Weaving an Urban Fabric

March 28, 2014


Homegrown Settlements and New Metaphors for Urban Practitioners

Rebecca Houze in her essay ‘The Textile as Structural Framework: Gottfried Semper’s Bekleidungsprinzip and the case of Vienna 1900” (2006) analyses how significantly Europe’s rich traditions of textile design interwove itself into architectural practices.

Semper was one of the few architects who engaged with the dimension of architecture that was connected to weaving and the textile industry.  She explains: “The concept of cloth as a symbolic building material is contained in Semper’s enormous, unfinished compendium, ‘Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetics’ (2004 [1870-73]). The first and longest volume of this text is devoted to a detailed analysis of the textile arts. Architecture, according to Semper, originated in the primordial need to demarcate interior and exterior spaces with dividers–fencing made of branches, for example, or hanging tapestries of woven grasses. Some of the earliest built structures were temporary tents of real cloth stretched over scaffoldings, often festively decorated with garlands, ribbons, and other kinds of soft ornament that today we might characterize as “fiber art” (Semper 2004 [1870-3]; Wilson 1995: 42-8).

While the use of new materials was absorbed into modern construction practices, what characterized Europe’s dominance in the world of architecture and design was building on its rich traditions of textile related creativity.

Anybody familiar with Indian history will immediately be compelled to make comparisons. And recognize the wide gap that existed and exists between artisanal practices and the development of institutional knowledge linked to contemporary design related professions.

While the great architectural schools, and specialized institutions dedicated to design have paid academic attention to the enormous resource embodied in India’s artisanal traditions, especially textiles, a translation into practice has not always been as successful.

What is particularly relevant to us about Semper’s observation about architecture is that he sees textiles as integral to its evolution, along with the world of masonry, ironwork and carpentry.  European architectural practice seemed to have built on technological innovation of physical materials along with integrating design processes of textiles into it. They evolved masonry, ironwork and carpentry, making technological breakthroughs while also letting loose imaginations from the world of textile design to produce an aesthetic – either through restraint or elaboration – that continues to dominate architectural practice globally.

For many artisanal traditions (including textiles) outside the European experience the path of change was much more complicated. One reason could be in the structures that energized artisanal traditions in Europe – which were based on apprenticeship and a model of skill learning quite different from India. In India artisanal practices were enmeshed with the logic of caste and were responsible for a high level of productivity in terms of quality and scale – but were simultaneously anchored to values quite incompatible with modern impulses.

In contemporary times, to extract aesthetic and design skills while filtering away social bonds that sustain them, became enormously challenging to say the least.

Nevertheless, there were some attempts made in that direction. Government initiatives to preserve artisanal traditions were reasonably funded and their attempts to be integrated into contemporary economic exchanges were partially successful – but the difficulty in reconciling caste based modes of organization with them remained difficult.

How do you preserve traditional modes that are encoded into social structures for their talent and skill and yet demand radical changes in those structures for the sake of modern social objectives?

This contrarian challenge lies at the heart of many urban realities in India and confound visitors. Its poorest neighbourhoods inevitably have some of the most formidable talent and skill in fields as diverse as embroidery, leather work, intricate wood-carving, stone sculpting and others. It is not uncommon to see exquisite craftsmanship embedded in simple designs up for sale in grubby shops on polluted streets. Dharavi, Mumbai’s most well-known settlement that has the distinction of being referred to as a slum, is also considered to be the most productive space in the city. Traditional skills of ironwork, textiles and pottery constantly adapt, like these skills have always done, to contemporary economic needs. In Dharavi, its not just old leather work, that are sold in shops in India and abroad, but manual skills that have adapted to new needs of technologies connected to computers, mobile phones and automobiles also thrive. Not being able to deal with the social and economic knots into which these highly prized skills are tied, has made India pay a huge price, evident in its poor social and economic indicators and under-serviced urban neighbourhoods.

Another example of this state of affairs has been the inability to build on design traditions that were enmeshed in India’s textile related artisanal histories and weave them creatively into a contemporary sensibility of building and architecture. While Indian talent tied down directly to those traditions seem to have made some sort of mark in the field of fashion design, architectural practice in India does not seem to have  built as seriously on those traditions.

What it did manage to do is align itself more with traditional building practices as a source of ideas and creativity. There is a body of work based on older spatial and structural principles and a spirited defence of indigenous styled in response to  ‘western norms’.

The most recognized and renowned architectural practice in India today – is typically embodied in the hugely successful work of an architect like Bijoy Jain, who has developed a practice connected deeply to local artisans. He involves carpentry, iron smith and stone work into his studio that works like a collective crafts workshop. His strength has been recognising these processes and developing an elegant framework around them. His emerging aesthetic often reminds one of Japan, which constitutes a story of similar encounters with crafts and architectural practices.

However, Jain’s work is so authentically embedded in traditional arrangements that they echo some of the problems connected to the socio-economic knots we refer to above. Just as artisanship could not quite escape royal patronage in the past – in fact it thrived on it – India’s peculiar caste story traps Jain’s practice in much the same way. His dependence on rich clients does not allow genuine experimentations in aesthetic terms as well as to explore new markets.

It may well happen that in the coming years, more innovative young architects from India try to consciously evoke the Semper moment by building on design elements from textiles and interweave them into contemporary building materials and practices by combining them creatively with Jain’s processes.

One such Mumbai-based architect, already exploring these themes, and someone we work with closely, is Sameep Padora. Coming from a family historically involved with carpet weaving, originally from Kashmir, he builds on textures of textiles and combines them skilfully into structural principles using parametrics modeling, to come out with flexible and sound designs that move through all kinds of contexts. His works exist in luxurious shopping malls but also slide easily into Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, a re-settlement colony in north-west Mumbai, where he worked with us to experiment with light construction material to create a roof-top office. He exhibited artefacts that residents could use in their homes as well. What we find particularly striking about Padora’s approach is his ability to be adventurous with material, weave in the flexibility of light and heavy moments, derive an aesthetic from all kinds of sources including textiles and carpet weaving, and work with artisanal skills in the way we find most productive – well adapted to contemporary and even futuristic technological and economic needs.


We realise that building on tradition is never easy. Moments from the past can never be revoked or recreated – least of all through simply ideating change.

The European relationship to construction, artisanal histories and textiles produced an equation that still sustains its sense of supreme confidence in the world of design that no amount of mimicking will ever recreate for another set of practices from another history.

What may be more productive is to look firmly at the present – at the existing realities that confront us and – if we want to be inspired by Semper at all – translate his moment more delicately into the present.

What we would like to draw on from him is the observation that building traditions emerging from textile and its rich allied practices – like weaving – are as valid as the ‘hard’ world of stone, masonry, ironsmith and carpentry – as architectural practice itself.

Besides this – what we would also like to pay attention to is the other element of skill formation that our world today is networked into – information and knowledge – and see how these come together to produce a new language of architectural and urban practice.  We see specific processes of thought and practice as having becoming enmeshed to produce new ways of understanding architecture.

Thus a specific building as a starting point – its spatial logic, its dimensions and its aesthetic touch is created through negotiating several anxieties about the role of the mason, the architect and the engineer.  Similarly, when a neighbourhood in a city is the site of operation, the anxieties get enmeshed differently, with the architect and engineer working together and evoking the citizens in a specific way.

In the European tradition the architect, at some historical point, became the master of practices involved with building – in terms of an appointed role. Someone who worked with engineers, masons, carpenters, artists and provided his signature to the work produced. Typically his structure was usually commissioned by the Church, royalty or an aristocrat.

Yet, there remained a world of building outside his appointed role, a world that did not require his signature. This world – for a long time remained closer to Semper’s primitive building spaces in which the metaphors in use were closer to textiles than masonry. Homes made of reeds, cloth and the use of mud as flexible material dominated simpler societies, peasants, slaves and tribal communities. Where the arch builder – the master was not needed. It must be said though that some more technologically advanced societies like China and Japan also used woodwork and paper to produce very sophisticated building traditions that used weaving as a principle rather than masonry – to produce exquisite structures.

This space of weaving homes also produced a rich source of imagery to think about places. Textiles as metaphor related to construction and design is not something that must be reduced to materials and its direct uses whatsoever.  In fact that has been the biggest problem when contemporary societies try to work with the idea of traditional artisanship. Historians point out that all kinds of productive work has been in a constant state of change and transformation and to look at the past in terms of specific material use and skill sets as if they never adapted to markets and changing contexts would be myopic.

For us the richest interpretation we could possibly make of Semper’s observations is to think through new metaphors derived from architecture and textiles. And one very powerful metaphor is that of the Urban Fabric.  In an earlier piece in this blog – we spoke about the Aesthetic of Habitats while reflecting on the idea of aesthetics in urban spaces as a whole – navigating the world of architecture and design and trying to value the gaze that looks at neighbourhoods and cities.


By re-visiting Semper we would like to argue that the patterns and elements of collective construction – as seen in the world of homegrown settlements is something that needs to be valued deeply – both as a practice and as an aesthetic. The idea of an urban fabric is a powerful one. It at once values the role of several weavers – home makers – tied to a logic of relations that produce patterns while being constructed. This represents a completely valid form of urban life that exists all around the world. Constantly improving favelas in Brazil, uncertain occupied spaces in Kenya, highly productive, skilled but marginal settlements in Mumbai, and incrementally grown neighbourhoods in Tokyo have started being recognized as having an aesthetic of their own.

Unfortunately, the reason most people see them as illegitimate spaces is not so much linked to their occupancy rights, poor quality, or misplaced and anachronistic exoticness (as in the case of Tokyo ) but as Ivan Illich would have reminded us – because they are produced in ways we consider illegitimate.

They are made through a collective intelligence, through processes that weave entire neighbourhoods with actors working in dedicated ways – without the master-builder providing a signature. Homes are woven into neighbourhoods through processes that produce their own patterns – which – through a historical gaze – have an aesthetic. But seen without imagination are considered to be without any whatsoever.

Our work in Mumbai’s homegrown settlements, provide us with new learning experiences everyday. And several more questions. What exactly is the role of an architect within such a densely and intricately woven fabric of networked homes? – is just one among them. We get some glimpses of answers in the small moves we make – project by project. A co-designed temple, a mosque, a tiny house – each of them a cacophony of intense dialogues and debates, but collectively being embraced into a landscape that seems to be emerging with its own pattern, its own style. We look forward to see what the future holds for us, as we take these small steps, we wonder what the pattern in the fabric will look like…

(These reflections were stimulated by discussions with Yehuda Safran who introduced us to Semper and Sarover Zaidi, who shared Rebecca Houze’s essay, during the Handstorm workshop organized in Shivaji Nagar Govandi – March 14-20th 2014. Photos by Tobias Baitsch)

Architectural Practice for the Living Present

February 10, 2014

Aditya Vipparti of URBZ showing different options to Sunni Chishtiya mosque committee members in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi (Mumbai). (More photos here).

Professional practices change and adapt to the times. Some take longer to respond to new challenges while others are adept at being dynamic. A few, like architectural practice and urban planning, tend to evolve in a more ambivalent way. They are preserved and legitimized by the transmission of technical knowledge, but also aspire to be creative and visionary in bolder ways than, say, law. It is not uncommon to find well-known architectural names or urban leaders prominent in public debates on urban spaces. Their pronouncements about the world tend to be taken seriously. Their visions have the potential to shape choices people make.

Yet, the economic and institutional logic that frames such practices, weigh down the inherent creativity that exists within. Architects often complain about the world being limited by narrow choices. Their projects can be constrained by political cycles or economic downturns. Sometimes it is the local circumstances that seem hostile or too messy. Or it is their client’s taste that is the cause, affected as it is, by popular culture or an apparently irrational faith in old-fashioned ways of building.

Architectural studios, offices and publications are often full of futuristic and visionary images about the way the world and its constituent buildings should look like. These speculative designs seem to be floating in space, free from the constraints of the lived world. That these designs tend to rehearse clichéd notions of the future that have all been seen already in B-grade science fiction is not what we are most concerned about. What is more preoccupying is that even talented architects, who have the ability of imbuing meaning and possibly even beauty to their work, often get frustrated when it comes to inserting their vision into a piece of urban reality. Their exigencies then become about reproducing the impossible condition of the blank Autocad document into the lived world: No financial limitation, clean square plots, obedient and invisible workers, and ideally no client – or a rich client that keeps quiet.

Unfortunately, these conditions are not available, especially in the world of the proverbial “99%”. The environment of choice for many architects who want a faithful rendition of their visions thus include galleries, biennials and classrooms, which keep the messiness of everyday life at bay. The same architects land up in teaching positions, inculcating generations of students with a certain scorn for the world that they are supposed to contribute building.

The mismatch between the world out there and the way architects are trained has produced the most bizarre amount of speculative drawings that have no connection whatsoever with anything alive. For the most part, architectural education assumes that the tabula rasa is an available condition. But when can we ever start anything from scratch? Every place has a pre-existing ecology and history, as well as on-going social dynamics. These conditions define any built space, whether we want it or not. Tabula rasa is the primmest of all architectural utopias.

The desire to reproduce the condition of the white page, where supposedly the creative input of the architect is unconstrained, has lead to the cult of starchitects, who seem to be the only ones in this world who have enough aura to impose their grand design visions. On a closer look however, even a Koolhaas or a Gerry are constrained by power structures above them. Their agency is always tempered, in ways that would hurt the vision of idealists. This is why most starchitects cannot afford to be purists in action. They are well aware of the trade off between getting grand commissions and being free to express their individual agency. What comes out as frustration for the greater number of architects, becomes cynicism for those at the top of the professional hierarchy.

Yet, there are a variety of entry points available to anyone willing to engage with the exigencies of the living world. We want to examine what could the architect in particular do to respond to these challenges.

Model for the Ahle Sunat mosque in Baiganwadi, designed in collaboration with Torino architects Studio Marc. The model maker, Sanjay Sonawane is an artist and sculptor in Shivaji Nagar, here with Shardul Patil of URBZ. (More photos here).

It has become very common to see students of architecture take their learning from the university into the world – only to find that it doesn’t quite match. Living contexts are dynamic and multi-dimensional in ways that routinized learning just does not prepare them for, while their own individual personalities and choices create other uncertainties.

It can be argued that the full potential and genuine possibilities are not presented to them so the paths laid out to them appear limited. For example, in a highly competitive professional world, aspiring architects often find that work is scarce. And yet – the amount of construction going on around the world is enormous.

The thing is, a lot of it is taking place outside the radar of known professional choices. Millions of people build their own homes with the help of local construction workers without the help of architects, simply because the conventions of construction, their occupancy status, the political location of these settlements is not one that most architects are willing to negotiate.

It is also true that students of architecture and other urban practitioners can be found in favelas of Latin America, and settlements of Africa and Asia in fairly significant numbers. But rather than only channelizing their surplus energy of goodwill – like barefoot architects – what would go a longer way is a little re-arrangement of professional practices.

Work environments in this day and age are located in the interstices of many new configurations and fault lines. The virtual, spatial and temporal collapse of experience has become part of everyday reality.

A small contractor working in a homegrown settlement in Mumbai has access to the Internet, some robust local finance and the needed political support to start a project. An office in far away Torino can connect with him to produce a conversation that in the near future can become a wholesale professional arrangement. A pedreiro from Sao Paulo may want to make a visit to India and compare construction techniques. Researchers working on new material technologies in Boston can experiment with live applications where it matters most. A practicing architect from anywhere can mediate all such conversations.

Contractor Ataide Caetite in Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo, where he is building his own home with the help of the local URBZ team. (More photos here).

Of course – for this to become a reality, an emergence of a new kind of politics is also important. The role that architects can play even in this regard is very significant. Politics is imbued with idealism and idealism needs visions which architects of today are specially trained to provide. The only reason they have not stepped into that space with more confidence is because they are constrained by professional considerations and economic concerns. Even while millions of residents around the world keep doing what the known professional world also does – finance and build homes.

The tools for reaching out to this world are already there. Why not shape and sculpt an architectural practice specifically for the living world and living subjects?

Maybe the only reason not many are jumping onto this bandwagon is because of a paucity of visualizing the future for such a world. For some reason, the present in architectural practice is intertwined with visions of the future and there seems to be no appealing horizon for the world that these millions are aspiring for. That’s why the voices and exuberant energy seem to be easily and abruptly dissipated on Youtube videos after every surge of protest.

And yet – if you google images of an architecture of the future – and examine what you get, you will discover a mirror set of images from the results of a similar search for medieval architecture. Either way, you get images as disconnected from the living present as you can possibly imagine.

Maybe this is where architectural practice as we know it today is trapped in. A timeless zone, firewalled from the living present, which is a reality for hundreds of million people around the world. To escape such a predicament, all one has to do is what most of us so easily do in this day and age. Get connected.

Yet, connecting to the lived world is not as easy as it sounds, especially for those in the architectural professions that have taken comfort in their labs and studios. Connection means the establishing of a relationship that has the potential of destabilizing certitude and comfort zones. This is because, the feedback one gets from the field, from people, is less polite than a Facebook poke and more real than a symposium. The kind of connected practice we think about is based on the realization that knowledge flows in more than one way; that there is a tremendous amount of intelligence to be gathered in worlds that were once only thought of as too distant, hopeless or backward.

For the architectural practitioner, this necessarily implies another relationship to his own creative agency. It is not about imposing one order onto another, or bringing more rationality into an existing local practice of construction. The authority of the architect as an expert in design, material and structure can only be played out when it is connected with the knowledge of other actors who are rooted in their imminent reality. What happens otherwise is mutual dismissal. The context and the actors reject architectural design as being incompatible with their reality. The architect rejects the context as one that doesn’t have the channels in place that allow him to express his professional expertise. This is a loss both ways.

Why should architectural practitioners have to reproduce the same inflexibility and directive approach as some of their own patrons, only to find themselves being frustrated by the fact that unlike those powerful players, they don’t have the means of imposing their vision onto a defiant world?

So what would “live architecture” be like? What does it mean to practice an architecture that doesn’t require a contextual vacuum to express itself? One that acknowledges the depth of any departure point, and the nonlinearity of the process?

This would not be a utopian architecture. It would rather be something between pragmatism, boldness, optimism and playfulness, emerging from whatever exists while drawing inspiration from it. Even if it aims at totally subverting all that’s there, the living present still provides its starting and ending points.

URBZ teamsters Giacomo Ardesio, Shardul Patil, and Bharat Gangurde on the site of a Shiva Temple in Shivaji Nagar (Govandi) with shuttering contractors. (More photos here).

Connected to the context would mean more than using the physical reality as a backdrop for clever designs. The context, however fucked up, (or fuckable as some repeatedly like to say) is ultimately the most creative and challenging of social, economic and psychological canvases. Avoiding a messy collaboration with what is in there is a cop-out and can only produce more outdated and anachronistic architecture that hides behind easy labels.

The biggest threat for an established architect, when engaging with such a live architectural process is that one can never be sure of the outcome. If the outcome is a built object, then one has to accept that the way it ends up looking may not quite be what the architect initially had in mind. Some of his ideas may be reinterpreted along the way to become something else altogether. This means that the agency of the architect should no longer be limited to producing a design that must be executed precisely. And the agency of others can play with that of the architect. All this must not be suffered through. Rather, they must be acknowledged as objective and subjective forces that one must use to compose with. The respect and non-hierarchical relationship that such a process promotes are ethical, aesthetic and pragmatic at once. They are based on the recognition that mere imposition of a design is neither desirable nor possible.

Is all this possible or desirable? Only experiments will tell. The biggest challenge in this process seems to be to connect worlds that have taken comfort in ignoring each other for so long. It may be a bumpy ride, but one full of the kind of thrill that even Autocad can’t provide!

Elusive periphery

January 3, 2014

The village of Paspoli, behind the Renaissance Hotel in Powai, Mumbai’s North-Western suburbs.

Urbanists and architects love to produce archetypes, physically as well as conceptually. These often reduce messy, complex realities into one simple image. For instance, Cedric Price has playfully described the medieval city as a boiled egg with a neat internal hierarchy and a hard shell delineating the inside from the outside. In his world view, the modern city is a fried egg, with a clear defining core and a sprawling, unruly periphery. The postmodern city becomes a scrambled egg, where everything gets mixed up. The core explodes into darker chunks of a yellowish spread. The scrambled egg city defies dualistic notion of a core and a periphery. These are lost in a blur of movement and information that connects everything indiscriminately.

Price’s scrambled egg city is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘informe’ (sometimes unsatisfactorily translated as “formlessness” or worse “informal”). The informe challenges the academic compulsion to label, categorize and organize the world. Price’s postmodern city resembles nothing. It is informe, like a “spider or a spit” to use Bataille’s words (1929-1930: 382).

It is temping to describe Mumbai as a scrambled egg, a spider or perhaps even… as a bit of spit.

The analogical power of the spider and its web has of course been fully explored with the advent of the World Wide Web, the self-developing network of which has been researched and represented ad nauseam. Indeed, of the most appealing features of the Web is the absence of central control. Governments can, as we know now, hack into databases and censure some of the new information that pop up. But they can’t foresee its evolution, fully muzzle it or shut it down.

Content on the Web is user-generated, just as Mumbai’s neighbourhoods – which are being reshaped by both an absurd, ‘surreal’ estate market responsible for its vertical makeover, and by the efforts of millions of “slum-dwellers” who rebuild and improve their tiny homes day after day.

But perhaps, the humble spit is a better analogy for Mumbai. The city to some is a disgusting, incomprehensible thing. Polluted to the point of being frankly toxic, arteriosclerosed by traffic jams, overcrowded and overbuilt, corrupt and rotten, dirt poor and filthy rich at once, unbearably hot and humid most of the year and drenched and muddy the rest of the time.

Our love for the city is a perverse one for sure – we love its apparent chaos, which constantly stimulates our imagination. And for us the question is not “how does it work?” as much as “what potential does it have?”.

Mumbai’s appeal is not to be found in its glorious colonial past, or in its shining, bubbling and speculative present. Attempts at containing its growth (by encouraging rural self-sufficiency as in the post-colonial Gandhian development strategies for India), at decongesting its crowded dwellings and roads (by creating a twin city – New Mumbai), at transforming it into a “world-class city (by razing its slums and replacing them with high-rise housing projects) have all miserably failed.

Mumbai defies urban planning like few other cities do. The city’s strategic “development plan” is notoriously flawed. It has “characterized by non implementation” and as “a ground for denying basic services to the slum” (Bhide 2011: 79-81). The fact that over 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in “slum areas” characterized by poor public services and infrastructure, only attests to the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to “plan” or simply to manage the city’s growth.

Paradoxically, the absence of central control and the powerlessness of its planners have perhaps turned Mumbai into one of the most sophisticated urban systems in the world! One that doesn’t get organized from the center out, but follows a totally different logic altogether. At some level this statement appears to be pure provocation. Most people can only think of Mumbai at best as a dysfunctional system and at worst as a total urban failure.

However, once we start reconceptualizing Mumbai’s urban organization and look at what makes it function, in spite of all odds, we can’t help but being amazed at the way end-users of the city have negotiated and driven its development. If we look beyond center/periphery relationships, what we see is that the city is made of countless little nodes each with their own power structures, networks, and geographies.

Mumbai’s millions of nodes are like tiny bubbles on a large informe blob of spit, each of which are accidents of history – struggling to create their own space and to contain their implosion.

Another way of putting it is that it is a question of scale. At the macro level, Mumbai is a 20 million people strong urban agglomeration, where the center and the periphery seem to have disappeared in an enigmatic blur. The historical colonial center built by the British throughout the eighteenth century on the Southern most island of the Mumbai estuary (long before the many islands that compose the city where connected and before Bombay was renamed Mumbai), is now an old city. While the old center retains most public institutions and some important bazaars, businesses and corporate houses have moved to areas that used to be suburban but which are now central in the agglomeration. It is not that the center has shifted as much as that it has exploded into various locations.

At the micro level we find relationships of dependency reproduced all over the city. The most archetypical relationship being that of the upper-class high-rise building served by the slum next door. These relationships, usually rooted in old caste histories, remind us – as Umberto Eco puts it – that our civilization has never quite left the Middle Ages. The cathedral and the bazaar, the castle and the village, the master and the servant are binaries that keep flashing before our contemporary eyes as we navigate Mumbai.

Relationships of social and economic domination and subordination are central to critical representations of cities since Walter Benjamin –to the point of becoming another archetype. They are expressed in contemporary urban terms as the binaries of the center and the periphery, the high-rise and the slum, the formal and the informal. These have become so dominant in representation of the city that it any attempts at describing the city outside this framework is seen as heretic. Yet, we find it essential to overcome these binaries.

The full text is available in the publication of the Moscow Urban Forum on Urban Peripheries.

Mumbai’s Boom and Bust

July 12, 2013

Rehab housing in Govandi, Mumbai.

Op-Ed published in the New York Times on Friday July 12, 2013.

A recent wave of building collapses has brought attention to this city’s large number of poorly built structures. It feels as if every week brings fresh reports of a new disaster. The death toll is expected to rise with the monsoons.

News media and political attention have mostly focused on the vast stock of old buildings from the pre-independence period and immediately after. Yet old age wasn’t the cause of the collapse of a building in Thane, a city on the outskirts of Mumbai, that killed around 74 people in April. That building was still under construction. (And, like a majority of buildings in Thane, the construction was illegal — neither authorized nor overseen by any official agency.) Old age cannot explain the caving in of a 34-year-old building that killed at least 10 people near here last month either, nor the collapse of a building, about a decade old, that killed at least six people and injured more than two dozen last week.

Intangible factors, like faulty urban policies and unchecked real-estate speculation, bear the prime responsibility.

Most of the recent casualties have taken place in the far periphery of Mumbai, where one finds a sprawling landscape of hastily built residential blocks meant to absorb white-collar middle-class Mumbaikars who struggle to find anything even remotely affordable in the city. Many of them commute for hours daily in trains so packed that people routinely fall out — collateral damage of the speculative euphoria.

A bombastic real estate sector has simultaneously pushed up the price and heights of buildings, accelerated the speed of construction and lowered the quality of new structures in and around Mumbai. Many properties are conceived primarily as assets, to be bought and sold to investors. Owners often prefer empty flats because they can be traded more easily. This partly explains why, according to a government census in 2011, nearly half a million houses and flats are vacant in one of the most crowded metropolitan areas on earth.

Officially, the promotion of a vertical skyline has been justified on the grounds that high-rise structures are the only possible response to Mumbai’s huge population and land shortage. Dozens of skyscrapers, 300 feet high or higher, are under construction in Mumbai. Investors are planning to build, at around 2,300 feet, the world’s second tallest structure.

But the argument for verticalization has long been rejected by architects and city planners. Every vertical push also requires a horizontal spread — new high-rise inhabitants need access roads, open space and other services. Besides, the higher you build, the more expensive the construction and maintenance. High-rise structures are also outside the budget of India’s low-income groups, which explains why, in the last decade, south Mumbai has seen both more high-rise buildings and a declining population.

Following the same faulty logic, the authorities are promoting the transformation of slums, which can be found in all parts of the city and where over 60 percent of the population is said to be living. Since the 1990s, the Slum Rehabilitation Authority has offered to let investors raze slums and redevelop the land, so long as they devote part of the site to new housing for the displaced residents.

Inevitably, that housing is squeezed into high-rises, in order to leave as much land open for development as possible. These structures are often shoddily built disasters. Maintenance is expensive, and rust, leaking roofs and cracked walls are common after only a few years. In addition, the buildings are not amenable to the kind of home-based economic activities and street retailing that characterized the old neighborhoods. Eventually, many sell and move out to a slum.

What the government calls “slums” have infinitely more potential to become functional neighborhoods than the hurried development that replaces them. They are habitats where extreme population density is made bearable by pedestrian streets that come alive during bazaars and community festivals, and where children can play under the watchful eye of socializing neighbors.

The problems faced by these neighborhoods, like inadequate water and sewage systems, are serious, but they do not justify wholesale redevelopment. Updating the infrastructure of dense urban environments is not rocket science. It was done successfully in Tokyo and parts of Mumbai in the 1980s, and is being done in many South American cities today.

Moreover, we found that the quality of construction is often much better in these neighborhoods than in other parts of the city. In most cases, local masons build the houses. To get contracts, they rely on their good reputation among their neighbors. This is unlike large developers, who are usually nowhere to be found after a building is sold, let alone if it collapses.

As civic authorities try to stop these tragic building collapses, perhaps they could learn a thing or two from the vernacular neighborhoods that they now see only as raw material for redevelopment. And big developers could learn from the work ethic and craftsmanship of local builders. The city will not solve its overcrowding problems by promoting buildings that could become lethal liabilities in the near future.

A Soft Approach to Slum Rehabilitation

June 25, 2013

Bhandup is densely populated ward in Mumbai, with about half a million residents — 85% of which are said to be living in slums.

James F.C. Turner, a British-born architect who worked in Lima in the 1960s, spent much of his professional life looking at the way people provided for their own housing needs using their know-how and locally available resources. He wanted to find out how planners and architects could support those processes, rather than impose their own technocratic and context-insensitive “solutions” from the outside.

On one level he was tremendously successful and influential. His ideas led to innovative housing development schemes in many parts of the world, including in Mumbai where, in the mid 1980s, the World Bank financed “sites and services” and slum upgrading schemes directly inspired by Turner. Over 10 years, tens of thousands of people benefited from policies that encouraged them to build their own dwellings on land provided by and equipped with basic infrastructure by the state. Others were encouraged to form cooperative societies that would be given leases to the land they occupied, at once converting their status without simply “giving away” the land or privatizing it.

Community ties are particularly strong in parts of Bhandup. Many residents come from coastal Maharashtra. The presence of wells as well as the architectural typology of the area attest of the the enduring presence of village ethos in homegrown neighborhoods, even at the heart of Mumbai’s 20 million-strong urban agglomeration.

Unfortunately for Mumbai, these schemes were scrapped in the mid 1990s as the real estate sector reached surreal heights and kept rising throughout the 2000s. (It continues to boom to this day). Public land became too valuable to let the poor occupy it. At the same time, officials refused to regularize the situation of its slum-dwellers, routinely referring to them as squatters and thieves despite the fact that the land they’d reclaimed was often formerly uninhabitable. Thus, Mumbai and the World Bank turned away from the progressive policies of the 1970s and ’80s in favor of “public-private” schemes that incentivize top-down redevelopment projects like the ones Turner fought against his whole life.

Today, Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is the authorities’ chief response to the challenge of improving the living conditions of slum-dwellers. It encourages private developers to clear areas classified as slums by the municipality and build high-rise housing blocks in which each family receives a free 225-square-foot unit. In exchange, the developer gets valuable “transferable building rights” on public land. This has led to the most toxic kind of developer-government nexus. A government report on the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme described it as “nothing but a fraud, designed to enrich Mumbai’s powerful construction lobby by robbing both public assets and the urban poor.”

Moreover, the quality of housing produced through the scheme has been widely described as appalling, the new buildings quickly becoming less livable than the slums they replace. Many original “beneficiaries” of the scheme have moved back to slums and sold their free flats to middle-class families who simply cannot find anything else in their budget. After decades of failed policies, the official slum population keeps rising. Today, 62 percent of Mumbaikars live in slums, according to the latest census.

We at URBZ have been actively involved in different neighborhoods of Mumbai – some of them classified by the authorities as “slum areas” – for the past six to seven years. Our office is based in Dharavi, a neighborhood that more than anything else struggles with its reputation as an immense “slum.” Along with many others, we have described how reducing this diverse and dynamic part of the city, where anywhere between 500,000 and a million people live, to a “slum” is the biggest disservice we can do to it. Dharavi and many other slum-classified areas in Mumbai have grown over the years, from small villages into densely populated urban neighborhoods. Their history and identity is marked by the influx of low-income, low-caste migrants from all parts of India over the past six or seven decades.

Many of these neighborhoods have improved incrementally over the years to become self-confident lower-middle-class areas. From the point of view of the new migrant, or that of the suburban slum-dweller, parts of Dharavi are aspirational. It is, after all, a centrally located, superbly connected business hub with seven municipal schools and dozens of private or NGO-run educational institutions. It has decent medical facilities and countless shrines and temples tailored to its fantastically diverse population. Over the years people have replaced their shacks with brick and concrete houses, which often double as retail or production spaces. Yet, like many other areas of Mumbai it remains under-serviced by the municipality. Excess garbage piles up, community toilets are overcrowded, and storm drains often double as a sewage system. These are some of the torments that residents of Dharavi cannot solve alone, without the active support of the authorities.

Like Dharavi, many other settlements have matured into neighborhoods that have more to lose from the rehabilitation schemes and redevelopment projects than they could ever hope to gain from them. These schemes are still at degree-zero of urban, architectural, social and economic development thinking. Extraordinarily, they are of exactly the same nature as the centrally administrated “massive housing schemes” and “high-rise buildings” of the ’60s and ’70s that Turner denounced. Isn’t it a rather unsettling thought that after all these years of trying different models and approaches, often at the expense of concerned populations, we are back to square one? The only difference is that now, instead of leading the process itself, the government seems content to simply provide a policy framework and let real estate developers and speculators do the job. Back to the 1960s – but minus accountability, and with infinitely more economic and technical means to do better.

Thanks in part to the protection granted by elected ward representatives, which have shielded them from the worst abuses of the public bureaucracy, many parts of Mumbai have developed fairly autonomously in spite of the hostile policies. Residents of slum-notified areas are certainly suffering from the government’s biases against them, including heavy restrictions on local construction practices. Yet the scale and complexity of the matter mean that the legal framework is only loosely enforced, if at all – as is the case in most cities around the world (U.S. cities included). Many construction-related decisions in Mumbai are – by default, not by design – determined at the local level, instead of being determined by government or developers.

Like Turner, we believe that decision-making and initiatives on housing-related issues are better dealt with at the local level. In what we call “homegrown neighborhoods,” users and construction workers are often neighbors. This proximity does something that is seldom acknowledged: It increases the agency of the end-user, and along with it, her sense of identity and attachment to the place where she lives. It also keeps precious resources within the area, distributing jobs and salaries locally. Finally, it reduces the cost and increases the quality of housing. This is because local contractors rely on their reputation within the neighborhood to get more jobs. They cannot afford to break their oral contract with their client and neighbor.

Our contention is that only by working within the existing fabric and with local actors can urbanists, architects, engineers and policy-makers contribute meaningfully to ongoing user-led improvement in homegrown neighborhoods. This is why we have just started a new project called Homegrown Cities that aims to demonstrate that an alternative to “redevelopment” is possible. We want to combine our observations with relevant aspects of Turner-inspired schemes and adapt them to the contemporary context of Mumbai.

This project will start in Bhandup, a hillside “homegrown neighborhood” located in the northeastern suburbs of Mumbai, where we have been active for a few years documenting local building techniques and contributing to the construction of a Hindu temple. From above, Bhandup looks a lot like a Rio favela. Within, it has the same vibrancy and similar issues – the biggest of all being prejudice from the middle-class and the administration. This neighborhood is typically low-rise, high-density and pedestrian. It is also mixed-use, hosting a great variety of businesses within its residential fabric.

Each time we visit the area we see new houses being built by local masons and residents. Most of them are one or two stories high on a 150-to-200-square-foot surface. Bhandup residents have access to water, and electricity is available to each house. Most people have television and cell phones. No one there is dying of hunger, and there are no beggars. What this neighborhood needs most is to be recognized as a viable model of urbanization – not as a slum. Our intention is to support the efforts of its residents and local builders.

Our long-term aim is to help improve construction techniques and promote the creation of a cooperative housing society that can take an active role in managing and planning the area. We also want to provide opportunities for cross-learning and technical collaboration between residents, local builders and professionals from outside. This is a long-term project, which will develop incrementally, along with the neighborhood.

These two houses were completed in the last 6 months by Amar Mirjankar, who is our local partner for the pilot project.

Our departure point is modest and ambitious at once. We want to build a house, together with its future users and local masons that we have known for some time. Once completed the house will be sold at the same price as any other small house in the area. Houses that are put on the market locally are usually sold within two months at most because there is an enormous demand for affordable housing in the city. We will then repeat this process until we build a critical number of houses. We want to innovate as we work, learn and deepen our relationship with the residents. One of our many projects is the creation a trust fund that would allow us to put houses on lease, so that even those with no access to capital can get access to housing. If successful, we intend to repeat that model in other places.

We do not aim to revolutionize the way construction is done in homegrown neighborhoods, and we certainly don’t want to impose a new process. We simply want to contribute to the incremental improvement that is happening already, and share our knowledge and network. This will help us highlight the good practices already existing, and show that there are alternatives to the wholesale redevelopment of unplanned and incrementally developing neighborhoods. We want to demonstrate that architects, planners and others can engage meaningfully in local processes, by respecting existing morphology, supporting the local economy and bringing in their skills and creativity.

We’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign, which we hope will allow us to raise enough capital to demonstrate the validity of this approach. This pilot project can then be repeated again there and at other places, each time bringing global exposure to local actors and contexts. This hybrid model, relying on local market dynamics and the solidarity of the global crowd, should allow us to revive some of the best features of the Turner-inspired schemes of the 1970s and ’80s, while addressing some of their shortcomings.

How You Can Help

You could contribute financially via our crowd-funding page. You could “like” Homegrown Cities and share the project with your network of family, friends and colleagues via our Facebook page. You could follow us on twitter @HomegrownCities. Or you could offer your expertise in the following realms: Legal, political, engineering, fund-raising, or design. If you wish to read more about the project, please click here.

This article was first published in the Next City blog.

The Aesthetic of Habitats

June 18, 2013

In her contemplation on subjectivity and aesthetics in the public realm of architecture and living spaces, Pauline von Bonsdorff, author of The Human Habitat: Aesthetic and Axiological Perspectives asks some thought-provoking questions: ‘What is the relation between everyday – tacit, uninformed, confident – environmental experience and the significance of the built environment? What are buildings and how do they become what they are, on the street?’ (p. 10) ? Is there stability in the roles of the elements of the built environment and in their capacity to be valued?’ (p. 13).

Her attempts at answering these questions provide powerful conceptual tools to understand contemporary urban realities – and of course, much more than that.

In the reflections that follow, we use, interpret, and maybe even distort some of her insights (due to our own limitations) to come closer to answering our questions as urban practitioners working in Mumbai city.

Individual architectural subjects have been a perennial feature of practice and criticism. In the medieval past, the biggest and most glorious practices of architecture were shaped by an economy of sacred power and imperial strength. These influenced themes, sizes and costs of each structure. The aesthetic could spill over cultural boundaries and reflect all kinds of fantasies, providing for a pastiche that only in retrospect became respectable with dignified and definite narratives. Thus Islamic influences on Christian styles and vice versa, themselves amalgamations of a myriad local influences got naturalized gradually, with a play of remembering and forgetting. However, strong pronouncements of what is beautiful and truly glorious were integral to the process of construction, even though the particular constituents of aesthetics were debatable.

Today, in mainstream practice, it seems as if technological advancements in the fields of spacecraft technology have become new frames of reference, based on contemporary notions of the sacred – with faith in modern technology and its accompanying aesthetics. Futuristic universal structures punctuate cities all around the world, and create comfortingly familiar environments, becoming naturalized as smoothly as before. Glass and steel structures in Bangalore sooner or later become part of the local scape like colonial structures once did. There is a reaction to this as well – with grunge, organic aesthetics inspired by environmental discourses doing their own thing. Artistic and creative counter or sub cultures play their role in shaping such forms and expressions.

However, it is doubtful  if either of these templates go deep enough in satisfactorily addressing the full range of expressions of built environments and the needs of users, dwellers, inhabitants.

According to historian and novelist scholar Umberto Eco, our contemporary responses never really transcend medieval impulses. Whether in terms of the glories of grand structures or the sacralizing of nature. It is not transcended in popular culture, nor (in more insidious ways) in high culture, where aesthetics, with all its post-modern twists, continues to have its say. It continues to pass judgment about what is good and bad about buildings, cities, neighbourhoods and all kinds of cultural artefacts. Here past and present, medieval and modern get mixed and re-mixed to create their own anxieties about what is appropriate and beautiful and what is not.

There are other things that remain the same as well. In the medieval past, it was rare that the habitats and dwellings, bazaars and streets surrounding sacred structures got the same investments in terms of attention, expense or investment. In our appreciation of historical architectural grandeur, we sanitize memory all the time. It is only in realist works of fiction and detailed historiographies that we become aware of the everyday contexts as they existed in the past. It is difficult to remember those realities since they have now been sterilized for tourism or to appeal to contemporary tastes. In the past, peasant quarters outside feudal estates, bazaar streets or artisan quarters at the fringes of religious and royal grounds, were not perceived differently from primitive habitats that existed at the edge of or in forests. They were rarely bought into any frame of aesthetic appreciation.

Similarly, in contemporary urban worlds, habitats and dwellings within cities often become invisible or obscure in the public imagination. In visual culture they get subsumed within gated colonies, and high security buildings on one hand or shanties and dark, dangerous alleyways on the other. The aesthetics of the habitat itself, where people live and work have become about interiors or  – at the most – about inner protected worlds within open cities – like gentrified streets, heritage enclaves, tourist friendly villages and art neighbourhoods.

When the economy and polity cannot accommodate people who are unable to afford any of these spaces – their habitats and dwellings are only seen in the most extreme of anti-aesthetic terms. In which words such as slums, shanties, run-down neighbourhoods become both, the embodiment of all that is not beautiful and something more absolute – those which can never become beautiful. Unless they completely undergo a metamorphoses.  Any attempts at seeing an aesthetic within those spaces becomes immediately immoral – as if one is validating the context as a whole – including its apparent brutality.

More than anything else – it is this burden that our work carries when we engage with small parts of the 6 million people strong so-called slum-world of Mumbai. We see in the consistent efforts of the inhabitants living in them, a desire to improve their dwellings, their neighbourhoods, using their own benchmarks of beauty and desire. Which often overlaps with what the practice of building and construction in the rest of the city also wants. We see smooth tiles, steel and glass and much else that is all too familiar, even futuristic.

Along with this, there is a deeper structure that pulls the habitat into coherence. You can still see the genus of older dwellings underlying those spaces. The spirit of the place is evoked from the act of people coming together and building their own environments, using local networks, and all kinds of affordable technologies, relying on community and family networks and using living sacred sites to organize the neighbourhoods. Shadows of the pasts, or from elsewhere, persist. They reproduce structures from villages far away, even accommodating primordial markers of habitats like wells and orchards, within a contemporary urban fabric of immense density.

However, to say this aloud makes us vulnerable to the worst of modern political slurs. We get accused of being romantics and supporters of poverty. Accusations come even when we demonstrate the resilient and robust economy that underlies the making of these spaces. Arguments like ours may have been made several times before. They represent a small part of a vast archive of similar commentaries made by a host of observers and practitioners. Yet they are all dismissed or ignored.

It is for this reason that we found Bonsdorff’s work giving us some new openings. Maybe it is important for us to go back with more fierceness into understanding what exactly is the aesthetic of a habitat. Why has it been subsumed within a larger discourse of architectural practice? Or a sub-set of planning in which it is rarely expressed with the same sophistication as architectural or planning practices are? Is it possible to understand it with more useful tools than what Avatar – style eco-fantasies provide us? Which after all are part of the same neo-medieval worlds that Eco suggests we are trapped in? As absolute as the world of spacecraft technologies and equally ineffective.

Mumbai’s thousands of so-called slums, are composed of habitats that include a wide variety of forms linked to distinct histories. Traditional villages, artisanal colonies, working class tenements, temporary structures, modern dwellings, – all of them are subsumed within a generic category that has little basis in reality. To tell the stories and distinct histories of each of these neighbourhoods is a very important exercise. And an effective way of doing that is by understanding their form, their specific story.

The gaze from the outside and the inner experience of living in those spaces must converge at some point. Such a convergence will make it possible to appreciate what these neighbourhoods really mean to the story of urbanism as we experience it today. And the question of aesthetics as it applies to habitats and dwellings is crucial to this story.

Speculation and use value in Mumbai

March 22, 2013

Photo: Rehabilitation project in Dharavi

Quite a few architects and urban designers have cracked their heads on the urban phenomenon that Mumbai represents. What kind of logic keeps this big, bad city running despite all odds? How exactly does its urban fabric reflect the extreme disparities that have become inexorably attached to the city’s image? What does the mutation of colonial Bombay into global Mumbai mean for architectural forms and public life?

Rahul Mehrotra’s static vs. kinetic city story is one of the most compelling attempts at providing a general understanding of the dynamics and tensions at work in the making and perpetuating of Mumbai’s urbanism. According to him, the static is the official city of built forms, framed by monumental structures, birthed and nourished by broadly premodernist and modernist impulses. Sharing space, often unacknowledged and even unseen, but nevertheless very much present and active is the kinetic city, energized by the impulse of everyday human presence and activity, spilling over streets and public spaces, composed of transactions and the bazaar ethos, especially by resource and capital deprived inhabitants.

He accurately points out that Mumbai’s history and future are unimaginable without the dense trading culture and human interactions that spill in and out of its bustling streets and worn out habitats. Likewise, his critique of rigid notions of architectural heritage and urban futures that defend built space over lived space, is spot on. Anybody who comes to Mumbai and connects with its incredible street life, wrapped around and between its mongrelized Gothic colonial or post-colonial structures can immediately connect to the ideal types of the static and the kinetic city.

Mehrotra goes on to elaborate why Mumbai is essentially a kinetic city which cannot be tamed or reigned in by the static city. He does not fully buy into the standard dichotomization of the city into formal and informal sectors, which can mistakenly be overlapped onto his static-kinetic concepts. Instead, his perspective transforms public architecture into a sophisticated set of practices that involve a layered understanding of architectural heritage. He attributes a more creative role to intangible moments of public life like festivals and street economies. The transformation of the Kala Ghoda art district in Mumbai is a successful tribute to his framework.  It is to his credit as an architect that he uses imagination and a sense of history to co-produce a public project of this nature without investing in another expensive monument to celebrate existing ones.

Sadly, the concept of the kinetic city is threatened by the malaise of over-interpretation. Sometimes instigated by Mehrotra’s own hurried words. For example, it is easy to misread his observations that all structures of the kinetic city are made of temporary and recycled materials or that their limited but productive lifespan is connected to makeshift building techniques. This encourages a tendency to misunderstand some neighbourhoods in Mumbai as being disposable because of a surface reading of their dynamics. They seem to resemble the structures that Mehrotra is describing. We argue that it would probably be wise not to let Mehrotra’s slippery concept slide over the blurry boundaries of South Mumbai, to become a guiding principle to understand habitats such as Mumbai’s so-called slums. We have come across quite a few students of architecture who build on his framework and delve into the issues of affordable housing and the question of slums and shanties.

In the wider context of Mumbai city, the limitation of the static/kinetic framework becomes more pronounced the closer you look. For decades Mumbai’s poorer neighbourhoods have been seen as a kind of soft mobile stock of temporary habitats – easily removable when the right time arrives for good profits to be made. Far from being the recycled landscape one could imagine when listening to Mehrotra, slum notified areas are often made of over-engineered pucca structures, built by professional masons and contractors using industrial construction materials. Their streets are full of registered shops selling mainstream products.  Many of them also double up into what could be called post-Fordist industrial sites, organized in flexible and anti-fragile (as Nassim Taleb would say) production networks.  If there is an appearance of shabbiness to many neighbourhoods it is not because of any intrinsic quality to them but due to the myopic policies of the civic bureaucracy. Unbelievable as it may seem, it is true that local contractors in those neighbourhoods have a stock of special effects to age a building so that it does not catch the eye of a corrupt official looking to make a quick buck from a new (unauthorized) construction.  In some extreme cases, brick and mortar structures are covered up by corrugated iron sheets, to give the impression of being temporary, just to evade demolition.

On the other hand, apart from a few protected heritage monuments, the static city of Mehrotra’s is nowhere to be seen. The logic that rules Mumbai is not that of the static city, but of the speculative city. It may forgo a beautiful heritage structure in its quest for new territories, or even sponsor a street festival, as long as it is eventually allowed to invest in expensive real estate somewhere on the horizon, and get a great view on top and a parking space below. For sure, the speculative city produces all kinds of empty spaces that may look static in appearance, but are actually highly volatile real estate assets traded on global markets. A building and the flats within it can well be bought and sold several times over before having been built, with profits made at each stage –till it bursts. This is the most vivid expression of a speculative value of space that is completely disconnected from its use value. These buildings embody what Zizek refers to as the “virtual, spectral domain of Capital.” (Zizek, 2001: 3/4).

The speculative economy is heated up by infusions of global capital in search for high and quick returns. Indian corporate houses, businessmen and politicians recycle grey or black money sent off shore into real estate projects built only to be sold to fellow investors. It is no coincidence that tiny Mauritius Island, a tax haven, is the first largest contributor of Foreign Direct Investment to India.[1]

In hot speculative markets, land development is not driven by the demand of users, as much as that of investors. This explains the total discrepancy between the demand for affordable housing in many cities and what is actually being produced, which is predominantly high-end residential or office buildings (rarely mixed-use) destined to be traded on a global real estate market. High-end housing continues to be produced in large quantities in Mumbai and other metros despite the fact that, according to the district level data from census 2011, 479,000 flats are lying empty in Mumbai, 10 to 20% of which are not finding buyers [2].

This doesn’t seem to worry the developers and the authorities. In June 2012, municipal authorities approved the construction of 78 new buildings above the height of 70 meters (Midday, 2012). Twelve skyscrapers above 200 meters high are currently being built in the city, out of which six will be 300 meters or higher. In addition, another 17 buildings of 400 meters height or higher are proposed waiting to be approved. Out of these three are above 500 meters and one, India Tower designed by Fosters and Partners, is planned to reach 720 meters high, which would make it the second highest building on earth after Burj Khalifa.[3] Far from being static and defensive, the present wave of urbanization is swift and predatory, storming into forgotten parcels of land and blowing them up vertically, flying over roads and winding around corners, wild firing to remote areas like there is no tomorrow.

The speculative dynamics dominating the political economy of the city threatens the existence of neighbourhoods, which at present in Mumbai, provide living and working space for half of its population on a very tiny proportion of land. These neighbourhoods are full of vitality. Thanks to their deep integration to the city’s economy they function as vehicles of class mobility. They reinvest in pucca structures and collectively improve their neighbourhoods to the extent they are permitted by the authorities. However most of the time they are fighting a tough battle. Residents of locally developed neighbourhoods have to deal with contested ownership and occupancy rights, which are being swallowed up by the city’s speculative impulses. As they consolidate, they have to break through a mangrove-like municipal bureaucracy that informally sucks up the proverbial fortune at the bottom of the pyramid through bribes and fines. Keeping them kutcha – at least in appearance – by forbidding obvious improvement and denying adequate infrastructure makes it easy to notify them as a slum – and makes homegrown neighbourhoods vulnerable to predatory speculative development.

The government’s attitude generates a great uncertainty as far as their established occupancy rights are concerned. While many bet on the wholesale redevelopment of Dharavi for example, one can barely speculate on the future value of a single plot within the neighbourhood, for precisely the reason that all of it could be taken over in the name of   redevelopment at anytime.

As a result, while at the metropolitan/global levels, the land value of slum notified areas can be speculated upon, at the local level the exchange value of space is determined mostly by its short-term use value. The question that use-value puts forward is not: “how much can I hope to get if I sell the land in 2 or 10 years time?” but “what kind of value would I generate or attach to the space if I use it for one or two years?” The fact that there is already a local real estate, use-based market within these neighbourhoods, is often ignored. The worth of these neighbourhoods is not based on speculative value since for the inhabitants, the space has little worth beyond its use. But that does not mean that there is no value at all –quite on the contrary. In fact in the existing regime, buying a house in Dharavi or any other neighbourhood built on public land, without putting it to productive activity, makes no economic sense whatsoever. It is productive drive that makes the place so dynamic.

Simply providing residents property titles through programs such as the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) or the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) scheme, would not make things better for the city –although it would provide temporary relief to many residents of the targeted neighbourhoods. Quickly the whole neighbourhood would drown in speculative exchanges and reduce value to purely that. Which is what the speculators strive on. Since it would simply be a means of organizing property deeds and putting everything up for sale to the highest bidder. Existing residents, tenants as well as landlords, would eventually leave the place and move elsewhere, where speculation allows for use-value to still express itself, since that would still make economic sense. Externally, this would mean more actual slums sprouting up on new peripheries and future potential for investment in real estate projects by speculators.

The kinetic dynamism that exists at present in those neighbourhoods is not connected to their form or structures as much as their political-economy. It is the same use-based economy that allows space to be filled in all over the city – in the interstices of bridges, buildings and on its streets. The kinetic effect of peoples overwhelming presence – all the way from South Mumbai to North – in every inch of the city’s public spaces and in its homegrown neighbourhoods is based on the preponderance of their use-value (this is what we have been referring to as the intensive city). Every street hawker, vendor, even homeless sleeper, pays for that moment of use. They pay local goons, police, municipal workers – almost anyone who claims a right of being temporary tax-keeper.

In the process, they do have the potential of organizing themselves, improving their incomes, transforming their status, and they do this all the time – till they reach narrowly defined limits (in the case of slums it is sometimes as arbitrary as a 14 feet height restriction). The limits imposed on them force them to exist in a no-mans territory in between different regimes of land and local political control. As a result the city does not have the requisite number of rental houses for poor people, organized hawking zones, good quality incrementally built neighbourhoods, systems of generating revenue on occupied land, or even decent public toilets.

What we do get are more mass-manufactured static habitats fuelled by speculation, constantly predating on spaces of high-use value. The latter are often called encroachments, violators of public space and worse – illegal. All this while the city keeps making more place for new real estate projects – even if they are badly used, unproductive and sometimes empty. At the same time, so-called slums and street economies continue generating wealth incrementally, at great difficulty and against all odds, which they then  share in outrageous proportions with the city’s official and unofficial extortionists.

These are the processes which produce the kinetic energy that the city – paradoxically – also thrives on.

This post is the first a of series of short essays written by participants of the Homegrown Neighbourhoods Workshop, which took place in January 2013 at the Institute of Urbanology.

Is India Already Urbanized?

December 13, 2012

A playful provocation; some serious questions

All indicators of urbanization in India point to a future that looks pretty stagnant, if you use conventional barometers. According to the latest census data, we see a  low proportion of officially urban to rural areas – still under 30 %. The growth of metropolitan centers is also slowing down.

Interestingly, all this is countered by a significant increase in non-farm economic activities in traditionally agrarian regions. These include manufacture, processing of agrarian products, construction and other services. There is also an increasing investment being made by rural-urban migrants from cities, back to their villages of origin. Significant rural-rural migration also hints at dynamism in erstwhile agrarian regions which are providing income through both farm and non-farm activities.

A family may have members spread out across the country fanning out into a range of different economic activities with roots in the ancestral village still active, and one leg firmly entrenched in the city. Different economic sectors can thus contribute to the income, or at the least, provide some social security to one family.

The presence of a pan Indian railway network that is cheap and relatively efficient allows for seasonal commutes, long distance migration as well the ability to keep  ties with rural areas intact, all of which contribute to a sense of belonging that is not classically rural or urban.

The slowing down of growth of metropolitan centers in the country, the most populous of which had emerged mainly during colonial times, is accompanied by a boom in small towns. These growing urban centers are more intricately connected to their rural hinterlands than the great presidency cities were. Which by the way, also owed much of their economic growth to agrarian fuel, either poppy, cotton or jute. For longer than one imagines, large parts of rural India were agro-industrial ventures, linked to urban markets, and not sites for home-based, sustainable agricultural activities.

To divide the country sharply into rural and urban sectors has been critiqued as vehemently by social scientists, many of whom tried to capture this fuzziness with awkward concepts such as rurban, or by presenting rural urban experiences on a continuum. However these observations were rarely used by policy makers, who preferred at first, to subscribe to a Gandhian fantasy of a rural idyll as the site of real India and then, with equal, one-sided alacrity, became anxious about urbanizing the country through seeing more people live in cities as soon as possible. The fact that a people depleted rural India is unthinkable anytime in the near future, thanks to a 800 million strong presence does not seem to daunt such eager urbanists.  A fallacious comparison with totally different historical experiences from North America, a selective reading of European history and a pointless competitiveness with China allows this fantasy to have currency in spite of all indicators pointing elsewhere.

Historically, to classify agrarian practices as purely rural – as if this sector was not tied down to taxation policies or revenue needs of urban centers – is a fallacy. The growing of grains was directly connected to accumulation of centralized, storable wealth.  At the same time, to ignore that much of pre-industrial manufacture actually happened in villages is also subscribing to simplistic and rigid notions of what is rural or urban.

Even in contemporary times, social scientists are trying to sensitize census data collectors to interpret peoples self proclaimed professions in more nuanced ways. A farmer is not always just a farmer (if she ever was one) – but also someone who could be a taxi driver, a construction worker or an artisan and maybe even all of these. In fact the evolutionary framework that cast social growth into tribal, rural and urban-industrial has been one of the weakest theoretical constructs in terms of empirical substantiation, even though a hugely influential one. It tended to fix people into singular roles ignoring the intricate and complex economic systems that existed in the smallest of societies.  Even a hunter-gatherer did some horticulture, construction, fishing and artisanal work.

The development of a modern industrial, job oriented ethic reduced individuals to cash oriented capitalist wage earners even though urban environments provided as much variety and possibility to absorb multiple skills from a single worker or a group of workers. Modern urban work ideals were connected to certain promises linked to a special arrangement of labour, technology, resources and skills. This was based on imagining an endless supply of resources and continuous economic growth. In reality growth hardly happened in this way.  Workers were always relying on multiple sources of income, dealing with economic cycles, depression and uncertainty.

Progressive politics put all hopes into the promise of a stable job oriented economy and rarely looked at other forms of state-sponsored economic systems for individuals and families. Rural worlds were firmly seen as static and incapable of being integrated into a modern worldview. Insurance systems, social security, pensions were all tied down to the negotiations that workers had to make with private job providers or the state, in the city. Creative solutions that gave them more agency and control over resources, both traditional and new, was rarely the path chosen by pro-worker political actors.

Yet in countries like India, urban industrial workers always managed to create support systems that were wired to their villages of origin, no matter how economically and socially marginal their location there. Sometimes this may have been acts of desperation, but often it was also linked to a real desire to remain connected. For most of the country, the railway network acted as the biggest factor making this dual affiliation a reality. However, historian Raj Chandavarkar points out that  in the case of Mumbais famed textile industrial workers, (at one point of time, half of whom came from just one coastal district in Maharashtra, Ratnagiri,) the lack of railways was substituted by sea travel.  Workers commuted seasonally,  across 400 kilometers of coastal waters. The citys iconic mill workers relied a lot on agricultural income from back home to supplement their earnings in expensive Mumbai. Almost as much as they used their ethnic connections to their villages to assert their own urban identities in a cosmopolitan city. Industrial strikes became real bargains only because the workers could prolong their defiance, thanks to support from their village.

Indias supposedly most modern city,  Mumbai, grew around several fishing villages, which themselves spawned large settlements in which rural urban migrants settled into homes and started commercial activities which allowed for a complementary set of work that supplemented the dominant job-providing sector. The state, at one time shaped by welfare ideals, was forced to protect land use by poor migrants. Even if it did not do much else but grant temporary, negotiable rights of occupancy, this act allowed for migrant groups to develop systems of sustainability with very little resources. They too could not rely on stable job generating  abilities of the city beyond a point.

Today, instead of finding ways to improve these neighbourhoods, provide them with better infrastructure, support their emerging economic activities, the state agencies and the private sector have entered into battles over land and proprietorship in the most reductive of ways.

The expansion of a neo-liberal economic mindset encourages the specter of speculation to hang over every urban space in the country. It eventually develops into an ideology of the city that never gives any space to economically dynamic neighbourhoods which need little else but special protection from market forces as far as land occupation goes.. People are willing to pay rents to the government for occupying and using land for socio-economic development, but this is rarely acceptable to authorities. Instead urban policy itself  speculates over every square inch of land and is eager to generate more urban space to emerge in the city (and elsewhere) and make even more money out of speculation. Subsequently, a city like Mumbai ends up having 500,000 vacant flats in the city where prices remain sky-high, for very mediocre properties.

Contrast this with the generations of residents in the so-called informal city – commonly referred to as slums and whom we refer to as homegrown neighbourhoods. They increase and enhance the quality of life of their neighbourhoods through incremental investment in its built form, by raising capital from using space as intensively as possible. Many of these residents also invest back in their villages – in improving ancestral homes, or by starting new businesses there.

The latest census report points out to increased rural expenditure in the country thanks to urban migrants sending money home on a regular basis. These are often from the same homegrown neighbourhoods of cities like Mumbai, who are now being increasingly attacked  as speculative value of urban space becomes more unbearable and the city more unlivable for those with modest resources.

Thankfully the rate of population and economic growth of cities like Mumbai is declining. Instead, small towns are developing more dynamic growth patterns all over the country. What is important to note is that these small towns are more smoothly entrenched into their rural hinterland than large metros. People often commute from villages to cities on an everyday basis for jobs and education. Sometimes rich farmers buy second homes in towns. Families expand their affiliations across rural and urban areas with more ease thanks to better transport facilities. Well-connected and networked areas make it easier for people not to migrate, but instead, navigate distances more strategically for commercial and personal reasons.

In India, the administrative unit of the district in many parts operates like an urban system. With a network of towns and villages criss-crossing, using transport facilities that are private and public. To classify such spaces as exclusively urban or rural does not make sense.  Economic interactions are enmeshed and educational needs are cross-wired across massive distances, as well as in closer proximity.

If there is any need to persist in defining these areas as exclusively rural or urban – it is only because we are still stuck with a very limited notion of a city. One which remains informed by speculative practices and  visualizes cities as dense and consolidated spaces.

In reality the experience of urbanization is extremely unpredictable. Officially the state of Goa is India’s most urbanized state, even though a large proportion of its residents live in villages, (just under 50 %) . The remaining 50 odd % of urban Goa includes large villages and networks of  habitats of a great variety.  Thanks to a slightly different historical trajectory, Goa manages to have a landscape that is mixed use in terms of agrarian, mining, tourist and manufacture, has a large forested land cover and is also urbanized in a social sense.  Conversely – if you follow an ethnic history of Mumbai – the metropolis has more than 150 official urban villages that are part of the city s East Indian history (Maharashtrian Catholics connected to the city’s Portuguese past) in which more than half a million people still live. Thus more people live in villages in Mumbai than in Goa.

This play of statistics is only being evoked to open up our way of looking at Indias urban future in a more realistic way. On one hand we have the depressed figure of an under 30% urbanized economy. On the other hand you have the vision of a highly dynamic agrarian sector that is emerging as a manufacturing hub, and a service economy, with a relatively skilled and multi-talented workforce.

As a cautionary note we must acknowledge that rural India is also being exploited commercially by global agricultural practices and an aggressive mining sector. However it is they who will benefit from an evacuated rural landscape more than anyone else. This is what happened in many so called developed countries that looked at urbanization purely as dense consolidated urban centers and ignored the possibilities that rural lives could provide to a modern economy. Evacuated and empty rural areas made it easier to create hyper commercialized agro-industrial territories, depleted of human presence.

In India thankfully we are far from that picture. India still is heavily populated in its rural and tribal areas. However the nature of these  areas is changing.

Can this change be harnessed more creatively? If urbanization is such an important part of a modernizing economy can we not define urbanization a bit differently?

Can we say that India’s teeming populations are organized in urban systems that connect agricultural and other activities and spaces? That the future of this kind of an economy is as much connected to a peopled farm sector as it is of non-farm activities in both rural and urban areas? Just as formal and informal settlements and economies hide a more complex reality does Indias rural area also hide such a complexity? One that we are burying under a very simplistic dichotomy?

As Anthony Leeds suggests very provocatively, pre-industrial kingdoms were not urban centers ruling vast territories of rural villages. The villages were producing for a tax regime, for centralized urban centers and food was revenue and wealth in the form of taxes. Villages were part of urban systems. There is no such thing as the distinctively rural – as opposed to the urban -  in his world view. Kingdoms were urban systems. Just because people lived in villages did not mean their lives were not being governed by  urban power centers. For him it is urban systems all the way. But this argument cannot be used to justify a narrow world view of urbanization or a dense urban future for all. It actually calls for a more integrated understanding of economies and habitats.

Maybe if India – in an ironic twist of statistical reality calls itself 100 % urban – and defines itself as a network of urban systems, it will dignify its vast rural populations in a more creative way – it will be able to harness its natural resources more inclusively and also look at the future of urban India in a less anxious way – where the image of rural hordes attacking its urban frontiers will give way to a more generous relationship to space. Instead of visualizing the future of rural India either as gorged out mines, battlefields, or dystopic cash crop landscapes, it can be still seen as peopled with habitats, organized around healthy public transport systems, a combination of agrarian and other kinds of economic activities and greater local control over natural resources.  For those concerned that a peopled rural landscape cannot be environmentally friendly, one only has to look at states like Kerala, which for all  local cynicism, is a living example of rural-urban density and a mixed use, tree lined inhabited landscape – like Goa, another kind of an urban system. In contrast, all the commercially exploited landscapes of colonial rural British India (thanks to cotton, jute or opium and aggressive mining in tribal belts)  remain tied down to exaggerated rural-urban categories.

To look at India as a network of urban systems, having a wide variety of landscapes and uses of land, of deeper connections between natural resources and people who use them – would need an over haul of conceptual frameworks. It would mean a fresh look at administration, at infrastructure, at revenue generation and use of natural resources. It would mean a more creative way at looking at the countrys human capital and potential – and a firm break from an outdated way of looking at work and livelihoods. But it may still be economically and ecologically less expensive than going down an imagined one way route of hyper-urbanization on one hand and empty, depleted hinterlands on the other.

An Economic Zone Against All Odds

August 20, 2012

Agata Jaworska interviewed us for a special issue of the magazine Volume (Volume #32: Centers Adrift). Photos taken by Ishan Khosla. Here is the complete interview:


AJ: Dharavi is one of the rare situations in which a slum presents an opportunity. How did this unique situation come to be?

ME&RS: Actually, what is or is not a slum is not so clear-cut. The reality this word is supposed to describe shifts from context to context. In Mumbai, people living in areas identified as slums by the government or referred as such by the media, city builders, and politicians, often take great pains to point out that their neighborhoods are not slums at all. Sometimes they are old urban villages that had sublet pieces of land to poor migrants; their low-rise high-density form made urban authorities refer to them as slums. In other cases migrant communities were patronized by politicians who allowed them to settle on government land. The settlers were promised a place in the city in exchange for votes. They did not see themselves as encroachers or squatters since their move was sanctioned by official authorities. The history of these neighborhoods is often forgotten. Many of them have grown into busy zones of economic activity and livelihood. Their residents contribute to the city’s life in major ways. Their presence has turned Mumbai into the best-serviced city in India, perhaps in the world. They are an affordable workforce and need affordable housing.

Dharavi emerged along with other such settlements. It is not a city within a city, nor is it the exception that it is often portrayed as being. It grew around mangrove creeks on the outer edges of the colonial city. Its historical epicenter is Dharavee Koliwada, a four century-old tribal fishing village. Dharavi is particularly well-known since the city grew around it. Once at the periphery of the colonial city, it attracted leather workers and others who had no other place to go. It is now at the center of Greater Mumbai, strategically located along two major railway tracks, minutes away from one of India’s major corporate hubs, the Bandra-Kurla Complex. Dharavi has become famous for its activities that are plugged into the city’s trading, manufacturing, and service sectors.

We see this situation as one it actually shares with many other settlements. It is connected to its spatial organization that happens to combine work and living conditions characterized by the form we refer to as the ‘tool-house’. This allows for a whole lot of manufacturing, retailing, and trading activities to function from this mixed-use condition.

A combination of greed, prejudice, and ideological bias prevents the authorities from supporting the incremental, locally-driven development of Dharavi. The labeling of it as a ‘slum’ has the perverse effect of delegitimizing a neighborhood altogether and thus justifying the lack of provision of public services. This is because slum dwellers are perceived as squatters who have no rights to the city.  Thus, the label of ‘slum’ is itself the biggest obstacle in the improvement of the quality of life in Dharavi and other such settlements. This is why through actual and conceptual intervention we aim at normalizing a neighborhood that doesn’t have much to gain from being described as an exception. What we should recognize is that Dharavi is a natural urban formation, unique and banal at once. It is the tip of the iceberg. Dharavi is urban India at its best, because it is a testimony to the capacity of people to lift themselves up against all odds; and at its worst because it also has the messed up aspect of a creature that was beaten up, marginalized and oppressed by powerful forces over too many years.

The category ‘slum’ is considered to be the antonym of what is supposed to be the formal city. The formal city itself is a notion suspended somewhere in our collective imaginary. A fantasy that only the most developed East Asian and North European nations succeed in upholding in the urbanism of their cities. In Mumbai the formal city evokes high-rise blocks in segregated zones, connected by motorways, flyovers, sea links and (perhaps someday) monorails, and a neat division of functions between residential, recreational (i.e. shopping), and working quarters. This image is so twentieth century! Especially when we know that at the heart of what we consider to be the formal world’s economy is the web – that incredibly free and user-driven system – and global finance, which rides on deregulation, borderlessness, risk-taking, and cocaine.

In fact binary categories like the formal and the informal become rigid formulations that don’t do justice to the urban dynamics that exist in a city as diverse as Mumbai.

Dharavi and many other settlements like it are fully plugged into the economic dynamics of the city. Their mixed use spatial logic and cheap labor supply support the activity of large-scale corporate groups through manufacturing and retail or by providing services at cheap rates.

Seventy percent of the total workforce is said to belong to the ‘informal’ sector. And matching this figure is the overwhelming population that is supposedly living in ‘slums’ as well. If this is the dominant condition how can the economy and the settlements be referred to as informal, marginal, or peripheral?

AJ: Dharavi came to exist because of the lack of infrastructure ­– any area that was serviced would have been unsuitable, as affordability was the key determining factor. If Dharavi gets serviced, will it still exist? How would retrofitting infrastructure change its dynamics?

ME&RS: Actually a close observation of Dharavi’s history reveals an incremental growth of infrastructure over a long period of time. Schools, roads, and community toilets have been built over decades. Sometimes with state support, sometimes entirely by the state, sometimes privately and sometimes through community initiatives. Compared to other neighborhoods identified as slums, many parts of Dharavi are decently serviced, though the scope for improvement is tremendous. Municipal authorities often have to be bribed to fix a pipe. Electricity is legally provided by private companies, metered and paid for. The proportion of toilets per capita is low. Only those few who can afford to have them built, have them at home. Some just don’t have enough space or resources and have to use community toilets or the streets themselves. This state of affairs is something that is connected to civic clout and varies street by street, or neighborhood by neighborhood. If Dharavi gets improved services, it will still exist, and better than ever before, but only if such improvements are not clubbed with wholesale changes in the built-form of the neighborhood.

AJ: While governments are busy setting up special economic zones, Dharavi has self-established itself as one. Could this economic hub have come to exist with government involvement? How do you think the government can now plug in?

ME&RS: If the government had appreciated how the artisanal energy found in the communities here provided highly-skilled but cheap labor to the city, they would have connected these efficiently to the emerging industrial and service sector. Then the story of Mumbai would have been different. Right now the efficiency of Dharavi is connected to its spatial logic, the autonomy and independence that its small-scale economic units enjoy and the presence of community histories embedded in the neighborhood.

Dharavi residents refer to the area as a special economic zone in an ironic manner, often with sarcasm. After all, most special economic zones are pampered with facilities. The opposite is true of Dharavi.

For this one can attribute prejudice and ignorance, or a combination of the two as the main reasons. Privileged classes in India are used to a high level of subsidized labor and a cheap service economy, shaped by older modes of social stratification. To have entire neighborhoods living in poorly serviced conditions, where the service providers are badly paid is completely acceptable to them. Such neighborhoods can exist cheek by jowl with privileged ones. Since they often emerge on government land, or by paying cheap rent to small-time landlords, their presence is seen to be the result of charity or disrepute. When market forces start eyeing that land, for real-estate development, the ‘slum-dwellers’ are seen as encroachers and squatters, with their continued presence there being constantly under threat of demolition.

The state or municipal authorities, which had been complicit in the development of such neighborhoods in the first place, then start to work hand-in-glove with developers and try to clear them out. Neighborhoods with stronger political clout manage to survive these maneuvers to a certain degree. Dharavi, through its density, demographics, and political clout has managed to push forth its own agenda fairly successfully, but is under threat now by the weight of its inaccurate reputation as a ‘slum’.

AJ: Almost all companies in Mumbai have some sort of contact with Dharavi – whether through products or with waste. Can you tell us more about some of these connections with Mumbai, India, and the rest of the world? How does informal Dharavi interact with the formal world?

ME&RS: It would be best not to look at Mumbai as framed by formal and informal channels. But as a web of activities located in different neighbourhoods, each with their own advantages and strengths. There are people working for multi-national companies as secretaries, drivers, security guards in so-called formal spaces, but they themselves live in neighborhoods qualified as ‘informal’. In their homes, other family members are making small components that are then sent off to assembling units that produce taxed goods. Many shopping malls may have products, in their restaurants or in shops, made in settlements like Dharavi. Export of goods, especially leather and clothes, from Dharavi to countries around the world is fairly well-known. Within Dharavi, residents are provided with goods and services by local agents all the time. The neighborhood is a hub for exchange of goods and services from throughout the city. Its central location, connected to all three railway lines – western, central and harbor – as well as by bus-networks, makes it a very convenient transaction point. Recycling of waste is a major chunk of its economic activity and is networked all through the city through agents, collectors and suppliers. Material comes by hand carts, taxis, trucks, and trains. Local construction activities are another substantial economic activity. Dharavi is a market for cement, bricks, pipes, and other construction material, and is constantly building and rebuilding structures all over the neighborhood.   Dharavi interacts with the city, country, and world pretty much using all existing resources – mainly through agents, business networks, the city’s transport systems, and mobile and communication devices.

It would be interesting to turn this question on its head and ask how ‘formal’ middle-class residential buildings in Mumbai are connected to the city around them. A typical high-rise apartment block is serviced by dozens of unregistered workers on every floor: guards, cleaners, maids, cooks, nannies, drivers, and an army of deliverymen. Its residents often work from home (without commercial license), download all kinds of files from the net, hide gold from the surveyor, transfer cash to foreign accounts, pay bribes to officials, buy real estate in cash and so on.

What we need is a new way to think about production and services in the city. In a study we are currently conducting in Dharavi, we are looking at mobility from the point of view of home-based economic activities. What we are observing is that the house is connected to the city through a constant flux of goods and people moving in and out. Our cities are not organized in formal and informal zones. The division between the center and the periphery are blurred. The city’s activities are organized in webs and hubs that span across places and classes. On one level Dharavi is one such hub. On another, it is a collection of small producers themselves clustered in different parts of the neighborhoods, working in a networked fashion, each according to their own traditions and specializations.

AJ: For Dharavi to have a leading position within economic chains, it possibly needs to shift from executing orders to also initiating them. Can we expect that to happen in Dharavi? How would you describe the role that Dharavi fulfills within national and international chains?

ME&RS: Dharavi’s strengths are in recycling, manufacturing, construction, and services. Its localization at the center of the city, its spatial logic, its deep social networks, its cultural diversity, its extreme density and clustering of activities, are strategic advantages in the domestic and global market. We are not sure if we can simply project the wisdom of the day in terms of planning and development onto Dharavi’s future. Not everyone aspires to be a designer. Optimizing the production process is itself a creative activity, which can be valued for its own sake. Of course, Dharavi is not one homogenous space or system. It is perfectly feasible for some industries and activities to establish leadership in the larger market and start initiating more orders. In fact, this has been happening for a long time in some industries. For instance, the potters sell products that they have designed themselves. Lots of leatherwork is designed locally as well. However, to mark that out as a joint aspiration for the whole neighborhood does not really make sense. Nothing can be pushed onto the neighbourhood. Its strength is its ability to reinvent itself constantly. To appreciate its logic we need to accept its existing specializations as well as its multi-zonal mind-set. Dharavi is deeply connected to the wider economic systems at large, not as one consolidated neighborhood, but through its own very diverse and adaptable systems. To visualize it as a distinct, holistic sub-system and then imagine its transformation through taking a position of leadership, falls back in the trap of thinking of neighborhoods as planned, zoned spaces in their most ideal form.

AJ: The likes of Harvard, Droog, The Economist, Domus and many others study Dharavi. It is a goldmine for case studies in business, urban planning, architecture, design, recycling, (etc.), becoming a central point of reference for research across disciplines. Why is the world looking at Dharavi and what does it hope to learn?

ME&RS: Actually if we come here looking for case studies that are framed in conventional practices then we will be disappointed. What is commendable about Dharavi is certainly linked to its ability of creating a functioning vibrant economic environment from very little support and capital. It managed to do this by relying on community networks that are deeply connected to native homes. At the same time native histories for most communities were connected to feudal oppressive relations and caste prejudice. Migrating to the city meant freeing oneself from those older histories. The desperation, freedom, and liberation, along with making the most of very little in a new environment – often by accepting very poorly serviced conditions – are all aspects of Dharavi’s ‘success’ story, but cannot be put in a business case-study. One can hardly turn those histories into economic models! However, what one can do is look carefully at what aspects of its functioning can inform contemporary urban environments, so we respect it when we see it elsewhere. Our studies indicate that its spatial logic, collapse of live-work functions, low-rise high-density structures that incrementally grow over time, the presence of community-based support structures are parts of a larger functioning system, that may help us understand how urban neighborhoods in different parts of the world can stimulate a similar local economic dynamism. This is definitely worth a study. These conditions allow for a collective upward social and urban mobility of neighborhoods in a manner that builds on internal resources of the residing communities and allows them to respond to economic needs in an efficient manner and with lower risks involved. Having multiple sources of incomes, creating value through spatial development, renting and sub-letting, manufacturing and trading, creating creative co-dependencies between individuals, groups and families, keeping alive connections with native histories, and also investing in new opportunities through education, are all factors that have helped Dharavi and neighborhoods like Dharavi transform themselves in a manner that is worth understanding and then emulating. Besides this, its ability of providing highly skilled labor services relying on community skills connected to artisanal histories, but which now adapt to industrial and post-industrial activities, is another special feature that needs to be documented and understood.

AJ: Has all the attention and admiration from the formal world changed the way Dalits – a marginalized group of people in India traditionally regarded as ‘untouchable’ – are perceived and their role in society? Does the economic success story translate into a social success story?

ME&RS: The fact that Dharavi has the largest presence of Dalit communities in the city is hardly ever foregrounded in discussions about the neighborhood, at least in the mainstream media. As it is, positive discrimination and affirmative action are touchy topics for dominant classes in the city. In fact, the temporary subsidies or rights of use of government land by poor migrant communities is resented much in the same way as reservation for jobs and educational opportunities for Dalit and other marginal communities.

However, it is also true that the Dalit identity is not something that many residents actively use in their daily lives. In many ways, neighborhoods like Dharavi allow for reinvention of identities which try and erase marginality connected to older names and histories. Yet, this is a complex game. Political parties use caste as an active principle at times and as subordinate at others.

The role of caste in Dharavi’s economic and social success is not often understood or appreciated enough, except by some enthusiastic scholars and activists. It is true though that today the global attention to the special economic history of Dharavi has made the media more aware. But this does not often translate into a deeper appreciation that transforms into productive policies. For most of the time the fact that economic success is not reflected in civic infrastructure only reinforces the idea that the ‘slum’ needs to be erased. When this happens, off goes its economic dynamism. What it needs really is better provision of services and improvement of its environment without destroying its existing built-environment, allowing for a gradual incremental logic to unfold in a manner that foregrounds its economic functions. For this some deep-rooted prejudice against some of the communities that make the human fabric of Dharavi must be overcome.

AJ: Dharavi attracts people from across India, attaining a certain kind of density and diversity. When people converge in one place, they usually reinvent their identity. Is that happening in Dharavi?

ME&RS: Yes, certainly. We have documented hundreds of religious shrines in the locality. These reveal the regional affiliations and traditional background of different residents and communities of Dharavi residents. Each shrine is a story of reinvention and transformation, a play of remembering and forgetting caste and ethnic identities and celebrating new freedoms.

India’s most definitive leaders, Gandhi and Ambedkar did not see eye to eye as far as stories of caste histories went. Gandhi glorified an imagined Indian village and its functional division of labor as the fulcrum for Indian society. Ambedkar was firm that erasing the past, leaving the village and moving to the city was a more reliable means to genuine liberation from caste. In a paradoxical way, Gandhi’s imagined, hardworking, productive, artisanal village was actualized in urban settlements like Dharavi, which also became a site for Ambedkar’s dreams to be actualized in terms of transcending caste and achieving freedoms. At a symbolic level, a nod of acknowledgment towards each other, by Gandhi and Ambedkar, can only be visualized in a place like Dharavi. It would never have happened in reality during their lifetimes.

However even at a symbolic level, such an acknowledgment can only happen if Dharavi is respected and transformed in a manner that can continue to host and provide opportunities for waves of new migrant communities of different backgrounds to keep creating opportunities. Unfortunately the present urban imagination in terms of policies everywhere in the world is not in a position to facilitate this.

AJ: Is Dharavi sustainable? What is the future of Dharavi?

ME&RS: In many ways, Dharavi is a manifestation of a set of urban processes that we believe belong to the trajectory of a ‘natural’ city. This oxymoron is our way of saying that positing the city as a hard-wired counterpoint to ‘nature’ and thus seeing it solely as a variable of human intervention and control is ultimately what makes them become totalized, over-controlled, sterilized spaces. That only encourages landscapes that are speculatively financed, producing miles of built forms and real estate development, neatly segregated into zones of recreation, residences, and livelihood. In the process of constructing ideal cities, so much investment is made that no one sees how economic vitality is often leeched out of human lives and put into buildings and boulevards, creating brittle and vulnerable cities in the long run.

As a natural city, the historical development of Dharavi has been a testimony to the ability of residents to create dynamic environments. However physically impoverished, they are nevertheless indicative of possibilities of a better urban future for all. In our minds, the future of Dharavi can be a better one, reflected in the concrete reality of some Tokyo neighborhoods, which often share a template of urban development with Dharavi, but in a much more developed way. Or even in the confidently transforming streets of ‘favela’ neighborhoods in Sao Paulo.

Of course, the hard reality is that urban visions for all are now trapped in rather limited designs and projections. It is highly unlikely that Dharavi will be able to challenge those easily, and be allowed to follow its own trajectory.

The ongoing process of urbanization in Mumbai and the world at large is one that erases as much as it builds. Guy Debord said that urbanization negates the city because it deprives neighborhoods of the chance of reproducing and reinventing themselves.

The idea that development must follow a linear trajectory from the slum to the formal city is plainly wrong. Particularly if by formal we mean a certain form of urbanization characterized by high-rise buildings and large motorways. This formal city is a false kind of urbanization. What makes a city a city is the people that inhabit it and the way they interact with each other and their environment, making it their own, constantly balancing between their history, present needs, and aspirations, individually and collectively.

The city is reproduced everyday through the million social or commercial interactions that knit people together. The city should therefore not be understood as a counterpoint to the slum or the village. These are enmeshed in the city’s economy, fabric, and ethos.

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.

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