to develop in this incremental way was the fact that this form, this urban typology was not seen to be illegitimate or economically dysfunctional – in fact quite to the contrary. What has been overlooked in the story of Japan’s economic success with its egalitarian income distribution is the essential role of incremental development in making this possible. Incremental urban development and economic development are completely interconnected. It is not because you move poor people into middle-class type mass housing that they become middle-class. Oftentimes they are unable to afford the maintenance cost of the buildings they get relocated to. In reality you break the process of urban and economic development. Redevelopment – as in the ‘Dharavi Redevelopment Plan’ – is not development.

7. In conclusion we would like to mention one point with particular relevance to Dharavi. It is about understanding the economic organization that ordinary people evolve for their livelihood and survival. The apparent mess of Dharavi is actually the complexity of Dharavi – this should not be overlooked. Dharavi is an economic powerhouse that has evolved an urban typology that ensures the survival of small studios, factories, residences, shops in a mosaic of urban forms. To ignore this enmeshing between its form and economic life and use the notion of urban planning in an ideological way that segregates uses and functions would violate the space and the lives of its citizens in a destructive manner. What is needed is a process in which planners and administrators incorporate the voices of the residents, encourage debate and discussion with the residents and help, understand and support the process from within. And this is what we will try to do next march in Koliwada, Dharavi in the context of a week-long workshop organized with PUKAR and the residents to which we would like to invite you all.

Koliwada, the fishermen community in Dharavi

The Urban Age airoots presentation is available here in PDF format along with videos of the presentation and discussion (disclaimer: the guy speaking after Rahul is NOT associated with airoots).


  1. [...] Read the presentation Watch the presentation Download the slides Watch the discussion following the presentation [...]

    Pingback by urbanology » Blog Archive » Tokyo to Mumbai & Back — August 26, 2008 @ 11:16 am

  2. Dharavi, a congested slum located in the heart of India’s financial capital Mumbai, said to be the largest slum in Asia, is actually not, a report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) claims.
    In India Mumbai is the finanacial capital. If the opportunities in other part of India increase, then only the migration of people can be stopped and this slum area can be reduced. I am not saying that this slum is a black spot but the life of people in Dharvi is not good and are facing trouble just because they dont get employment opprtunity in their own city.

    Comment by Jagriti — May 24, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

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