Recognizing the User-Generated City

June 17, 2012

Construction in Utkarsh Nagar, a predominantly Kokan neighbourhood in Mumbai.

Presentation at the World Bank in New Delhi on Monday June 18th, 2012.

This presentation seeks to offer alternatives to apocalyptic visions of over-crowded cities, rural wastelands and endless slumscapes, which may well become self-fulfilling prophecies. Our practice and engagement with neighbourhoods in Mumbai and its hinterland has lead us to question taken-for-granted categories such as the slum and city. We will make a case for policy recognitions of existing practices and urban patterns, and for moving towards a more realistic and pragmatic approach to urban development in India.

One of the forgotten memories of Mumbai is that of the nearly 190 villages that compose its historical fabric. Lost somewhere in between the ‘slum’ and the ‘high-rise’, villages may be out of the city’s mental map, but they are still very much present in its culture and urban dynamics. The vernacular urbanism of Mumbai is as much a reflection of the city’s history as of its post-industrial makeup. The “tool-house” combining living and working functions is at the heart of the spatial, social and economic organization of Mumbai’s “homegrown” neighbourhoods.

These neighbourhoods, where more than 70% of Mumbai’s population are said to be living, are incrementally developed and improved by an army of contractors, masons, plumbers, electricians, painters and material providers, who typically live in the same neighbourhoods where they work. This makes for a vibrant local construction industry responsible for the production of hundreds of thousands of affordable houses all over the city. This process is however not recognized by the authorities, which either look the other way or actively repress it.

Our engagement with residents and constructors living and working in neighbourhoods notified as slums comes both in the form of collaborative projects and discursive output. Our practice and writing steams from the conviction that the involvement of local actors is the only way that the government’s affordable housing targets can be met. Between 1997 and 2002, the government and the builders built 500 000 houses in urban India, when in the same time, the people built 8.5 million units in so-called “slums”.

There is another the way the village continues to haunt Mumbai, and nearly all other cities in India. Migrant communities rarely disconnect from their native points of origin. Deep ties to the land, hearth and family create loops of interconnectedness that sustain the life of residents on both sides of their habitat spectrum. People draw from either side for self-reliant insurance and security. Even when people dig deep roots in the city, they often relive their village life in its architecture and cultural life.

Urbanization in India is not the one-way street that one normally associates with the phenomenon. The communities that keep the connections most going are often the service, working class communities who occupy the kind of spaces often referred to as slums, gaothans, urban villages. Not only are the connections between big cities and villages forged by migrant communities an important characteristic of urban life in India, but almost all small towns and villages are networked and connected to each other through different forms of mobility.

Rather than see the vast regions of the country as a rural hinterland punctuated by towns and cities, our research shows us how most districts function as urban systems in which people from villages and towns travel to and fro all the time, function as markets and circulate objects, finance and people. One of the important consequences of looking at networks of towns and villages as a valid urban form is an acceptance of a diversity of habitats, that includes villages and towns, and in some cases forests and other landscapes within one fold.

Recognizing the existence of urban systems spanning over large regions can help us think of alternative models of urban development and help promote more sustainable habitats across the sub-continent. It may also help us revise our approach to the big metropolises and the large-scale presence of so-called slums. By turning around the idea of villages and their connections to cities, we may be able to address issues of affordable housing in a more creative and effective way.

Our presentation will touch upon both these themes. We believe that a policy which recognises the ability of homegrown cities to contribute to better and inclusive cities is vital for urban policy. It will help evolve more realistic infrastructure policies that adapt to the needs of the maximum populations that reside in cities.

1. Sticky feet on rails

Ratnagiri Station on the Kokan Coast.

Because of the price of real-estate in Indian metros people living in neighbourhoods notified as slums often have no option but to move out to better places. As a result, residents with “sticky feet” often reinvest their earnings in their house. When reinvestment in their city homes is made difficult by hostile policies, they prefer to invest in their native places. India’s well-developed railway network means that urban migrants can keep good connections with their native town. Even over several generations, the link between the village of origin and the city is maintained. These flows benefit the village economically, since it captures a large share of the savings of the urban migrants. Whenever dwellers feel that investing in their urban dwellings is safe enough, they often prefer to do so, since the return on investment is higher. The desire to grow roots in the city, as well as keep deep connections with the village is often facilitated by the family structure where members divide their loyalty. This contributes to the incremental improvement of their neighbourhood as well as allows for the benefits of support structures from back home, to remain active. This dynamic relationship across city and village/town is something that needs to qualify the misplaced faith that authorities in India now have in one-way urbanization trends.

2. Homegrown Homes

Construction site in Dharavi, opposite the URBZ/Urbanology office (photo taken by Ben Parry).

Investment in homes happens when there is some sense of security. Local builders make hundreds of thousands of affordable homes all over the city, improving, reconstructing or building afresh. They are socially networked in neighbourhoods where they live and work. Their success rests on the reputation they establish over time in the localities where they operate. Their physical and cultural proximity to their client means that a relationship of trust replaces contractual arrangements. They understand local politics and regulations very well since their work entirely depends on it. They often have evolved working relations with local bureaucrats and corporators. Flexible and adaptable in their approach, they are typically open to collaborations with outside agents who can enhance their profile locally. They are private actors of development that institutions, organizations and corporations can partner with.

3. Tool-house

The structure that dominates these home-grown neighbourhoods is the Tool-house. They combine living and economic functions, where the houses themselves are often used as income generating spaces. Along with living spaces for families or workers, a “tool-house” combines retailing, manufacturing or servicing functions. Such post-industrial habitats define the typology of many neighbourhoods. They are also central to their economic development. Even in cases where people predominantly work outside the neighbourhood, the house is often an economic unit for supplementary incomes in some way or the other. Inter-linked clusters of such homes make up distinct settlements, shaped by different factors – community, caste or just history

4. Connected neighbourhoods

Study in process on mobility patterns in Dharavi.

Far from being self-sufficient and autonomous “cities in the city”, unplanned neighbourhoods are extremely connected to the rest of the city. Many of their residents often work in shops and offices outside.  Some send their children to private schools in other neighbourhoods. Those who live and work in the neighbourhood (for instance in a tool-house) have suppliers and clients from all over the metropolitan region, from elsewhere in the country or from abroad. These connections are vital to the neighbourhood as much as to the city, which benefits from the proximity of production centres and service workers.

5. Public streets

Street in Dharavi (photo by Lasse Bak Mejlvang).

The lack of formally defined “public spaces” such as squares and playgrounds in many unplanned settlements is made up for by the use of streets as multipurpose spaces. The narrow streets, typical of unplanned settlements, makes them hard to access for cars. The result is that most unplanned settlements are largely pedestrian. Streets are relatively free to be used for public purposes such as temporary markets, socializing, playgrounds for children (whose parents can keep an eye on them from their homes), and ritual functions (prayers and festivals). Recognizing these aspects as valid, will help evolve sensible plans for transportation and public spaces.

6. Walk2Work

MG Road in Dharavi.

More than half the population of Mumbai walks to work. If we add the human and animal powered vehicles (bicycles, carts)– which are very common in many localities, we have a spontaneous constituency already practicing sustainable transport practices. These practices are well connected to existing mass transportation systems like trains and buses. What the city needs is less car-centric development and instead an increased attention to the interconnections between sustainable modes of transportation. Many cities today are trying hard to create the walk to work kind of environment, which is both prevalent and threatened in Mumbai and other Indian cities today.

7. Incremental development of habitat

Incremental improvement at the Dharavi Shelter.

Unplanned neighbourhoods systematically improve overtime, unless they are prevented from doing so by local authorities (through demolition drives or overly restrictive control on construction). Incremental development encompasses urban, economic and social aspects of the neighbourhood. This is particularly so when the house also serves as income generators (tool-house), since reinvestment in the house translates into higher productivity. Incremental development may be driven by individual house occupants but favourably affects the neighbourhood as a whole. Collectively, incrementally improving homes add value to the entire neighbourhood and to the city. Through incremental development, neighbourhoods become upwardly mobile.

8. Incremental development of infrastructure

Community toilet in Dharavi.

Infrastructure improves over time thanks to internal and external mobilization of resources by community leaders and through the participation of inhabitants. Electoral politics, strengthen the links between residents and civic authorities. The more politically stable a neighbourhood is, the better its civic infrastructure will be. In Mumbai, through a combination of local intervention by private contractors, civic involvement and public interventions, the large majority of unplanned settlements have access to water and basic sewage and roads. Coordination between different actors does happen, but it would benefit from being institutionalized.

9. Community economics

Mosque in Baiganwadi, Deonar, Govandi.

Caste, ethnicity and religion play an important role in the provision of employment opportunities. Neighbourhood boundaries are often defined along ethnic lines, and the same logic structures the neighbourhoods internally. Clusters of specialized activities relying on economic cooperation produce economies of scale. Agents connect these clusters to spaces of trade. Economic interdependency and trade networks consolidate neighbourhoods and create bridges between different communities, promoting social peace. Within neighbourhoods, community ties help raise capital and resources for individuals and families and help provide social security to tide over bad times.

10. Institutional roots

Construction of Sai Baba temple in Bhandup.

Public institutions and non-governmental organizations have deep roots in neighbourhoods notified as slums. Residents and activists spend much time lobbying political representatives for schools, hospitals, temples, public baths, gyms, resident associations and youth clubs. These institutions enrich the life of the neighbourhood and also become important actors in mobilizing communities and external resources for ongoing development projects, in particular infrastructure development. They are also a strong assertion of mobility aspirations.

11. Political right to use land vs. than legal right to sell it

Tool-houses in Dharavi (photo by Sytse de Maat).

Occupancy right is a political rather than a legal right. Elected representatives often seem to act against the interests of municipal authorities, and recognize the political right of inhabitants to remain on government or vacant land. This is what has kept many neighbourhoods going for so long in Mumbai – but in a half-hearted and conflicting way since residents are not legally owners of the land. The bureaucracy and the middle-class usually perceive unplanned neighbourhoods as encroachments, regardless of their history. The wisdom of the day is to turn occupants of neighbourhoods notified as slums into property owners. In the speculative context of India today, land titles will quickly swap hands and be used to develop new property for another kind of constituency. In Mumbai, the supply of new housing has been not responding to demand of house buyers/tenants as much as that of real estate investors (whether they are large funds or middle-class investors). Recognizing the right of using land over that of selling it would go a long way into protecting neighbourhoods in formation from speculative redevelopment.

12. Informal construction tax

Destruction of illegal floor by BMC in Dharavi.

Far from being remote and disconnected from the process of development described above, the municipal authorities are actively involved with local actors. Rigid regulations and the lack of accountability for institutions such as the BMC in Mumbai have provided many opportunities for the imposition of “special taxes”. The reconstruction or extension of houses in neighbourhoods notified as slums typically happens through un-receipted administrative procedures in which the Municipal authorities validate the moves made by inhabitants and local agents. Sometimes, this system adds up to 40% to the cost of construction and forces builders to work at extreme speed. Non-adapted regulations, low wages for municipal workers and corruption are all to blame. Yet, this informal system could inspire a new model of public financing through taxation of local construction that could be extended to other parts of the city.

13. Interdependence of communities & diversity of habitats

Diversity of habitat in Kemps corner, South Mumbai.

The idea that an entire neighbourhood must be homogenous in terms of class goes against the way in which urban India operates. Middle-class and upper middle-class homes often prefer to have service-oriented people living around them or in their vicinity. The current restructuring of Indian metros that is pushing low income residents to the suburbs is particularly unsustainable in view of the existing strains on public transportation. While mixed income neighbourhoods are still the norm in older city centres, new housing developments in the suburbs are leaving no space for the working class to stay. Due to the loss of a mixed income crowd in central neighbourhoods, India may loose one of its most democratic urban dimensions.

14.  Slums as urban villages

Worli Koliwada in Mumbai. Often mistaken as a slum. In fact one of the most interesting urban village in the city.

In Mumbai, like in several Indian cities, many old urban villages have become the nuclei around which unplanned neighbourhoods have sprawled. Villages have a different typology (low-rise, high-density), land use (mixed use) and value structure for historical reasons. This has produced cheaper tenancy and sub-tenancy systems in various pockets of the city. About 189 goathans in Mumbai have evolved into larger settlements, which are often mistaken to be slums. The Chawl system and the Rent Control Act have also played a major role in allowing certain (non-native) groups to stay in central locations over generations. This historical and cultural fabric, which predates British colonization needs to be recognized and validated.

15. Urban systems

North Goa: Below the trees a dense urban system.

Gandhian inspired rural development strategies, which focused on the self-sustainability of villages and the post-liberalization urban centric policies that believe that city are the engines of economic growth – are ignoring much more complex historical patterns of communication between towns and villages that promoted cultural and economic exchanges. To date many Indian regions are organized in a network of towns and villages that form an integrated economic and cultural system. This is clearly visible in Goa, a state composed of hundreds of villages and small town with a capital city of 100, 000 residents. Far from being an impoverished economy Goa provides some of the highest standard of living to its residents, many of who work in urban sectors while living in villages. This pattern is repeated in several parts of India, in the form of districts. However, these units are rarely treated or administered as urban systems, even though they are networked spaces with people and goods moving within them all the time, interspersed with a variety of economies and habitats, ranging from forests, villages, fields, industries and cities. These urban systems are loosing out from the current focus on “cities” because they get ruptured and divided by rural/urban specific schemes and policies, which do not factor these deep ongoing connections.