Dharavi: Reclaim Growth!

February 13th, 2015 by matias

Cover image by Ishan Tanka and Diane Athaide.

Many people involved in urban issues in Mumbai (and elsewhere) have tried their hand at making the definitive proposal for Dharavi. We too decided to harness the six years that we had spent here into creating a practical vision and evolve concrete interventions that build on the processes already in place in this dense and dynamic neighbourhood. We did this in collaboration with our friends at sP+a, an architecture studio in Mumbai with which we have been working on several projects.

We see Dharavi as a place of continuous growth – in a manner that has given its residents a place for upward mobility, even with very low resources or capital, a place where skills, labour, community resources have acted as surrogate civic infrastructure for long periods of time.

Rather than redevelopment, our proposal is based on recognising ongoing processes and consolidating them with a forward-looking and fresh plan of action that involves a combination of new policies, radical urban planning, and innovative design. The full proposal can be downloaded here. Below are a few highlights:

A home in Dharavi. Photo by Brooks Reynolds @ URBZ.

Occupancy rights and Rental Systems

Occupancy rights should be given to residents and businesses. They can take various forms such as long term leaseholds, rentals, transferable leases on individual plots etc. The main reason to prioritise occupancy rather than property rights, is to reduce speculative impulses on land, and promote use-value over real-estate value. Granting occupancy right rather than property rights, reduces the risk of promoters buying out slum dwellers to develop high market value housing or offices.

The parts of Dharavi that are on government land could go to a public trust, which collects small tax on every structure. Every structure of less than 3 stories and with less than 2000 square foot footprint must pay a monthly rent to the trust of a fixed amount. The bigger spaces would pay proportionately more. In this scheme, the government gives everyone who lives in Dharavi occupancy rights in exchange for rent.

Promoting homegrown construction

Construction codes and regulations should be fully revised. A new set of protocols for improving the house through environmentally friendly ventilation systems and non-toxic construction materials must be created. This new code should be based on existing construction practices and costs. It should be produced in consultation with local construction experts and representatives. Generally, local construction should be encouraged, as it produces good quality affordable housing and supports the local economy. Construction workers should be encouraged to create guild-based professional associations that can then adopt norms for safety and health standards. They can also be solicited for work outside Dharavi as professionals.

Construction sites in Dharavi. Photo by Julien Gregorio @ URBZ.

Water and toilets

Water systems are a priority in most parts of Dharavi. The existing ad hoc networks should not be dismissed as they are currently fulfilling an important need. Currently, when new pipes are put in place, the municipality often breaks apart older ones, creating a huge amount of distress among those who rely on them. Any improvement of the water systems should be phased carefully and in consultation with end-users and local plumbers –who often also work as contractors for the BMC and know the system best.

Families should be allowed (which is not the case now) and encouraged to build toilets in their homes through low interest lows and the provision of infrastructure they can easily connect to.

Accommodating high density

High population density is not inherently unhealthy, but it requires special attention. People should not be displaced far away from their communities, activities and schools in the name of reducing density. We do not recommend reducing density or creating more open grounds if it means displacing people because the human cost of doing so it too high. However, we believe that more can be done to optimize existing open spaces, whether they are streets and roads, or courtyards around temples and schools. Such spaces should be redesigned so they are accessible to all, and in particular to children – that means giving absolute priority to covering open rainwater drains. We also recommend planting trees along existing streets and roads wherever space allows it. These increase the conviviality of public spaces, help clean the air and provide shade.

Pedestrian street in Dharavi. Photo by URBZ

Pedestrian zones

More than half of the people walk from home to work in Mumbai. This is partly due to the fact that many neighbourhoods, like Dharavi, provide employment opportunities for their residents. This is something that should be recognized as an advantage and everything should be done to encourage local economic development and mixed zoning, where residential and economic activities are mixed and merged. Mixed used neighbourhoods and walk to work environments are being promoted by planning department throughout Europe and the US. It would be sad to see Mumbai’s planners destroy parts of the city that already function like that here by default.  Dharavi should be recognized as a pedestrian neighbourhood, and car traffic should not be encouraged.


Dharavi should be understood as an urban innovator and potential template for the development of other neighbourhoods. No strict zoning should be imposed on it, barring for polluting or health risk activities. On the contrary a new zoning code should be created based on the recognition and legalisation of all the forms of mixed-use typologies that can be seen in Dharavi.

Urban Design

Dharavi doesn’t need to be redesigned. The best of design cannot possibly do better when it comes to accommodating so many people in that precise location, within the existing constraints. What we propose is an innovative technical intervention that learn, bor­rows and improve on current construction and material practices which local actors can implement.

Renderings by sP+a

Our design proposal promotes a constructive system that allows people to consolidate their existing houses and provide the structural strength to add more stories, roof garden, or courtyard on top. New floors can be used to accommodate growing families and businesses. They can also simply be used as extra space for current residents. Our proposal hence, is about a systemic addition of scal­able improvements in infrastructure (water & drainage) and structural stability creating an open system that is susceptible to configuration as a palimpsest: incremental layers of growth. Water pipes and electrical cables run through the frame that supports the houses.

Our design strategy allows each house to support its neighbours and connect them all into a large infrastructural network where the people, the homes, the activities all become part of the infrastructure. Where the flow of water, sewage, labour, goods and people reinforce each other and grow through this reinforcement.



More on this topic:

*Download the full ‘Reclaim Growth!’ proposal by URBZ and sP+a (19MB)

*Read a ‘Curbed’ article by Julia Cook on the proposal.

*See hundreds of photos of Dharavi by URBZ.

Dharavi Mashup

January 7th, 2015 by matias

Dharavi left – Kathmandu right.

Cities around the world share a history of incremental development. Whenever urban development happens without planning and especially within a lax zoning regime, we see urban forms emerge that are at once vernacular and universal.

Some of the most glorified cities and neighbourhoods have emerged from this process: old European towns, Asian bazaars, and urban villages around the world, which sometimes become havens for urban diversity and street life – like New York’s SoHo in the days of Jane Jacobs.

Yet, in their nascent stages, incremental neighbourhoods are usually dismissed in cities like Mumbai. Here urban development is dominated by speculative interests and the middle-class utopia of a world-class, master-planned city.

Tokyo (Ikebukuro) left – Dharavi right

Dharavi left – Shenzhen (China) right

We believe it is time for radical, incremental strategies that bring together local and global experiences. Homegrown neighbourhoods are the perfect laboratories for collaborative and experiential urbanisms that bring sensible urban management to user-generated settlements, with the potential of producing new urban hybrids.

These strategies can accelerate the process of urban transformation and pave the way for richer and more diverse environments, shaped by users needs and aspirations.

Future fitting homegrown neighbourhoods can generate new forms of urban, economic and social organization. By future fitting we mean a wholehearted acknowledgement of the fact, that existing templates of these neighbourhoods can be the starting point for their further improvement and development.

Dharavi left – Sao Paulo (Paraisopolis), right

The radical incrementalism that we envision is about bringing high quality sewage systems, garbage disposal mechanisms and clean water supply while simultaneously imagining and realizing a neighbourhood’s potential through collective and individual initiatives.

The urban mashups presented here, merge Dharavi with places as diverse as Tokyo, Shenzhen, Sao Paulo, Spain, Italy and Kathmandu. They point out that the history of incremental development connects even those urban contexts, that everything else seems to set apart. Acknowledging and working with this potential is part of the radical incremental strategy that we propose for Dharavi and other homegrown neighbourhoods around the world.

Dharavi left, Barcelona right

Dharavi left – Hondarribia (Basque Country, Spain) right

Perugia (Italy) left – Dharavi (Koliwada) right

See the photo album on flickr.

Homegrown Things

December 25th, 2014 by matias


The Homegrown Things project was a 3 month-long experiment into user-generated design and local production in Shivaji Nagar (Govandi), where the URBZ Mumbai office is located.

It drew from the Handstorm Workshop (held in March 2014), which brought together local artisans, artists and young designers from Shivaji Nagar and beyond to produce everyday life objects.

The URBZ team decided to continue this experiment and produce a larger range of everyday-life objects meant to serve the specific needs of some families. Most importantly, all the objects were to be made in the Shivaji Nagar area by local welders and carpenters.

Our design team was composed of two young product designers Ramandeep and Shweta. They were aided by one interior designer, Meenakshi and one mechanical engineer Rafique. Meenakshi and Rafique were both raised -and still live- in Shivaji Nagar. They were helped by the rest of the URBZ team: Alexis, Jai, Bharat, Rahul and Matias.

The team interacted closely with a few residents, identifying needs and potentials for their homes and businesses. Designing objects with the end-users required understanding their lifestyles, habits, needs and aspirations – and taking the time to imagine and test things together.

We designed a tea carrier, which can hold the glass upright as well as upside down. This saves space and prevents the breaking of glasses. Small mock-ups were created and a real time validation was done. Mr. Adhak the tea vendor for which this product was made was excited to see the actual product and started using it.

Space constraint is a major issue in Shivaji Nagar, where most families live in spaces as small as 150 square feet. People have to make the most of the little space they have and good design can help. Most of the objects produced were multipurpose space saving devices.

In 3 months the team produced 6 products, which were delivered to the families who had also been part of the research process. All of the objects are now being used. More are in the pipeline and several are waiting to be invented!

Each of the objects tell the particular history of the family, the home and the community for which they have been made. In that respect, beyond the immediate function they serve, they are also ethnographic tools mapping potential and pressing ahead the gradual improvement of everyday life.



Siddhi Kadam is a 3-year-old girl who needed a study table. We designed a foldable table with a bag to store books and other school materials. The tabletop is painted with chalkboard material, for her to scribble on.

The Homegrown Things project, which we hope to be able to pursue in 2015, aims at showing ways in which collaborative practices can help harness the potential of homegrown neighbourhoods such as Shivaji Nagar. Here, “user-generation” is not just a slogan or a concept, but a central aspect of how the neighbourhood is organized and developed. It is thus a fantastic learning environment for anyone interested in design and production.

The local economy is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of urban development. We worked with it and it proved extraordinarily resourceful. Local artisanship and know-how is a huge asset for any locality. While generating livelihood for themselves artisans also provide employment and training for others, along with much needed services to the community.

We believe that incremental improvement can be fast-forwarded with the right dose of creativity and audacity. It is of course based on the conviction that users know best what they need, and that they have the capacity to meaningfully contribute to the improvement of their own habitats.


This rack was designed for a family of six which lives in a 10×15 sq feet flat. The water filter was kept on the ground. As a result it was difficult to fill and use. The dabbas were scattered over various shelves. We designed an inverted S form rack that can accommodate all the containers as well as raise the water filter to an ergonomic height. The rack is shaped to fit into the space available next to the kitchen counter. The family now gets extra space on the floor to perform their usual tasks.

The full project report can be downloaded here:

www.urbanlab.org/HomegrownThings-URBZ-lr.pdf (web)

www.urbanlab.org/HomegrownThings-URBZ-hr.pdf (print)

To make housing affordable, keep it local

December 1st, 2014 by airoots

A house being built in Shivaji Nagar, Govandi, Mumbai.  Photos of Shivaji Nagar and Dharavi by Ishan Tankha for URBZ.

According to experts and analysts of the day, India is facing an unprecedented shortage of affordable homes. Depending on whom you ask, the need ranges from ten to several dozen million units. If you add families that currently live in inadequate homes, then the number increases exponentially.

While the government is struggling to find innovative ways to address the shortage, thousands of small homes are being built daily without much external support and outside any official scheme. Wherever access to land is possible, people build homes, and improve them over time. This energy must be recognized and harnessed if India is to provide decent housing to its growing urban population.

According to well-circulated statistics, 60% of Mumbaikars live in ’slums’, which occupy six percent of the city’s land. What is less known is that many of these so-called slums have little to do with the kind of apocalyptic imagery sold to the world in blockbuster movies, best-selling books and tabloids. A majority of homes in areas notified as ’slums’ by the government are built in bricks, steel and cement, by experienced teams of contractors, masons, plumbers, electricians and carpenters. What these individual initiatives lack is a framework proving better planning at a neighbourhood level.

Many of Mumbai’s poorest neighbourhoods could become functional and even desirable with a little support from the authorities. If most ’slums’ don’t enjoy adequate infrastructure, it is not because it is technically difficult or even expensive, but rather because there is a deliberate will to keep certain neighbourhoods in a state of precariousness and political dependency.

The biggest impediment to the improvement of many settlements is the misconception that they are illegitimate, because residents don’t own the land they occupy. However, some neighbourhoods such as Shivaji Nagar in Govandi, where our office is located, were never illegal encroachments to start with. Shivaji Nagar is a government-planned resettlement colony where poor Muslim and Dalit communities were relocated in the 1980s from slums in the city at large. After decades of neglect, the authorities now treat it and even call it a slum – all over again.

In Shivaji Nagar, original occupants were given a lease, which the bureaucracy has made nearly impossible (or too costly) to transfer. Water infrastructure was initially provided but never upgraded to respond to the needs of a fast-growing population. Deep-rooted biases against certain populations and the neighbourhoods where they live, rather than their legal status, explains the way they are being treated by the authorities.

Rather than ’slums’, which in Mumbai is a political label, we call Shivaji Nagar, Dharavi, and other such settlements ‘homegrown neighbourhoods’. These neighbourhoods include many of Mumbai’s urban villages (gaothans) whether they are gentrified are not. They were developed gradually, by the people who live there, with the help of local artisans of construction, usually with little or no support of the authorities. They belong to another history of urbanization, one that is as universal and ubiquitous as the skyscraper, only much older.

Homegrown neighbourhoods are more common than usually assumed. At a global level, they are the norm rather than the exception. Entire cities have been developed outside official plans. Tokyo or even Shenzhen (one of China’s newest and most flamboyant cities where at least 50% of the population live in hyper-dense urban villages) are cases in point. Most Middle-Eastern and European old towns, with their charming, irrationally narrow streets and small buildings are home-grown. Even the well-planned streets of New York and Los Angeles’ suburbs are full of houses that have been modified by their users in contradiction to zoning codes (think of Steve Job’s garage start-up – an illegal business activity in a residential neighbourhood).

Looking at Mumbai’s homegrown neighbourhoods less as urban anomalies and more as a combination of residents’ initiative and government contempt, helps think housing policy afresh. This is important because these neighbourhoods are the biggest producers of affordable homes, at an order of magnitude beyond what developers and the government can provide.

This realization pushes us, as urban practitioners, to rethink the roles of architects and planners in a context where the government is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the local development of neighbourhoods. After studying and documenting closely the work of local artisans of construction in Dharavi, Bhandup, Ghatkopar, Sakinaka, Shivaji Nagar and other homegrown neighbourhoods in Mumbai, (but also in Sao Paulo, Rio, Shenzhen and Tokyo), we decided to join forces with artisans whom we thought were particularly diligent and innovative.

Rather than offering wholesale ’solutions’ for the  ‘rehabilitation’ of ’slum dwellers’, we partnered with local actors to marginally improve the way they build already. No big bang, but rather a tactical approach based on mutual respect and a shared desire to and learn and build together. After working on a Shiva temple, we started helping with the repair of several homes in Shivaji Nagar. Our latest initiative is a 14-feet high house standing on a 10 by 15 feet plot. This tiny house which costs Rs. 4 lakh is part of our “Homegrown Neighbourhood project”, which has the rather grand ambition of contributing to the recognition of the local economy as a prime provider of affordable housing.

YouTube Preview Image
A House We Built: Construction of a pilot house for Homegrown Cities project in Shivaji Nagar.

The house was built with the inputs of professional architects, designers, and engineers who worked closely with the contractor, workers and masons. It used the existing material and techniques of local construction practices and improved on them through a collaborative process. We paid particular attention to the optimization of space, the penetration of daylight, ventilation, the economy of material, and the solidity of the structure. It was built by respecting highly-restrictive norms that regulate construction activity in slums and for less than the average cost of construction in the area. Of course, there are many things that we can still do better in our next house.

We hope that this small move gets us one step closer to re-looking at such homes, construction practices and the neighbourhood as a whole, in newer, less biased ways.

In the long run, if the government encourages official financial support for home and infrastructure improvement in homegrown settlements, along with a clear recognition of occupancy rights and the development of co-operative housing societies, we will have a robust system in place.

The official target of producing millions of quality homes for all can be re-imagined, as one in which the process of construction itself becomes a transformative moment. Before that however, we need to transform our perception of these neighbourhoods.

The question of legitimate use of urban land is an old one and full of inconsistencies. All through Mumbai’s history, subsidies around land have nourished generations of communities and institutions. This is a significant contributor to the city becoming such a major economic hub.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, migrant populations were encouraged to make land productive so the government could earn revenue. It made sense to the authorities to make land accessible to create housing infrastructure and for institutions to develop. Municipal schools were opened in Dharavi in the late 19th or early 20th century itself.

Paradoxically, since independence, poorer communities found that the only recourse to the same process was through local political patronage, connected to the economy of elections and votes, or informal dealings with municipal authorities.

Perhaps is it time to accept that some land must be indeed be subsidized so that every community can keep a foothold in the city. A clear policy of subsidizing land for the poorest would reduce the ability of municipal authorities to blackmail ’slum dwellers’ politically and financially.

This text by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava was first publish in The Guardian and NDTV websites on November 28th, 2014.

An Igloo in Mumbai

November 18th, 2014 by urbzman

The new URBZ/Urbanology office is a temporary structure built with ultra light material on the terrace of an existing house in Shivaji Nagar, M-Ward, Mumbai. (On the terrace of the purple house on the right side in this photo).

When we moved our office from Dharavi to Shivaji Nagar, (both in Mumbai and approximately 10 kilometers apart) we were simply following the trail of new opportunities that opened up for urbanology – our practice that brings together concerns of architecture, design, planning and anthropology.

Our move was accelerated by the fact that we spent a lot more time with local contractors and inhabitants in Shivaji Nagar than we had anticipated. Considering it is officially classified as one of the most marginal neighbourhoods in the ‘M Ward’ of the municipal map of the city – with some of its poorest socio-economic indicators – it was striking to observe the processes of incremental growth in place along with a vibrant local construction economy. When local contractor Pankaj Gupta invited us to work with him and was even ready to host us, we knew we had to move.

The diagram shows the evolution of a house that has been built, destroyed and rebuilt in the space of 2 years. Our office is the latest addition to this structure.

The new URBZ office was to be set up on the terrace of one of the 50,000 odd structures in Shivaji Nagar that had come up, grown, been demolished and rebuilt several times. A process that routinely moves through a maze of bureaucratic landmines that residents here have to negotiate on a daily basis. The houses typically face the dilemma of locating themselves on the categorization somewhere between kuccha (impermanent; literal translation – raw) & pucca, (permanent; literal translation – cooked, prepared) structures. They have height restrictions of around 14 feet for a  a pucca structure. Beyond that material must technically be kuccha and ready to be dismantled anytime.

While initially planning our move, we had the opportunity to work with Anton Garcia and Debora Mesa of (POP Lab at MIT) on our collaboration for the exhibition at MoMA, New York. At that time we had toyed with the idea of working with a material they had been experimenting with – EPS. We were initially skeptical about the potential of using this material in Mumbai. It is light and can take pretty much any shape, but it is also relatively expensive compared to conventional construction materials used in homegrown neighbourhoods. It is also not environmentally friendly.However, we decided to test it for ourselves by using it for the new office.

During the Handstorm workshop: Ataide Caetite from Sao Paulo, Yehuda Safran from New York, Aditi Nair and Shardul Patil of URBZ.

Discussions with Sameep Padora (sP+A) (center) who helped conceive the structural systems for the walls of the new office.

Work in progress…

Whatever followed was really a spin-off of the several discussions with POP Lab, but had no connections with their own on-going experiments. The thing is – our local partner Pankaj Gupta, saw many possibilities for constructing our new office with it, which was encouraging. Technically it was a lightweight kuccha material so we could use it to build over an existing pucca structure. If designed appropriately, it could also be dismantled easily, thus broadly working within the legal guidelines.

This was how a portable, lightweight structure was conceived for the first time in the neighbourhood, which Pankaj Gupta, was eager to translate into physical reality.

Expectedly, there were several challenges. Light-weight EPS blocks had to hold together without being glued, but also be ready to face high wind pressures and monstrous monsoon rains for about 4-5 months a year. At the same it should be able to deal with intense, humid heat for the rest. While the insulating qualities of EPS worked for the summers, it was the monsoons that would be the real test.

Many weeks of discussions and experimentation between the URBZ team, lead by Shardul Patil and Jai Bhadgaonkar, and our collaborators from sP+a, a cutting edge architecture studio in Mumbai, resulted in the final form of  the structure. A half-igloo vaulted shape, held together by a steel frame with accurate measurements calculated for individually cut blocks that would interlock and hold.

We kicked off the construction during our Handstorm Workshop, when we constructed – from scratch – an EPS cutting machine using a heated wire that sliced through the material to customize the shape of each block.

URBZ volunteers Aditi Nair, Anne Piveteau and Andres Sanchez Arias hard at work.

The office in use. It withstood a strong monsoon!

We had to make sure that the steel members which would frame the EPS could be removed easily and transported when needed. Getting local artisans who worked with steel welding techniques was a crucial move.

Step by step the structure evolved – from fabricating the framework, nailing it to the floor, cutting the EPS material into the right shapes, weaving the blocks into a tight wall, covering the structure with protective cover, adding the windows and doors. Eventually the structure was ready and it was almost unbelievable when we finally moved into a fully functional office space made quite literally from a pure figment of our imagination!

It was good for us to explore the potential of a material which we didn’t initially believe in. We still think that EPS is too expensive to have a real future in affordable housing in India. Moreover, the environmental cost of producing the material and the fact that it is not biodegradable at all, are serious issues, which discourage its widespread use. The biggest barrier though, is its perception by potential users as belonging to the family of kaccha material when all aspiration is directed towards pucca structures!