Bogotá to Mumbai: Local innovation for sustainability

August 7th, 2014 by andrespolo40

During the daily commute to my university using public transport that lasted one and a half hours, I had plenty of time to look at the neighbourhoods on the edge of Bogotá.  Many of these areas had emerged when people moved into the city from the countryside – one that was plagued by violence and poverty for many years.

During my studies at the university there were very few courses that focused on the issue of social housing in Bogota. Academic discussions were focused on modern and contemporary theories, studying examples of foreign architecture and star architects. I often asked myself why my school didn’t teach me about these large parts of Bogota, where 30 per cent of the population lives, and where new urban typologies emerge based on very specific needs and cultural practices.

In my final year, I participated in a studio project in Ciudad Bolivar, the largest homegrown neighbourhood in Bogotá. At that time I felt a great sense of admiration on seeing how people generated their own housing solutions. I understood that these solutions needed to be seen beyond the purely aesthetic and that they had a spatial, architectural, social and cultural quality that should be studied and understood. But at the same time, I also wondered how physical conditions could be improved, and how we could absorb the knowledge of these communities to create sustainable processes that connected art, technology and science.

Ciudad Bolivar, Bogotá

With this in mind, I continued my studies in architecture and sustainable development in Europe, where I learned new theories and approaches in ecological design and sustainability. This helped me to think about many of the sustainable aspects of the so-called “informal” sector. However, I could not get over the fact that the new paradigms of sustainability could be so tightly based on numbers, on very specific lines, that defined ecological projects as sustainable or not – and even graded or certified them (with ‘gold’ or ‘platinum’ standards!)

The neighbourhoods in Bogota were far from fulfilling the needs of a sustainability audit in such terms. But I realized that sustainable processes were ingrained in these communities. It was necessary to have a grounded approximation of sustainability and further align them with the needs of the community, and to create solutions based on their needs.

To understand a neighbourhood one should be able to access the site and look at the place through the eyes of the people who live there. A community leader of Ciudad Bolivar got me involved in multiple activities that allowed me to know its reality through stories and conversations with residents. I visited over a hundred homes and found interesting cultural patterns in the urban fabric.

Andres with friends in a home in Ciudad Bolivar


The inhabitants built their homes in stages, according to the financial resources available. In most homes, the owner lived on the first floor and the upper floors were rented to ensure daily income. The terrace area played an important role in allowing the development of multiple activities such as washing clothes and socializing.

The characteristics of a place like Ciudad Bolivar have emerged as a result of its geography: rain, topography, climate, microclimate, etc., that influenced the cultural activities of each community. While visiting the site I used scientific analysis (of official documents and technical specifications) that allowed me to determine climate variations over short distances. This analysis was complemented with empirical knowledge that people have developed over years.

I observed that many inhabitants of Ciudad Bolívar use different systems of rainwater harvesting to meet their water needs. The problem was that the communities that used these systems did not know the necessary devices for optimal performance, resulting in poor management of rainwater flow, which created health risks. I proposed a system for collecting rainwater and treatment based on specific needs of the inhabitants.

In Ciudad Bolivar there exist many workshops, craftsmen and shops that work with recycled materials. I visited many of them and learned from their techniques. I elaborated a system of storage and filtration of rainwater that I tested in situ.

While I was working on this research I had the opportunity to visit Dharavi in Mumbai.

In Bogotá most activities take place within people’s homes because the housing space is more generous. In Colombia the communities are culturally homogeneous, are Spanish speaking and Catholic. Due to this we see specific cultural, social and building patterns that unfold on a large scale.
In Mumbai the socio-cultural aspect is much more diverse and complex. There are multiple religions, castes and languages. Housing space is limited and many activities spill over onto the street.

Ciudad Bolivar (Bogotá) on the left and Dharavi (Mumbai) on the right.

This made me realize that each case is unique. There are no general solutions and the social and cultural conditions set the criteria for evaluation, and development of proposals for each place.

Similarly the exchange of experiences with professionals engaged in homegrown  neighbourhoods in India (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, URBZ) and Colombia (Piloto University, Municipal Corporation Bogota) gave me very specific information and reflected on their own specific expertise.
After all this learning, from Bogota and also thanks to my travels to Mumbai, I proposed a system of rainwater harvesting, which uses modular tanks, and a water heating system, which takes advantage of the terraced area in the homes of Ciudad Bolivar.

What I learned in this journey from Bogota to Mumbai is that we need are more such examples of simple technology that satisfies basic needs for people in poor neighbourhoods around the world. This is the true route towards sustainability and not just economizing on energy use or trendy design that have become the focus of fashionable sustainability projects these days!

Click to enlarge

Jose Andres Sanchez Arias is an independent researcher from Colombia who spent some time with URBZ in Mumbai. He studied architecture and sustainable development in Bogota and France. Andres is particularly interested in the synergies between the project, the weather, the energetic optimization the environment, and the social, economic and cultural context.

Ching’s Shenzhen – 青的深圳

July 20th, 2014 by julienvincelot

ShiYan, Shenzhen December 2013

The Chinese city of Shenzhen insolently faces Hong Kong and its western heritage. Apart from being the embodiment of the Chinese economic success story, it has one particular feature that distinguishes its urban development:  its speed. Starting from the market-opening reforms launched in 1979 that transformed Shenzhen area into the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in China, the city grew from being a mere fishing village to China’s tenth most populated city within 30 years, according to the official population census. That phenomenon inevitably brought about a uniquely rapid urban expansion. The city planners attempted, through three master plans in the space of 25 years, to organize and control the urban sprawl by establishing 6 cluster cities linked by highways and other communication infrastructure (1986 Master Plan). Yet with a yearly average population growth of about 30% over the previous 30 years, even the most organized top-down urban development policies could not have controlled the massive expansion.

By swallowing up the rural lands of its surroundings, the “instant metropolis” as it is nicknamed, caught up with the region quickly. Due to the speed of its development, villages were surrounded by the city without much attention being drawn to their situation, as urban planners preferred to avoid these complicated cases of pre-industrial settlements, which they saw as unfit to integrate into the official vision of the modern city. These villages therefore were swallowed up in the city’s tentacular sprawl, lost their rural lands, and were surrounded by high-rises. Transformation of their economic activities ensued, embodying their mutation from rural into urban villages, 城中村 literally “village-within-city”. As most urban villages around the world, they became neighborhoods offering cheap housing, hosting migrant workers coming from all over the country looking for a taste of Shenzhen’s economic miracle.

Source: Urbanus. According to some researchers the number of people living in urban villages in Shenzhen is much higher that 6 million. What seems certain is that over half of the people this city of 10,5 million people live in urban villages.

When passing through the city for a workshop, the URBZ team went through some of the 241 urban villages that dot the map. They also encountered Ching (叶青 Ye Qing), an inhabitant of one of these urban villages, ShiYan (石岩) (See write-up posted on Jan 1st, 2014). Living on Old Street (老街)in her family house, she remembered all the economic activities that her family relied on to make a living. These ranged from running a shop on the ground floor, where they would sell clothes, then shoes, then tea and barrelled water. She recalls how her family, and others in the neighborhood, assembled some factory parts such as artificial flowers or USB parts, on the first floor, to earn extra income. Ching’s story is emblematic of the reconversion of these urban village’s habitats into commercial and manufacturing activities more adapted to their newly urban environment. URBZ calls housing types that mix residential, commercial and manufacturing capacities as “tool-houses”. These are usually incrementally developed by their owners to fit their personal needs. These tool-houses are seen in most organic neighborhoods around Asia, from Tokyo’s low-rise commercial districts to India’s so-called “slums”, or even to some extent in Southeast Asia’s shophouses, and they clash with the contemporary vision of cities, based on the separation of residential and industrial activities.

View from Ching’s house in ShiYan village. The photo clearly shows how the older, traditional looking houses have been extended and crowded by new buildings, which are now rising to multiple levels.

In Shenzhen’s central urban villages, most houses were expanded thanks to the new income that they could earn from commercial and manufacturing activities or from renting some rooms to migrants, which led to a densification of the urban village. While they do not reach the height of the modern high-rises, they still partake in the densification of the neighborhood, lower but more numerous, in some sort of incremental development that contributes to Shenzhen’s growth by offering housing for migrants, who are vital elements of the city’s economy, and by producing simple goods, and then too by conserving a different scale and street grid that might be valuable on the long term.

Ching’s house: This tool-house built about 30 years ago combines residential and income-generating functions. The shop is a little over 30 m2. Above are two and a half floors with a terrace for residential purposes that cover a little less than 80 m2. The family has moved out since, but is refurbishing it in order to rent it out.  Ching remembers how, when she was a kid, her family would often bring home small manufacturing work to complement their income.

Indeed, when one looks at metropolises such as Tokyo, it is clear that the human scale and diversity offered by organically developed urban villages such as Shimokitazawa are valuable to the municipality as a vibrant commercial and creative neighborhood in a diversified economy. Even without such long-term vision in mind, Ching story’s also shows that by keeping and expanding one’s family house, inhabitants keep some kind of connection with their family and ancestors and some attachment to the neighborhood.

In Ching’s tool-house, there is a shrine dedicated to a precious member of her ancestry, known throughout the neighborhood as a generous figure and the former owner (and builder) of the house. Every year, Ching’s grandmother receives visits and gifts as thanks for her ancestor’s generosity. Such a story is an example of the human practices that developed in tandem with the area over time. In the context of growing critiques from the empowered middle class about the speed of the country’s development and the lack of respect for traditions or individuals, respecting and upgrading incrementally developed neighborhoods with unique human networks might be a way to show some consideration for a diversified type of urban development.

Ching showing the house under renovation, which is full of familiar objects and memories.

While this last dimension might seem out of reach for local urban planners, inhabitants of some urban villages have actually come together to protect this valued village spirit against redevelopment schemes that involve destruction of the organic structure of neighborhoods. In Guangzhou, Shenzhen’s sister city in Guangdong province, the planned destruction of Xian village (先村)in 2012 faced protests form locals who rallied under the slogan “Great greed cannot be dealt with in one day, nor will the heart of Xian villagers die in one day”. Similarly in Shenzhen, the Master plan of 2005 laid out the integration of urban villages (including Ching’s) in the cityscape by undergoing large rehabilitation processes that might endanger the alternative tool-house model and organic neighborhood structure.

Through Ching’s house’s story, one can reconstitute the integration of rural villages in the Shenzhen metropolis, their evolution into urban villages and the adaption of the living unit into the tool-house model of mixed used habitats. They also show how the diversity of urban scale that such areas offer to large new sprawling metropolises like Shenzhen, or anywhere else in China is a valuable urban resource.

This post by Julien Vincelot is based on research done by URBZ in Shenzhen during MoMA’s Uneven Growth workshop. Julien Vincelot is a student in social and political science in Paris. He is particularly interested in the Asian context, having grown up in New Delhi and Shanghai. He plans on specializing on urban planning and urban policies in developing countries, with a focus on alternative urban forms and their political and social implications. He is currently working with URBZ in Mumbai.

The Slum Outside

July 13th, 2014 by urbzman


URBZ is proud to announce the publication of an e-book on Dharavi. It is published by Stelka Press (Moscow-London). You can order it here in digital and print formats. Below is an excerpt:

Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai, is supposed to represent the quintessential Asian slum. Crowded streets and busy markets; domestic workshops cheek by jowl with sweatshops producing both real and fake Pepe jeans; brick houses rising as high as their microscopic footprints allow; high-rises mushrooming here and there like gigantic shacks; schools in Kannada, Tamil, Hindi, English, Marathi, Urdu and other languages, usually with more than 50 pupils per class; temples of every Buddhist and Hindu denomination; flamboyant mosques so crowded that people have to pray on the streets during namaz; old churches with full congregations – remnants of the region’s seventeenth-century Portuguese history – and new evangelical missions converting low-caste Hindus by the dozen; community toilets that double up as marriage halls; piles of garbage waiting to be picked over by scavengers; open drains running along narrow back streets; thousands of water pipes branching off in every direction.

Dharavi invariably confuses those eager to capture its reality in shorthand. Visitors looking for an essence of the place often land on its edges and corners, in spots that most Dharavi residents themselves have seen only on TV. They may be rewarded for their intrepidness by the sight of barefoot children walking on water pipes against the obligatory backdrop of garbage – a cliché that resonates so powerfully with familiar discourses on poverty and inequality that it obliterates the depth and complexity of the place. Dharavi is diverse and rapidly transforming, and it deceives as much as it overwhelms. It is an enigma that cannot be resolved by simply labelling it one thing or the other.

From the rooftop of Mohan Kanle’s two-storey house, the neighbourhood seems part of the immutable story of urbanism, recalling medieval Italian towns, Istanbul’s bazaars, the by-lanes of Benares, old Delhi, Guangzhou’s urban villages and even Tokyo’s dense residential suburbs. From this vantage point, it seems embedded in the shadow history of human settlements anywhere in the world where planning and control give way to incremental and small-scale development. In some parts, one sees hundreds of low-rise structures so tightly packed that they appear to share one single cement-sheet roof. No wonder urban designers and architecture students love to imagine bridges connecting all of these houses, with new roofs acting as public spaces and gardens.

Mohan’s house was built by his father in the early 1990s. Mumbai’s extreme weather, with monsoon rain for four months and hot, saline air most of the year, has tested the limits of this humble structure. The roof has been leaking for a few years, forcing Mohan to install a shed as protection from the violent rains. About 18 people share seven rooms, which can be accessed from multiple entrances. The structure consists of a maze of connecting doorways and passages, and its uneven proportions are a legacy of its incremental growth. While not abnormally big for Dharavi, the house is larger than most others. There is no rule when it comes to the housing typology of Dharavi. Diversity is the only norm.

The Homegrown Cities initiative: Update

June 5th, 2014 by urbzman


In the past year we have been working hard to make the Homegrown Cities initiate a reality. Among other things, we have organized a Handstorm workshop and worked on a pilot house.

One of the highlight of the workshop was a discussion between a local builder from Shivaji Nagar in Mumbai and a local builder from Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo. They discussed their respective contexts and construction techniques. Among those witnessing their exchange was Yehuda Safran, who teaches architectural theory at Columbia University.

The pilot house should be built soon. At the moment the engineering firm Arup is revising a design we have done in collaboration with Sameep Padora’s architecture studio in Mumbai.

The report, which contains many images and links, can be downloaded here:

We thank all of you who have supported us and followed the initiative on Facebook!

Casa em Construção, Paraisopolis – São Paulo

May 28th, 2014 by fernando

(English text in the following section).

Queremos ensaiar um modelo de arquitetura econômica e colaborativa, baseada no uso de materiais e técnicas locais e troca de informações entre moradores e profissionais locais, estudantes e arquitetos.

O projeto é justamente o ensaio de uma ação colaborativa que busca articular aspectos técnicos e científicos dos arquitetos com o saber do pedreiro local (Atayde Caetite) e o modo de vida dos habitantes do lugar.

Um trabalho experimental (work-lab) e um protótipo para entender novas formas de atuação do arquiteto diante dos desafios da cidade contemporânea.

A construção da casa já foi financiada em 10.000 reais e a primeira etapa deste trabalho aconteceu no ano passado.

Work in process…

O grupo URBZ brasil surgiu há aproximadamente 2 anos com o inicio dos trabalhos especificamente na comunidade de Paraisópolis – São Paulo e com o fortalecimento da relação com o pedreiro Atayde Caetite, construtor de mais de 100 casas dentro deste território e morador do bairro a mais de 30 anos.

Dentre estes anos, o grupo vem pesquisando o modo de sociabilidade, o modo de vida e as dinâmicas econômicas e culturais de Paraisópolis e seu impacto no espaço construído. A casa nesse território está em permanente construção, assim como a vida das pessoas, que está em mudança constante. O desafio é justamente pensar soluções para os problemas locais, se apropriando da cultura e modo de fazer já existentes, de maneira a potencializá-los.

English Translation

We want to test a model of economic and collaborative architecture, based on the use of local materials and an exchange of information between residents and local professionals, students and technical architects.

The project is just the start of a collaborative initiative that seeks to interweave technical and scientific aspects of architects with knowledge of the local mason (Atayde Caetite) and the way of life of inhabitants of the place.

This includes experimental work and a prototype, to understand new forms of performance architecture on the challenges of the contemporary city.

So far, the house construction has cost 10,000 real, spent last year.

Design of Ataide’s house. Click to enlarge.

The group emerged as URBZ Brazil about 2 years ago with the beginning of work in the neighbourhood of Paraisópolis – Sao Paulo. It consolidated our relationship with Atayde Caetite, a mason and builder of over 100 homes within this area, one in which he has lived in for more than 30 years.

The group has been researching modes of sociability, the way of life and the economic and cultural dynamics in Paraisópolis especially in the context of its impact on the built environment. We are involved in the ongoing construction of the house that Atayde is building, as well as in the people’s lives within, which is constantly changing. The challenge is to think of solutions to local problems as they unfold in these contexts, especially in their existing cultural language, and empower them as much as possible.

Contact us if you are willing to support this project!

Ataide Caetite at his temporary home.