October 1, 2008

Structures from Dharavi (Mumbai) are inserted in this Tokyo landscape.

Here are a few collages showing how strikingly similar are the urban typologies of Dharavi (Mumbai) and many neighborhoods of Tokyo, in this case Shimokitazawa.

Shimokitazawa was preserved from destruction and redevelopment throughout the war, up to the present. As a result, the town developed incrementally along its narrow streets, retaining a village-like feel that contributes to its popularity. Characterized by low rise buildings, pedestrian space, bustling ground-level market activity, and tight community networks, Shimokitazawa represents an alternative model of urban development: the informal, unplanned city that consolidated through time.

These two neighborhoods shave many similarities despite evolving radically different contexts. Their common characteristics are indicative of some important global urban dynamics usually ignored by planning authorities.

Dharavi, left and Shimokitazawa, right.

Both neighborhoods are seen as “messy”, non-functional, irrationally laid out, hard to navigate, even harder to map out, nearly impossible to access by car, not zoned, mixed-use, full of narrow pedestrian streets with crowded storefronts, mobile vendors and groups of people hanging out. Moreover, they are havens for marginal groups and informal (or illegal) activities, and breeding grounds for all types of anti-conformist attitudes, subversive activities and movements of resistance.

In fact, there is nothing rational about denouncing them as messy. It says more about the ideology or phobia of whom is pointing the finger than anything. Indeed, this “mess” hides a different order. In the case of Shimokitazawa and Dharavi, we witness the emergence of new cultural, social, and economic patterns, which might well be some type of a global edge; an early adaptation to deep transformations in our ways of working, socializing, interacting and thinking.

Shimokitazawa streetscape with Dharavi house on the right.

Both neighborhoods are populated by creative, highly mobile, and entrepreneurial people who generate economic opportunities for themselves. They have developed sophisticated social networks, relying on the most intensive used of available technologies. Mobile phone stands can be found at every corner of Dharavi. Shimokitazawa’s youth working on wirelessly networked laptops convert small living spaces into creative offices. The distinction between living space and working space is also blurred in Dharavi with residents using their apartments, for instance, as daytime workshops, storage place and by the hour rental rooms. In both neighborhoods, commercial activity at the street level is dominated by a web of flea-market type specialty shops, representing a de facto alternative to the mainstream department store-office-factory model of commercial development.

The old Black Market in Shimokitwazawa (right) and Dharavi (left).

There is nothing surprising about the fact that real-estate developers ignore the richness of what they are willing to destroy in the pursuit of profit. What is chocking however is to see governments buying (or should I say selling?) into that tabula raza urban development approach. Especially since they claim, loud and clear, to be committed to the involvement of communities into the planning of their habitats.

Both Shimokitazawa and Dharavi are threatened by redevelopment plans from the government, acting on behalf of powerful real estate interests.

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