A courtyard in Mumbai's Dharavi neighborhood. Urbz

An area made famous by Slumdog Millionaire might look crammed and chaotic to outsiders, but a local urbanist group shows the intricate, valuable complexity that exists there. Can that save the neighborhood from demolition?

To an outsider, the Dharavi neighborhood might not seem like much of a role model. A hyper-dense network of narrow lanes close to the heart of Mumbai, this area was made internationally famous as the setting of Slumdog Millionaire. It packs an incredible (estimated) 700,000 residents into just 0.8 square miles, with provisional-looking buildings threaded together and only rudimentary transit and sanitation infrastructure. The area is frequently damned in the Indian media as the country’s largest example of that terrifying but subjectively-defined urban nightmare: the slum.

But Dharavi’s days in its current form may be numbered. An ongoing, long-delayed plan to demolish the area and start afresh seems to be gathering momentum, with a Dubai-based firm currently bidding to overhaul it completely.

Similar redevelopment schemes in other Indian cities have often smashed the heart out of neighborhoods, destroying social and cultural support networks without meaningfully improving conditions for displaced residents or building something sustainable and vibrant. So is it really the best option for Dharavi? Urbz, an “experimental action and research collective” that’s been based in the neighborhood for 10 years, insists the bulldozer is not the answer.

What Dharavi exhibits isn’t chaos, but something altogether different, Urbz’s researchers say. It’s an intricate and valuable complexity. Through their work shadowing and working with the local community, Urbz has been trying to expose to Mumbai’s largely unresponsive officialdom how Dharavi is the creation of a highly engaged community, and could indeed stand as a bottom-up development model for elsewhere.

CityLab discussed this complexity in conversation with Urbz co-founders, urban planner Matias Echanove and anthropologist Rahul Srisvastava at the reSITE 2018 conference in Prague this month. While he’s not strictly advocating for architectural preservation, Srisvastava suggests that wholesale redevelopment that shatters Dharavi’s development model and community links would be shortsighted.

“The conventional approach to redeveloping Dharavi would be what most cities do—the global model of multi-rise structure in a mass-housing project. But Dharavi has grown through very special relationships between economic activity, family needs, community needs.”

One of Urbz’s own projects reveals some of these relationships geographically. The map below, created by Urbz for an exhibition staged in Mumbai last year, shows the sheer variety of links between the city and the rest of India. On the left is a map of the whole country, on the right one of Mumbai. Visitors were asked to pin a ribbon between their Mumbai neighborhood and their home village. The result is not a simple exodus to the city from the countryside, but an intricate network of two-way connections between the two.

An interactive map installation created for the Mumbai Return Exhibition. (Urbz)

Traffic along these lines does not flow in one direction. Many Dharavi-ites maintain bases in both city and country, using income earned in Mumbai to build homes back in villages, where they often keep second households throughout their lives. Within Dharavi, these home villages also have a presence in the city as a whole, sometimes collectively renting urban dormitories for new arrivals from the country to live and work in.

To outsiders, the buildings that house these circulatory migrants may look informally cobbled together, but they are in fact constructed by professional contractors. These contractors have clear ideas of what they can or should build based on local needs; according to long-established tradition, the buildings are divided into one-room tenements (referred to in India as chawls) that function as both living and working spaces.

The role of professionals in building what Urbz calls “home-grown” neighborhoods often remains masked, however, because most construction business is carried out orally, without written or drawn designs. Contractors discuss what to build with clients, and building begins straight away, meaning the entire architectural process is essentially invisible.

One Urbz project from 2016—called “Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor”—sought to bring this architectural process more explicitly to light. Translating local contractors’ unwritten, undrawn designs into scale models, it tried to make visible the fact that Dharavi’s flexible, mixed-use spaces have come about not in the absence of proper design, but because they respond effectively to residents’ needs and means. What’s more, they could continue to do so in the future far better than a grand plan imposed from on high.

The Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project asked local builders to design their dream house, specifying a typically narrow 12-by-15-foot site. The builders described their designs to architectural drafts-people, who then drew and cross-checked the designs. Then local artisans built models of the designs in wood, steel, clay, plastic, and glass.

Finished models for the Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project. (Urbz)

The results are striking. The contractors designed slender tower houses stacked high with rooms following steep staircases, fronted on every level with balconies filled variously with goods, laundry, or houseplants. With each model comes a shop on the ground floor—an essential feature in a place where homes need to generate income.

It’s not the aesthetics that are significant here, more the unveiling of a design process and degree of thought in construction which powerful outside authorities and decision-makers might otherwise miss. Such was the value of the design process to the participants that Urbz has since started working with them as consultants in actual designs for new buildings, and is collaborating with contractors on two buildings currently going up in Dharavi.

A craftsman in Dharavi completing a model for the Ideal Home, Dharavi Contractor project. (Urbz)

Recognizing the vitality and variety of ways in which Dharavi-ites have created their own environment doesn’t mean sentimentalizing squalor. Indeed, the area could greatly benefit from infrastructure investment that could make it cleaner, more accessible, and altogether easier to live in.

It means acknowledging that informal neighborhoods could actually develop to function well without total re-planning, if they had their facilities upgraded. This upgrade is often withheld because the state views the area’s construction and character as inherently invalid and irremediable.

“In many parts of the world, including Tokyo after World War II,” Srivastava says, “we have seen this kind of home-grown area was provided with infrastructure. Those areas grew into becoming totally fine, lovable neighborhoods. Yes, of course there are meandering streets, a mix of uses, and a slightly messy look, but actually they function very well. The footprint is respected, but the neighborhood keeps changing all the time.”

This push to recognize the positive aspects of informal development, Urbz acknowledges, is not new, but part of a growing global movement. Indeed, the organization itself has gone global and now has teams in Mumbai, Bogotá, São Paulo, Geneva, and Seoul. No city would necessarily want to emulate the areas where Dharavi fails—areas like sanitation and street repairs. The things the area does get right—its vitality and ability to respond to changes of use—could nonetheless provide both a rebuke and alternative to the grand scale, top-down planning that still dominates city revamps in the Global South.

As Matias Echanove puts it, with excessive central planning:

Cities start looking like excel spreadsheets—you fill up boxes, one box per person, and make your financial plan based on that, and everything is geared towards creating this kind of very audited, regulated space. It’s good for financial planning, but it creates really poor neighborhoods—because they’re mono-functional, they’re boring, because there’s no sense of agency anywhere.

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