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

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