URBZ: Crafting Spaces

January 27, 2009

This is an article by Labonita Ghosh published in DNA – Daily News and Analysis (with our corrections). The image above is by Jose “Cole” Abasolo of the URBZ team. Mumbai, January 25, 2009

There is an untold story behind Japan’s regeneration after World War II, when the country was practically levelled to the ground by bombing. The Japanese government began its task of rebuilding, but concentrated mainly on putting industry back on its feet. In Tokyo, the work of housing and other development, was left to local activists and residents. Forced to find their own funds for projects, they created innovative ways of putting their savings to use. “Since the economy was intrinsically linked to urban development, this eventually led to the financial regeneration of Japan itself,” says Matias Echanove, an urban planner.

This bottom-up, or incremental, development is exactly what Echanove and his colleagues, Rahul Srivastava and Geeta Mehta, in their newly-formed organisation Urbz, are trying to promote in Mumbai. “We’ve found that neighbourhoods developed by residents themselves are more vibrant and respond more to the needs of local people than anything that been master-planned,” says Echanove. “At Urbz, we’re trying to see how we can harness this collective intelligence and apply a similar strategy to the rest of Mumbai. People often don’t know they have that ability already.” Urbz uses partners on the ground, as well as bigger collaborators like Pukar, to help residents document everything they can about their neighbourhood — and then put it in a space, like a Wikipedia site, that can be accessed by anyone around the world. Working closely with Pukar’s 400 barefoot researchers of the Youth Fellowship Programme, Urbz has been able put together an exhaustive website about Dharavi, which has received over 1 lakh hits since it was uplinked last year. “We want to collect whatever data we can — videos, photos, sounds, documents — and put them on a site where other people can add to them, have discussions about them or borrow from them,” says co-founder Mehta.

In the process, Urbz is also forcing a relook at many civic issues. The first is to find imaginative ways of preserving certain heritage neighbourhoods. Khotachiwadi, where Echanove lives, is in the middle of trying to revamp itself — by itself. The locality is a microcosm of Mumbai, with communities from all over India settled here, and leaving their imprint on homes and buildings. “The neighbourhood of Girgaum, in which Khotachiwadi is located shows tremendous diversity of habitats,” says Srivastava. “You can actually see bits of Surat, Goa or Ratnagiri here.” But owners of the heritage structures can no longer afford to maintain them. So Urbz is trying to help them generate additional income from small, economic activity –a retail outlet here, a coffee or book shop there. In the process Khotachiwadi, which has long been dismissed as a rundown area, could well transform itself into a tourist hub or a Sunday hangout for the city’s well-heeled. “The development of Khotachiwadi is very much in line with incremental development,” adds Srivastava. “Self-development was the norm for many communities in Mumbai. Places like Kalbadevi, Girgaum and Dharavi followed a process similar to what happened in Tokyo.”

In its Dharavi project, Urbz tries to question why certain kinds of use of space are dismissed by planners when they might be perfectly workable. “In Dharavi we came across the archetypal ‘tool house’ — a place where you live, work from and, when you’re not using it, rent out for some extra income,” says Srivastava. “It’s the best use of resources, and yet it gets no validation. We want to change people’s views about that.” If de-legitimising is a problem, forcing certain communities into extinction is, too.

Like the hawkers, with whom the state has been at loggerheads. “The feriwala is a Mumbai mascot,” says Echanove. “The city has been all about nomadism and movement, and the hawker’s presence has characterised it.” In other words, itinerant workers make us define urban living differently: Not in terms of fixed things, but as a constantly moving, changing and evolving entity. In a similar way, the bazaar culture in the city can never really disappear, no matter how many malls come up. “Bazaars and markets are a default,” adds Echanove. “If you don’t have anything else, you will have a bazaar. Look at Dadar. You have mall-like buildings, but full of small shops inside. Has anyone been able to shut them down?”

For Urbz, it also helps to have partners at places like Barcelona, Tokyo, Geneva, Chile and Amsterdam. Many of them bring valuable insights to similar community-master planner conflicts abroad. For instance, one of the things the Urbz team in Mumbai is trying to implement is a method by which developers (whether private or the government), when they draw up their plans, have to take the local residents’ mandate into consideration. In Geneva, urban planners are bound to do this, so projects often take as much as decades to get cleared — plans are placed, vetoed, revised and perhaps vetoed again.

In Mumbai, Urbz wants to collate people’s voices from different neighbourhoods pre-emptively, so developers can work these into their projects. The result, Urbz hopes, might be the 21st century’s answer to urban ills — the user-generated city. To help local communities develop themselves, or at least participate in whatever development is happening around them. “We like Mumbai because it is an urban jungle rather than a cultivated field,” says Echanove. “Where people tend to go the hunter-gatherer way, knowing what they want and how to get it, rather than being tied to their land and real estate. If we can figure out how to navigate this model, then many of the problems cities face today, will be resolved.” For more details visit www.urbz.org

Dharavi: User-Generated City

January 24, 2009


Dharavi Bazaar by Wahid Seraj. What would happen if Dharavi could develop on its own terms?

Why is it that Dharavi exercises so much fascination for architects, urbanists, researchers, students and journalists from all over the world? Is it because it is the “largest slum in Asia”? Is it because it is under imminent threat of being redeveloped? Is it because it is worth billions? Is it because the global media loves to recycle stereotypes of victimhood and third world poverty? These tired clichés and false alarms have filled the news for some time. But it is time to reload our browsers.

Let’s start by dissipating some of the most prevalent myths about Dharavi. It is not the largest slum in Mumbai, let alone Asia. There are more huts and structures around the airport. There are massive, sprawling informal settlements in the industrial suburbs of Kandivili and Vikhroli.

The infamous Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP) has been decried as a land grab of the highest order by many residents, professionals and advocates in India and abroad. For better or worse it seems to have hit a wall after the financial meltdown. All that hot speculative money, which investment bankers were eager to cool off by injecting into real estate, has evaporated. Who can the government sell the land to now? Who wants to colonize that urban jungle full of political parties, slum dweller federations, NGOs, religious factions and angry residents?

The global media loves to work with the simplistic and highly problematic label of “slum”. City reporters, activists and non-governmental organizations also find the short-cut concept useful. Dharavi has often been pictured by the city’s media as a wasteland with barely standing temporary structures; an immense junkyard crowded with undernourished people hopelessly disconnected from the rest of the world, surviving on charity and pulling the whole city’s economy backward.

It is only recently, and in conjunction with informed local and global opinions that an alternative picture of Dharavi has begun to circulate. Where it appears as a developed urban area composed of distinct neighbourhoods, as a space where artisanship thrives, where commerce and business are the main defining moments of its landscape. Far from being depressed and isolated, the economy of Dharavi appears to be deep-rooted in the city and networked globally, with local goods being exported as far as Italy and Sweden.

If we deduct pity and voyeurism as the only reasons for the wide interest in Dharavi, what is left? Maybe there is something truly energizing and inspiring to be found there. Something so big that Mumbaikars don’t perceive it until they realize that the whole world is looking at it over their shoulders. Indeed, a certain detachment is necessary to get out of the general myopia. What fascinates so many people is no longer the misery of Dharavi, but its incredible capacity to develop and evolve in spite of all odds. Dharavi has emerged through the collective intelligence, skills and efforts of its residents. To use the language of the net generation, it is the ultimate user-generated city.


Dharavi Beach by Jose “Cole” Abasolo. Today the Mithi river is terribly polluted. Maybe that instead of throwing its untreated waste water into it, the five stars offices of the Bandra Kurla Complex could help cleaning it.

The fishing village in the neighbourhood, the potter’s community that settled there and the waves of rural artisanal migrants from different parts of the country came with their multiple skills and shaped this enclave in the most creative way one can imagine. In fact artisanal skills are primarily what has made Dharavi what it is. No wonder it is often talked about as the ultimate workshop-factory-residential space. The post-industrial, decentralized production processes through which most goods are produced in Dharavi stands in sharp contrast to the Chinese sweatshop model. Every wall, nook and corner is an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitants. Over here, the furnace and the cooking hearth regularly exchange roles and sleeping competes with warehouse space all the time. Space is the most precious resource in Dharavi, this is why it is used around the clock in the most efficient way possible.

The inhabitants of Dharavi have a fantastic capacity to solve their own problems. For many, Dharavi has been a platform for social mobility to middle-classdoom. However, one problem the inhabitants cannot get their head around is the threat of a top down redevelopment plan backed by the state. This burdens the residents of Dharavi more than anything else. Not only does the state not help, it even comes in the way of self-development. Why would anyone invest in their homes or business if it risks being bulldozed in a few months or years?

What seems to separate Dharavi from the DRP more than anything else is a generational gap. In the age of user-generated content, open-source and P2P, the net generation connects intuitively with the archetype of the squatter, who, just like the hacker in another realm, delves in and strives to overcome loopholes leftover by the system, and uses community and social networking as its modus operandi. In fact, it makes total sense to understand Dharavi as a self-generating post-industrial city.

While many are still chewing the blue pill, the world has experienced a paradigm shift, which most spectacularly manifests itself through the rise of information and communication technologies to affect all fields of knowledge. One of the principal characteristics of this shift is the collapse of distance between the expert and the layperson. The success story of Wikipedia, which lets anyone be a contributor to the most comprehensive encyclopaedia ever produced, is nothing but a reflection of the power of the Web, which was designed, in the words of Web pioneer Tim Berners Lee, “to be used for anything, constraining its users as little as possible … [and] built to enable, not to control.”

The user-generated approach to knowledge production is also injecting new concepts and viewpoints in the practice of urban planning. Top down plans such as the Dharavi Redevelopment Project have become objects of much criticism on the grounds that they completely ignore the knowledge and concerns of the residents themselves. Surely, they should be included in discussions and projects that will radically impact their sheltering and livelihood. How can one pretend to do any plan for Dharavi without drawing on the experience and skills of its inhabitants? After all, they are the ones who developed Dharavi generation after generation.

Slow, generational growth and incremental development is what created several European towns and villages that today are considered to be fine specimens of urban heritage. Close set streets, low-rise and high-density structures create vibrant neighbourhoods that have become major tourist attractions.


Tokyo Dharavi Remix by Matias Echanove. A chunk of Dharavi is inserted in a Tokyo landscape. The suburbs of Tokyo have the same urban typology as the informal settlements of Mumbai. This is because both share a history of incremental development.

In Japan, villages got absorbed seamlessly into new urban precincts and crop-fields converted effortlessly to residential or industrial spaces. A futuristic city like Tokyo emerged through such a process and reveals vast swathes of urban space that are dense with small, compact structures and labyrinthine streets, looking, from a distance, astonishingly like Dharavi.

More than a master plan, Dharavi needs a liberation of the imagination. Lets drop the heavy CAD maps and GIS surveys and zoom in to the street level. All Dharavi needs is some creative photoshoping and less of a patronising colonial gaze. If allowed to develop through their own internal skills, if provided for with basic infrastructural and amenities, the hundreds of enclaves, will keep improving their conditions, as they have always done. While no one can imagine what the neighbourhood may look in a couple of decades, it is certain to represent the city’s spirit like nothing else.

Published in Time Out Mumbai, Jan 20, 2009

The Tool-house

January 13, 2009

The industrial revolution decisively cut-off homes and workspaces from each other. The impact of this incision was most strongly felt in the house of the artisan. If there was any space that used itself most creatively and productively it was the artisan’s workshop-cum-home that produced most of the goods that circulated in the pre-industrial economy.

The gigantic scale of the modern city was unleashed through many forces – mainly energy-based revolutions – but its architectural character owes a lot to the atomic split that happened when the workshop-home of the artisan was splintered. Since then, the logic of separating residences from places of manufacture has shaped much of the way we think of cities.

Yet – many cities in India are littered by sprawling collections of built-forms that do not reflect this neat divide. In its new-avataar – in what we term the tool-house – the artisanal home continues to exist in many different lives. This could be mistaken for an expression of backwardness, if we didn’t see the same arrangement was not happening at accelerating rates in our classic first wold global cities: London, New York and Tokyo. What is the artist’s loft if not a tool-house? Our creative cities are indeed reorganizing their industrial structures into polyvalent spaces.

A tool-house emerges when every wall, nook and corner becomes an extension of the tools of the trade of its inhabitant. When the furnace and the cooking hearth exchange roles and when sleeping competes with warehouse space. A cluster of tool-houses makes for a thriving workshop-neighbourhood and its public spaces emerge as a dynamic by-product of such an auto-organized habitat.

This explains why a walk through any so-called Indian slum – is also an imaginative walk through a moment in the dawn of the industrial revolution. When it had still not drawn the rules of how we should live, work and sleep. When it had still not marked itself off as the moment of taking humanity into the great urban age and when it still produced fantastic and flexible narratives about the future of humanity. The industrial revolution and urban transformation have always been discontinuous and fragmentary. The echoes of the moments of its transition repeatedly re-appear everywhere. Just look out for the presence of the tool-house – more real and ubiquitous than the much-hyped robot.

The reason why urban landscapes formed by tool-houses are so crucial for urbanists is that it makes explicit the relationship between production, livelihood and spaces that expresses the lives of more than half of humanity. Not to be able to see this dimension in slums reveals a terrible lack of imagination and aborts the complex and organic evolution of urban forms. To see them for what they are – maybe through the lens of a sci-fi possibility – is to do real justice to the multiplicty of urban forms.

In reality – tool-house landscapes indicate a need for a sharp re-structuring of the way in which labour, work, and capital unfold in the post-industrial city. It can help us to concretely visualize a future in which the dated dichotomy of the formal and the informal organization of production and services, the new spatial order that internet-based and mobile communication technologies have introduced in our lives, and complex dialectic between the artisanal/organic and industrial mass-based product in the contemporary economy.

Cities of the future can keep being formed by the empty development and one-dimensional growth (literally) of real-estate development or they can rearrange themselves in less predicable ways following our aspirations localized needs. Where urban development is left to local actors we observe the (re)emergence of live-work spaces that are in fact less dehumanizing than the housing block and its twin office tower that are being systematically promoted by urban developers from all across the ideological spectrum from real estate investors to NGOs passing by the government as the only way on to modernity.

It might be time to acknowledge that for all its lack of infrastructure and overcrowding, Dharavi is not as much a pre-industrial settlement as it is a post-industrial one. Not as much as slum in dire need for redevelopment as a highly successful model of bottom-up development, with at the core of its system the tool-house.

Just when Dharavi vanishes from Mumbai…architects will want to re-examine its complex structure for referencing the future…mad prophecy… but just you wait… talk to the international researchers flocking into the labyrinthine streets of Dharavi, you will soon find out that they come less to propose their own models than to learn from Dharavi. Get over it, Dharavi is not backwards, but forward.

Audit City of Despair

January 12, 2009

Published in Mumbai Mirror on Jan 13, 2009

One of the most insidious changes taking place in our world these days is to do with auditing. Everything and every body gets quantified, measured and valued in as numerically accurate terms as possible. Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern elaborates this in her edited book ‘Audit Culture’, which should be read by every philanthropist, bureaucrat, and policy maker. She refers to social and cultural auditing as reductive and destructive. It forces educational institutions to devalue learning and to privilege acquisition of degrees and certificates. It makes donor agencies transform the idea of social change into a snake and ladder game. It makes governments and bureaucrats even more powerful than they are. They decide what is good for everyone – especially those who are deemed incapable of making decisions on their own.

Even activists and social leaders fall into the auditing trap all the time. Though they work through its reverse logic. They flatten every aspiration into the denominator that they think is appropriate for everyone. To them, the poor or the unprivileged must be treated as one – or they are being unjust to their comrades. They must calculate their strength in strict numerical terms and present themselves as a united front.

No wonder when the city authorities tried to deal with housing shortage for the poor they viewed the whole exercise as a massive auditing task. The need to do surveys was considered the most logical consequence of this process.

However, the surveys soon became tools of control – so that families could be relocated into a pre-fabricated notion of an ideal housing size. A size that was audited into existence in the meanest way possible. The basic idea being; how can you squeeze all the poor in the city in the smallest possible area so that the cost of building their homes gets subsidized by the rich who then choose their own homes as per their means.

The Kolis of Mumbai complained that the slum rehabilitation process would leave them high and dry – since they had inherited larger homes but lived in village like habitats that got labeled as slums by a myopic government And would now have to be re-located in the standard norm of a 300 whatever square feet flat. Their complaint was seen to be unfair by everyone – the state, as well as the housing activists..

This is blatantly unfair. The poor of the city seem to have lost their right to even assert their own needs as per their distinct histories.

Recently, members of several BMC chawls, among them the Omkar, Rang Tarang and Ram Gunta Co-operative Housing Societies have started an agitation requesting that they be exempt from the slum rehabilitation scheme since their housing histories could not be collapsed into the category ‘slums’. They feel they have the resources to develop their own tenements in a manner that fits into their middle-class aspirations and can be created through the existing land size that they have.

It is only in our beloved city that everyone, the state as well as housing activists would consider such a positive, straightforward request as being unfair. It is after all, a city where the rich are exclusively allowed the sinful luxury of inequality, while the poor have to celebrate their chaste egalitarian ideals through willful restraint. They must never challenge the precarious balance of equality among the united nation of the poor. Which of course, is the surest way of ensuring they always remain so.

crowdsourcing evolves the 12 principles

This is a remix of the 12 principles for an architecture of participation posted on crowdsourcinglog.com 01.12.2009:

1. Need It: Define the project’s vision, based on what’s collectively needed in the neighborhood but not provided, via a collaboratively-written declaration, manifesto or constitution. Secondly, develop a program for how this will be executed. You can see some of this on the Elements restaurant home page.

2. Get It: Use precedents as models to explain what doesn’t exist yet. For example, a beta community looking to develop truly attainably-priced green condo efficiencies, like at the Bearden Arts Building in Washington DC, should look at San Francisco’s Cubix Yerba Buena, or downtown apartments in Tokyo and Paris.

3. Do It: Have the beta community start meeting to define the vision and program, with professional designers and the development team transforming those into tangible floor plans, renderings and product offering suggestions. The Gear Factory in Syracuse produced floor plans based on beta community input, and so will the Bearden Arts Building.

4. Be Open: Don’t write off ideas you don’t like because you don’t think other people will like them either… only to find out you’re in the minority. This happens a lot with pedestrian-only streets and smaller home sizes. Openness is also one of the tenets of a creative community.

5. Share: This is a big one for self-righteousness – don’t talk louder because you think your idea is the best, even if it’s ‘going to save the world’, like demanding that a restaurant serve more ‘raw food’. It’s not a pure democracy either – decision-making by committee leaves you with the status quo. However, if you share your values with others, a clear vision and program will emerge that will then be a lot easier to interpret into real design.

6. Contribute: Time to give back to your community. Nothing will happen without people attending meetings, offering their feedback and referring others. This is where being social network bilingual is highly productive – make sure your beta community champions can speak both languages. Also, the goal is a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, so think ‘community-first’. Ironically, it’ll often be more individually rewarding as well.

7. Communicate: This is what open source is all about – the ‘sponsor’ providing the business plan and updates as if it were a co-op, and listening to their members just as well. Here’s an example from a beta community agreement in New Orleans: “The purpose of the Broadmoor Beta Community is to provide NCD (the developer sponsor) with an identifiable group of future tenants and customers for a third place that is eventually established in the neighborhood. NCD understands that the Broadmoor Beta Community’s commitment to the social and financial success of this third place is directly proportional to how much NCD listens to and incorporates the ideas and input of the Beta Community.“

8. Convene: Crowdsourcing works best when people meet face-face to make decisions, or at least have a solid deadline (resulting in virtual convening), rather than contributing individually on their own time. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

9. Include: Two things here:  1) Ensure you’re getting proper representation of the neighborhood that you’re working in, even if it means taking a little more effort and time to find them; and 2) Provide some training or ongoing assistance if they lack social network skills, much less be social network bilingual. While technology has helped bring people together, it shouldn’t be an excuse to exclude anyone either.

10. Acknowledge: Recognition is a powerful motivator. Are you still recognized for contributing to nonprofits years ago, or forgotten among the masses? People are recognized in every beta community project for their efforts on a monthly basis – sometimes being rewarded with free dinners to favorite restaurants like with CreativesDC, or even with profit sharing as with the Elements restaurant.

11. Process: This is where the rubber meets the road. How do you take the collective values of hundreds of participants and interpret that into design and programming that inspires them? This is a matter of working with a new generation of architects and developers with not only the skills, but the mindset to be able to professionally synthesize ideas into a tangible form.

12. Be Critical: Innovation can’t happen when there’s groupthink“a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. Design by committee doesn’t work. But, if people were courageous and stated what they really wanted, “That side alley should be outdoor dining for cafes!“, perhaps we’d have more inspiring destinations.

Incremental Development I: Preserving Street Layout

January 6, 2009

Koliwada Map: This map of Koliwada was based on collection and synthesis of historical documents and maps, studies and surveys from SPARC, KRVIA and SRA, satellite views, and on-site photographic surveys. All maps and sketches in this text produced by Wahid Seraj for the Urban Typhoon Workshop in Dharavi-Koliwada, March 2008.

The first mistake of virtually all slum redevelopment schemes, no matter how well intentioned, is to start from scratch instead of using existing structures and patterns as a starting point. Planners often use structural and demographic surveys as raw data, but these only provide snapshots of the state of things at a given point in time. They do not capture the dynamic interactions between people, structures and streets, which are vital for sustainable planning and development.

The end result of most redevelopment projects is a series of grids in every direction, up, down and sideways, that erases all the existing formations imprinted on the territory. The constant movement of people within urban spaces and across neighbourhoods, as well as fresh migrations – factors that every city has to reckon with – find no legitimate expression. Nor does the versatile use of space, a trademark of slum life.


The Holi Maidan is Koliwada’s main open public space. At the time of the annual Holi Festival, a Hindu celebration, more than 10,000 people gather in and around the central space, including Dharavi Main Road. The drawing records the movement of crowds and ritual processions around the central fire during Holi.

A tabula rasa approach to slum redevelopment only results in the formation of new slums in the periphery. Those who cannot be absorbed in the new housing or afford maintenance move out and new slums emerge.

Most redevelopment projects, until very recently, translated the issue of slums redevelopment only in terms of housing needs. Such an approach buries over organic connections between local livelihood systems and residential requirements.The livelihood issue becomes secondary and at most, reduced to questions of employment. As research on the informal economy began to throw new light on the way cities function, especially in the context of slums, the understanding of these spaces became more informed. It became clearer that the new global economy relied a lot more on locally produced goods and services that are dependent on cheap labour, and that these activities are organically connected to the forms of habitats in which they exist.


The Tool-House: Live-Work Typology of a Kumbarwada Potter Family House:This drawing reflects the necessity to understand the particular urban life-styles of traditional communities. Many of Dharavi’s residents live and work at the same site, a reality completely dismissed by the ongoing Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. One must understand that shelter issues are inextricably tied to residents’ means of livelihood.

However, it is one thing to understand the organization of slums in terms of its economic role and another to incorporate this understanding into urban planning. At best, what emerges are token gestures to livelihood issues, – either in the form of building a local market or providing space for economic activities within new homes.

What happens if we work from the other side of this spectrum. If we take as the starting point the existing resources at hand? What we get is a rich legacy of user-generated space patterns that are organically connected to the way people live and earn livelihoods. These patterns are based on the principles of incremental development. In other words, they have evolved over time, over generations and through the absorption of new migration inflows, constant movement within and between neighbourhoods and through continuous class mobility.


Fragment of Dharavi Main Road: Mapping of Street Activities and Territories, Public and Commercial: Dharavi Main Road is 25 ft.-wide road running through Koliwada and across Dharavi. In the section that crosses Koliwada alone, one finds almost one hundred non-residential sites, such as churches, temples, shops, restaurants and small-scale industrial workshops. Reflecting Dharavi’s high-density street-scape, the road also accommodates heavy and continuous pedestrian traffic, cars, motorcycles and mobile street vendors.

It is our contention that these patterns of incremental development are embodied within the streetscapes of such localities. It is in the street that the genetic code of a habitat gets imprinted. They emerge as walking paths connecting markets, homes and nodes of transport hubs. As they evolve, accommodating cars and other forms of local transport, street bazaars, spaces for youngsters to hang-out, for children to play, for neighbours to exchange news and gossip, for people to shop and set-up shop, they follow the needs of the residents very directly. The signature of a neighbourhood is often a streetscape.

Ideally, slum redevelopment schemes should build upon the incremental logic that most slum histories embody. And a pragmatic way to do so would be by recognizing the street layout that has evolved within such habitats.

In the case of Mumbai, we clearly see two dominant patterns of slum formations with their distinctive streetscapes. (Actually there are three patterns, the third, post-modern version is linked to the redevelopment projects outlined above and is the most nasty and dangerous one!).

The first one is best exemplified by the presence of fishermen’s villages in the city. They were villages that at some point got absorbed in the sprawling megacity to be eventually assimilated as slums. Self-standing houses, some of them more than 100 years old, within these habitats, are a clear marker of that history. The second type is the slum that emerged gradually as immigrant workers settled into temporary camps wherever they could and consolidated them over time.

As A. Jockin, founder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation poetically puts in an interview; first the man comes to work from the countryside, then his wife joins him. Because she needs privacy she puts her sari on strings and that becomes their home. This gets multiplied a million times.


Urbanology – Part 1 – India
from The Travelling Twins on Vimeo.

In incrementally developed neighborhoud the connection to the village is very direct, since migrant workers and their families bring with them skills and crafts from their hometowns. They are soon joined by fellow villagers who reinforce the reproduction of traditional patterns.

Villages, whether they are in Asia or in Europe have strikingly similar features. The most important one, and the most easily overlooked, is high-density levels of populations and structures. We generally assume that because they are typically surrounded with open fields, villages have a low density and that high density is usually found only in cities. In fact, in most French, Italian, or Indian villages houses are so narrowly built to each other, that cars cannot get through, making rural settlements mostly pedestrian.

Getting a little deeper in the study of the structure of villages, one can observe an interesting hierarchy of streets, with broader roads serving smaller roads all the way down to the entrance of the hut. Anyone who has ever walked in a slum has observed the same type of network, leading the visitor from a large road with rickshaws and cars to smaller roads shared by pedestrians and vehicles bringing goods in and out, to smaller roads penetrating inside specific nagars. Even within the nagars some streets are busy with people going from one point to the other, which themselves open to smaller lanes taking the visitor to clusters of houses.

These communal lanes are often used by the residents of the huts alongside it as space for social interaction and production, and are clearly not public in the sense of the larger roads. They will make the visitor walking along these lanes almost feel uninvited, nearly as uncomfortable as if he was walking into someone’s private property.

The street layout is initially shaped by social and economic relationships, and then influences them in return. The interconnectedness between spatial and social structures should be fully acknowledged by any architect and planner engaged in slum redevelopment. While it is true that these structures are often communal and unequal, changing the spatial structure alone will never suffice to change social structure. It must be understood once and for all that relocating every family in 225 sqft or 300 sqft flat in high rise structures will not make everybody equal or suddenly propel them into middle-classdom! Unless one pretends to tackle social and economic issues alongside spatial issues, architects and planners should not pretend that they will be able to address issues of equality in a given settlement. When we think about these issues we have to remember one of Thomas Jefferson’s most enlightened quotes: “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.” The same goes for the serpentine, complex and uneven streets that can be found in villages and slums!

Koliwada’s Fish Market: Mapping of Socio-Economic Activities of the Market in Relationship to the Morphology of Space: The Fish Market is the witness of Koliwada’s roots as a traditional fishing village. The fish market has existed at its current location for the last 70 to 100 years.

The fact is that habitats constantly change and evolve, as families start to grow with new members being added, as new businesses come into the neighbourhood and as new families migrate. Add to this, the need for infrastructural expansion, including sewage, water supply and road networks means that the ongoing transformation of habitats is an everyday reality. Most habitats, harness the resources for making these changes from within. The necessary skills are brought to surface and used to the best of their abilities.

As change unfolds, the street patterns remains a point of continuity from the past and the anchor for the future. Once they are seen as the starting points, then the transformations become more productive. Many cities around the world have evolved in this way. And most are bookmarked in public memory by their streetscapes. Indeed, it is precisely these organic patterns that give so much charm to European old towns. There is a reason why despite being invaded by hordes of tourists the ancient quarters of cities such as Barcelona, Basel, Lyon, and Florence keep their local character and charisma intact. What is important to note is that this happened despite the fact that many buildings have been torn down and rebuilt or floors have been added up to 7 or 10 stories high. All the transformations happened over a period of time by responding to specific user needs and without altering the streetscapes too much.

The same holds true for Tokyo, which more than any other city has kept its village-like fabric and street patterns while completely transforming itself. In fact, the success story of Tokyo –which transformed itself from being a gigantic pile of debris produced by US fire bombs during the Pacific war to being the largest, most advanced and urbane city on earth – is the story of incremental urban and economic development.

We deliberately focused here on the importance of preserving the organic street layout of slums to preserve identity and continuity in social and economic arrangements. There are many others reasons that we will elaborate in future essays. These include: visual coherence, functional efficiency, respect of local autonomy, sustainability and quality of life.

It should finally also be clearly stated that the preservation of existing street layouts should be a means to maintain and improve existing quality of life. It is not an ideology that should blindly followed. It should always be considered on a case-to-case basis and in consultation with residents, since in some instance the benefits of modifying the layout of some streets can in fact be greater than the advantage linked to its preservation.

Published in The Indian Architect & Builder, December 2008