Mumbai-Ratnagiri Express

July 16th, 2015 by urbzman

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An old family photo of Ganpati celebrations in Kajarghati (Ratnargiri)

Trade routes and travel itineraries have shaped the development of habitats all through human history. The Indian sub-continent is no exception. It has been a site of constant movement and mobility for centuries. Even in contemporary India we see how flows of people and goods continue to sculpt territories over vast distances, and complicate the way we look at homes, habitats, and the people who live in them.

Countless urban residents live dual lives. They share geographies and mindspace across great distances, as well as a sense of belonging and affiliation to both, the places they come from and the ones they live in. This population cannot be put into neat identity boxes.

To elaborate and illustrate this point we met some families who live in Mumbai for the greater part of the year, but make routine trips to their respective villages in the Konkan region, from where their families ‘originally’ migrated. Both these spaces remain integral to the lives of these families.

Our study attempts to reframe the idea of belonging in a way in which the village and the city become part of a simultaneous spatial logic and not as something that involves a sense of the past (rural) and the present (urban). They are both part of a dynamic present, defined by the lives of many types of people and generations.

Interesting ways in which homes in both places seem to be almost be extensions of each other, can be seen in Sunita Chavan’s family. Sunita’s family lives in Kajarghati, Ratnagiri District, and Bhandup, Mumbai. She is a first generation migrant to Mumbai who has spent a significant amount of her childhood there before moving to the village after her marriage. Though she now lives in Kajarghati, she and her brother, who lives in Bhandup, have both bought flats on the outskirts of Mumbai so that their children have security when they move to Mumbai to work or study.

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Sunita, her house and newly planted coconut grove and vegetable garden.  (with Rahul, Jai, Matias and Bharat behind the camera) in Kajarghati (Ratnargiri)

This practice assumes the importance of Mumbai even to those who have returned to their native places.

At the same time, the family also recently built a new house in Kajarghati, which is designed in such a way that the family no longer needs to operate as a joint family. Middle-class urban aspirations, which could never have been fulfilled in the city, find their expression back ‘home’. The fact is that this family, like many others, makes important, long-term investments in both places.

Though Sunita “lives” in Kajarghati, movement is a part of her life. She goes to Mumbai about thrice a year for longish stretches of time.

This can also been seen in other families, like the Jadavs for example.

Rutuja and Sidhi Jadav are college students living in Naigaon, Mumbai; their maternal and paternal families who reside in Ukshi and Hedvi (Ratnagiri district) respectively, have recently constructed new family homes. Sidhi’s father, who currently lives in Mumbai, is planning to retire in Hedvi.

The fact that they are planning different aspects of their lives, in both these spaces, shows that each place serves different and essential functions. This is why living in either one place or the other all year round or projecting one’s life in just one, doesn’t seem to be feasible or even desirable.

This is true as much for the younger members, who were born and raised in Mumbai. Rutuja and Sidhi both speak of their families’ bi-yearly trips to the Konkan as both necessary and desirable. Akshay Takle, Sunita’s nephew, lives in Bhandup, Mumbai, because he studies there, but prefers life in the village, describing the nicer weather, his grandmother’s cooking on a coal fire, his cricket games in the field and the important festivals that happen there, which he loves attending.

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Shantaram Talke, Sunita’s father retired in the family’s native village, Songiri (Ratnagiri) after working in mills in New Delhi and Mumbai his whole life.

Similarly, of the other family members we spoke to who live in Mumbai, most spend time ranging from at least two weeks to six months in their village at a stretch during the year, often going during summer or festival times.

People often do not grow or move at the pace or in the direction that is expected of them by traditional development narratives. Many such families seem to live two separate but connected lives. When they are seen in context of more dynamic and holistic narratives, their need to exist, in some sense, in both places, is spontaneous.

Interaction with all these families has shown that not only are both places equally important to this circulatory lifestyle, but also that they are always being shaped by the people that constantly arrive and leave – through the time and money they choose to invest in them. It has also shown that the city, contrary to the dominant narrative, for many people is not the final destination in the journey towards modernity. It is one significant stop, a means to acquire resources for their lives and families in a way that expands their affiliation, without giving up their roots.

This shared establishment of not only homes and families, but also of money, lifestyles, and entire identities, forces us to rethink the direction of their movement, and the language used to describe it. Traveling to the village is not an experience of going back, but simply of going forward, repeatedly and in a circular movement. It is a phenomenon that carves routes that form an urban system beyond standard typologies. In doing so, it also suggests mobility as a defining trait of these typologies, which are built on the experiences of residents, always on the move. Their world evokes another narrative of imagined communities, where conceptions of home and belonging, are extended beyond geographical limits.

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A homegrown neighbourhood in Bhandup, Mumbai, where Sunita’s brother and children live.

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Click here for more photos of the Konkan

Click here for more photos of Bhandup – Mumbai

Story by Apoorva Tadepalli, Ada Kerserho, Rahul Srivastava, and Matias Echanove. This is part of a research on the railway, mobility and circulatory urbanism on the Konkan coast for the Mobile Lives Forum, in Paris.

Feral Urban Growth

May 27th, 2015 by urbzman

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Cutouts from URBZ’s mural at the Uneven Growth exhibition opening at the MAK Museum in Vienna June 11th till October 4th, 2015, and previously shown at the MoMA in New York (Nov. 22nd to May 25th, 2014). Art by Ismini, Matias, Rahul and team.

Read reviews by Greg Lindsay in Next City, and by Niel Brenner in Post@MoMA.

Click here to see more images

Click here to download the full mural (pdf 22.7 MB)

A Future for Khotachiwadi

May 10th, 2015 by matias

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Those who enter the small lanes of Khotachiwadi, whether they have just walked out of a cruise liner for a quick tour of the city or whether they are lifelong Mumbaikars, feel an unexpected sense of peace. As if they have at last arrived in a Bombay that otherwise exists only in old photos and memories, seemingly vanished from the city at large. Khotachiwadi is Mumbai’s last island, a place with proud history and an uncertain future.

Many heritage bungalows have been destroyed to make place for spectral high-rises that often defy the city rather than embrace it. The future of Khotachiwadi is important to its residents, who have been mobilizing for years to fight against speculative takeovers, but it is equally important for the city, the country and the world as a unique heritage precinct with an immense untapped potential.

Khotachiwadi embodies many of the contradictions of the city. It is at once charged with history and  the affects of the communities that live in it. It is a neighbourhood that is essential for its residents’ lives and identities, and it is also an important place for the city as a whole. Its strength and weaknesses are reflections of Mumbai’s.

To some, Khotachiwadi may seem anachronistic, with is bungalows and chawls that evoke a colonial Portuguese and British presence in Mumbai. Attention to its aesthetic could well be mistaken for colonial nostalgia, especially at a time when the city likes to imagine itself as another Singapore or Shanghai. No wonder, the last development plan marked most urban villages in Mumbai as slum areas.

We are told that the future of Mumbai has to be vertical. Khotachiwadi,  with its mid-rise chawls and low-rise bungalows belongs to a past that Mumbai wants to leave behind. Skyscrapers are mushrooming all over the city and far out into the suburbs.

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But how would erasing its history help Mumbai step into a dynamic future? As we know now, successful cities must be more than a collection of high-end rentals or properties for sale. In order to retain and attract young, creative people, cities must offer a diversity of lifestyles and habitats. The cosmopolitanism that makes Mumbai a city in par with New York, Rio or Hong Kong cannot be canned into a generic landscape of high-rise buildings. All of these cities have drawn their unique character from their cultural and spatial eclecticism.

Mumbai has unfortunately too often been conceived as a city that is either slums or high-rise – to which we could add the new category of the high-rise slum -produced in mass by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority. There is in fact a universe in between that Khotachiwadi represents perfectly. It is the city of neighbourhoods, which combines  low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise buildings, which are often pedestrian, integrating within their busy streets and houses both residential and commercial activities.

We have been active for years in Khotachiwadi, as anthropologists, but also as residents, educators, activists and urban designers. We have helped organize fairs, and facilitated the setting up of the Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust. We have written and spoken about the neighbourhood in various media and at many forums (local and international), we have catalogued its heritage structures, created a website dedicated to its residents and their histories, we have conducted architecture and planning studios. Most recently we have mapped the entire area in 3D in order to help residents imagine its future.

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It is now time to take this story ahead and – with the help of residents, architects and well-wishers – to produce a development strategy for Khotachiwadi, which will include both, preservation and transformation, through urban design and participatory planning. The Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust has asked URBZ and the Institute of Urbanology to produce a strategic plan for the future of Khotachiwadi, which we are actively working on at the moment. More soon!

Drawings and maps by Jai@urbz and team.

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

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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.

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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.