Cities around the world live their lives out in their public spaces, through various forms of public performance and participation. However, these spaces have always been domains of contestation. Who gets access to it, why is it given to them, how much physical (and corresponding social) space is accorded to each actor and what the duration of allowed occupancy is, are only some of the terms that need to constantly be negotiated. The social contracts that determine these conditions are always embedded within political and civil societies. The selective access to these public spaces is made worthy of interest by the moments that lead up to the acts of legitimisation- particularly by homegrown initiatives. In this piece, we explore how homegrown streets have been constructed and then construed in two very different parts of the world- the city of Mumbai, India, and Philadelphia in the United States.
An essential part of the lives of streets in the cities of India is constituted by street vendors. One can see them lined up along streets, often occupying space on footpaths meant for pedestrians and other times taking up space meant for vehicular traffic. Mumbai is no different when it comes to the relationships of these vendors with the streets. On the Dharavi Main Road, one cannot help but walk past (and often through) the DIY structures constructed of blue tarpaulin sheets, wood, iron and steel, metal sheets, plastic crates, cartons etc. These structures are erected temporarily for economic purposes to sell various wares and services out of and are in most cases accompanied by similar structures to live out of. They exhibit reflexivity and responsiveness to the context they are situated within- one with multiple stakeholders playing a role in the (il)legitimising of these activities. In Philadelphia too, similar self-built structures attached to restaurants as outdoor dining patios have now become a common element of the urban landscape. Most of these structures are either owner-built or quickly and cost-effectively constructed with the help of a local contractor. Similar to the homegrown street structures of Dharavi, these patios are mainly constructed out of materials such as plywood, vinyl curtains, plastic tarps, recycled parts, and polycarbonate roofing. Many structures are also painted or decorated with lights, artwork, or hanging plants which provide a visual spectacle for pedestrians and transform the block into an inviting and artistic space. While self-constructed structures like these have been a mainstay of street design in urban spaces such as Dharavi, the benefits of the self-built temporary structure are only now being introduced to the formalized urban landscape in places like Philadelphia.