What Lies Beneath: Shivaji Nagar’s liquid underground

April 7th, 2015 by urbzman

Old time residents of Dharavi in central Mumbai, are fond of reminding those who dream of a concretized neighbourhood that it was thanks to their efforts that the place got a semblance of being inhabitable to start with. It was on some swampy, marshy, mosquito infested space at the edge of the city – squeezed between mangroves, the coastline, a tributary and some old villages – that small, incremental acts of land reclamation, over decades, produced a sense of terra firma- to create what would become prime real estate decades later.

Something similar lies below the thousands of homes that make up Shivaji Nagar in Govandi, further up, northeast of Dharavi in Mumbai. Physical space for this planned resettlement colony was created through decades of dumping the city’s garbage – an activity that still continues  - to create a mountain of waste that lines the horizon. The garbage itself was piled over wet-lands making for a water table so high that what we in fact get at the end of the day – is a floating neighbourhood of sorts.

As URBZ has involved itself in local construction projects over the last couple of years, it immersed itself quite literally in the stuff that lies beneath, that makes up the foundations of all construction activity. This is a report prepared by Jai Bhadgaonkar and Giovanni Rapanna about how people in Shivaji Nagar manage to build homes that stand above a liquid underground.

Shivaji Nagar is located next to one of the largest dumping grounds in Asia and settles upon a preexisting swampland. The initial settlers had built temporary structures, which, over the years started to stabilize with pucca (strong, stable brick and cement) ones being built in time.

Some of the older houses here have deep foundations. But over the years, as the marshland got reclaimed and infrastructure like roads and pathways started to be built, the terrain became increasingly uneven. The new facilities kept increasing in height of the ground to a point where plinths of old houses went below the road levels. This process of land-filling also resulted in an unstable soil for construction activities in the neighborhood, requiring considerable innovation in foundation design – that would have to keep in mind the stability and cost efficiency of building new structures.

Roads have been laid several time over the past decades and eventually rose above the level of old houses, making them look as if they had sank into the ground.

In Shivaji Nagar, there is a particular history of layering of the subsurface on the ground. Originally the top layer of surface was swampland and soft soil. Over a period of time layers of trash and debris got compressed through habitation. The Municipal Corporation placed a harder layer of debris or stones, bricks and other materials to create a segment on top of the surface, which started to act as the ground. However this subsurface is still constituted by soft and unstable material, thanks to the high water table in the area, making for unstable foundations.

In the houses that were constructed around 25 years back, the plinth was raised by 3ft from the ground level, with a floor height of 12ft above that. The foundation was then dug up to a depth of 3ft below ground level. Over a period of time the road levels increased due to periodic landfill. But unfortunately the material that was used for landfill continued to be garbage waste. The ground level simultaneously rose by 9ft over the years. Considering this difference in the old and new ground levels, the new constructions started to dig down to 10 – 12 ft. of foundations to reach the hard strata. That is because of the presence of the soft garbage waste in the top 9 ft. layer. This made it an expensive process and out of bounds for most who live here.

As a cost effective solution to this problem, the local contractors started to build the foundation only 2 ft. (or less) deep from the existing ground level, burrowing through the debris without touching the garbage fill.

This gives the house enough stability to stand and – to some extent – reduces sinking thanks to the support from the garbage below.

Local construction workers building the foundation of houses.

The plinth beam and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) plinth slab (which is usually just plain cement concrete (PCC)) thus acts as an anchor of sorts. This method is very commonly adopted all over Shivaji Nagar. However, residents of the area often demand deeper foundations, which they see as the norm in other neighbourhoods and pressure contractors to eventually go down 2’6” deep sometimes.

With the foundation being in such a state, the deeper you dig, the more you get soft unstable peat material. However like elsewhere, the deeper you go there will eventually be solid ground on which piles can rest. That may mean going 15 feet down or deeper. This though will cost the contractor money and in turn the client won’t be able to afford what is seen as luxury. An alternate solution commonly used by contractors is to dig deep down the hard layer, but not so deep that it will enter the soft soil and cause the structure to sink. A very fine balance has to be maintained indeed.

In many ways the unstable foundations combined with insecure tenure that these homegrown neighbourhoods have learned to live with, are markers to other fluid presences in their lives – a malleable, unsure bureaucracy and some very weakly formulated policies. What remains stable though is the ingeniousness of the contractors and willingness of the residents to somehow make something solid – even if floating -  out of thin air.

Download the full report here.

See photos of foundation work in process.

Mumbai’s pavement dwellers and their homes

March 18th, 2015 by letitiamarie


Walking through Mumbai’s streets, one experiences a live blend of local culture and traditions. Roads are shared between cars, buses, rickshaws, two-wheelers and pedestrians in a somewhat chaotic way. The traffic doesn’t seem to follow any rules. Sidewalks are there, fulfilling many functions, but no one uses them for walking.

Mumbai’s pavement is a platform separated from traffic that accommodates many uses indeed. To street vendors they are their prime markets. At night the pavement becomes an open-air sleeping space to more than a million individuals. On some streets, tarps are spread out along whole stretches as protection from the monsoon.

When pavement dwellers are chased away, which happens often, they have no other option than making a new home on another the sidewalk. Nevertheless, in some places newcomers have managed to settle down over longer periods of time. Year after year, tarps become more permanent structures; timber planks, corrugated metal sheeting and even bricks are assembled to form much more durable and lasting shelters.

This phenomenon existed already a hundred years ago. All around the city and especially in the so-called Eastern Waterfront, workers servicing the port economy would stay along roads, on bridges, against mills and warehouses due to lack of affordable housing. They would live for decades as close as possible to their place of work and transform their ephemeral shelter into constructions that they could call home.

Elevation of Yusuf Mehrali Road (Elphinstone estate), domestic use of road undergoing construction work

In the context of our master thesis at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, we analysed two case studies on the Eastern Waterfront. On of them is the Elphinstone Estate. It is a 1km-long parcel of land, comprising 14 parallel streets of warehouses. The oldest warehouses date back to 1880. Along every street, the pavement is concealed by durable one or two storey high bricks or metallic sheet structures. Around 10’000 people share those sidewalks, some have been there for more than 70 years. Today, the municipality provides them with metered water and electricity but the entire estate is to be demolished within five years, due to the planned redevelopment of the area. The communities are highly rooted in the neighbourhood, and a relocation would compromise their livelihoods while destroying a piece of Bombay’s history.

Elphinstone Estate bears all the characteristics justifying a local intervention. Indeed, the whole area has been functioning as a sustainable ecology for a century, the warehouses and the dwellers mutually benefitting from one another – the warehouses as constructive structure and job provider, the dwellers as an indispensable workforce.

While men’s activities range from loading-unloading trucks, to driving them to working in logistics; women cook for the workers, sell goods at the weekly market, and sometimes work as maids or even teachers. Even though pavement dwellers usually tend to stay at the bottom of the social ladder, the location and the longevity of the Elphinstone Estate community has allowed parents to send their children to good schools. Many second generation dwellers have realized the importance of education to secure better qualified jobs. Today, a few young people attend university, studying mostly business and commerce. Children have high aspirations, taking examples from their siblings and neighbours. For such a deeply rooted community forced displacement can have dramatic outcomes.

Asma is 23 years old and studied business.
She now works for Tata Consultancy Services. Her parents built their house 35 years ago.

Vasanta is 59 years old and lives with her husband, who is a daily wage worker. She arrived there with her parents as a kid.

Srushti is 8 years old, she goes to the 3.2.1 Foundation English School. She wants to be a doctor.

According to an educator from a close-by school teaching many children from the area: “When families are displaced a few hours away in rehabilitation colonies, parents often lose their means of livelihood. This tends to generate drug and alcohol abuse among men. Children drop out of school to help their parents and loose all the opportunities given to them previously. It is sad and frustrating.”

Detractors talk about the ugly image given by pavement dwellers to the city. Policemen try to discourage foreigners from wandering about the area using adjectives such as unsafe, ugly or uninteresting. But when we talked to people living there, we heard very different things. Many of them know that they could live in more spacious homes further north, yet they would never abandon their street willingly. “Of course it is not the safest place to live but the street is our home too, inside, outside, we live the way we want here and we are close to everything” said Neha, a 20 years old university student.

Indeed, it is precisely thanks to this typology of housing that a hybrid way of life combining rural and urban habits was preserved through generations. Until today, roosters crow at 6am everyday, and sheep give birth inside dwellings.

Our project aims at discovering how the pavement dwelling typology can be further developed in the Elphinstone Estate – as an example for other suitable sites – for the benefit of the residents, and the city at large.

The main issues we identified consist of a lack of security and privacy due to the dwelling’s direct relationship to the street, a general lack of resources, the need for new materials and technology for house upgrading, and unemployment which often leads to more social problems.

The traffic has to be dealt with to decongestion the area and offer more security for all users of the street. The buffer zone between the street and the dwelling is naturally used by dwellers at all time. They use it to perform domestic activities, sell goods and sometimes sleep. Legitimizing that space and considering it part of the private space would be first steps into making these streets more ‘inclusive’.

Construction-wise, houses would greatly gain from individual sanitation systems composed of rainwater collectors and stronger structures allowing the dwellings to grow in height and the roof to be inhabited at times. The site could be densified and house some pavement dwellers from other parts of the Eastern Waterfront who have no choice but to be relocated.

Montage of incremental development of pavement dwellings with individual toilets and use of the roof

Social issues can be addressed by the implementation of new programs that could include vocational training facilities allowing men and women to develop new skills, the implementation of sport facilities for young people, making additional storage spaces in the warehouses by building extra floors in order to maximize the efficiency of the Elphinstone Estate as well as providing more jobs.

In order to put these upgrades in place, there should be meaningful participation from the pavement dwellers themselves, which would enhance not only economic and social development, but would embrace them as full and contributing members of society. Citywide implementation of these policies would generate a network of informed citizens, whose intimate knowledge of the challenges faced and conquered in these areas would provide an invaluable resource for policy makers and residents alike.

Their inventiveness and resourcefulness shown in immensely difficult circumstances should be acknowledged and valued by the authorities for the wealth of human capital it represents. What is required is a fundamental change in mindset at governmental level, away from the erroneous conclusion that the only solution for ad hoc settlements is to destroy them. Instead, they must engage with those most knowledgeable about the potential these settlements have as long term solutions to help alleviate the global urban housing crisis, the dwellers themselves.

Part one of this research project can be viewed here.

Letitia Allemand and Marie Sagnières are masters students in Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. They have both completed a Minor in Area and Cultural Studies and wrote about informal settlements in various Asian contexts. After graduation, they are intending to pursue careers in development and cooperation.

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)