Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Koliwada, Dharavi (Mumbai)






Much of the time in Mumbia was spent participating in the Urban Typhoon Workshop which took place in Dharavi, which has often been coined “Asia’s largest slum.” I doubt this is true, but the scale of it is truly something to behold, and it is certainly one of the most famous parts of Mumbai. I also think it might be one of the world’s most popular thesis sites, as I ran into a new person each day who was studying the area for his architectural thesis. Little wonder as the entire area is set to be redeveloped sometime in the near future. The plans have been circulating wildly (although hardly ever to the residents themselves), the most ambitious and likely one to move forward being floated by a Non-Resident India (NRI) living in the US.

Basically, the plan of the redevelopment scheme is to take the entire area of Dharavi, which is about 530 acres. Within this space, approximately 500,000-1,000,000 people live giving it a density of around 315,000 people per square kilometer, which is 6 times denser than the daytime population of Manhatten. Many people say it is precisely this density and the conditions it has spawned as the need for it to be redeveloped. But, the reality is the land has become too valuable ($9 billion?). Dharavi used to be a suburb, but Mumbai has grown so much that now Dharavi is in the center of the city. Even more than that, it is situated strategically at the nexus of the three major train lines and immediately adjacent to the Bandra Kulna Complex, host to major financial and IT companies, and some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Many feel the land is just too valuable to remain as an informal settlement, that most would consider a slum. Just do a google search and you will find a myriad number of articles dealing with the complexities of Dharavi. Read this one from the National Geographic.

The government would redevelop the entire area, rehouse those who could prove their residence there is in 1995 and rehouse them on the same land, but in highrise homes of approximately 225 sf per family. These high rises would free up room for open space, better infrastructure, and the government would relax zoning regulations developers to make a killing on market rate residential, commercial, and office projects. The selling of this land would subsidize the housing and redevelopment of the much of the public works. Or so it goes in theory.

We ended up working in one specific community of Dharavi, known as Koliwada. It was originally a community of fishermen, called Kolis. It is unique in Dharavi, as they have maps and records proving their ownership of the land. As far as I am concerned, Koliwada is anything but a slum. And much like such densely packed settlements, the activities and ways of life are directly tied to types of physical space there. Most of the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what the purpose and reason of the workshop was, as it was left up to the leaders and each group to develop their own proposals and processes. The great thing about this workshop is that it had serious community involvement. Many local people were involved from the get go, and some outstanding young people were teamed up with each group to serve as liaisons with the rest of the community.

It quickly became clear how deeply established this community was. We spent the first afternoon just wandering, talking to people. People had customized the whole area to give it a sense of place. Local income producing endeavors were everywhere. Tea stalls, glove making, festival decorations, pipe threaders, stores, restaurants, you name it. It was there. The place was dense. Most walkways were 3-4 feet wide and would flow and move like a maze, until occasionally, they would open into an intersection or larger space between buildings. So much of what I have been hearing, and subsequently seeing is that the most important spaces are between the buildings and housings, not just the buildings themselves.

The crazy thing was instantly how much my impression of a slum was shattered. Well, maybe not what my idea of a slum, but how easily groups of communities are labeled and described as a slum, without acknowledging the unique complexity and diversity within those areas. Certainly, some parts of Dharavi are a slum, with very difficult conditions, but this particular area was one of the oldest in Dharavi, and probably contributed to its strength as a well established and developed community.

There were about 7 or 8 teams working separately, and my team spent the week engaging with residents trying to better understand their sense of place, what makes it unique, and what are some of the hopes and fears. The diversity of the housing was pretty amazing as well. What was fairly common about many of the homes is that they had incrementally grown, both horizontally and vertically, and used some part of their space to generate income. Some homes rented out space to be used commercially, some had their own businesses within their home, and other rented out their spaces to others. We saw a range of housing sizes, from about 200 square feet to 2000 square feet.

One thing we were interested in looking at was juxtaposing the very dynamic nature and quality of the home to the static and prescribed notion of new housing, often in highrises. In fact, part of the new proposal is to give each family 225 sf. But, through interviewing families, we were able to see very clearly that not only do family sizes change (births, deaths, marriages), but the home changes as well (income, availability of land, etc). By mapping this reality against a so-called fixed notion of 225 sf, it became very clear that this would fundamentally change the nature of families as well as the entire community. The flexibility and malleability of the homes over time allow the family to better adapt and hold together as it changes. For example, when a man gets married, it is still very common for him to live at home, and it is generally accepted that his wife will move in as well. And soon, they will have children. Many families have had to extend their homes to make this possible. If this were not possible, many would have to move, and most likely move out of Dharavi, thereby fracturing the family, and further losing such sense of community. Click here to see the dynamic nature of one household.

We were fortunate, as we were there during a very festive time, as the Hindu festival, Holi, took place at the end of our workshop. This helped give us an interesting look at the variety of ways of which space is used and how it is activated. The many small nodes actually serve as gathering spaces for different groups of men and women to gossip, play games, and generally catch up. They are almost like cliques, and they have specific places to which they go. The small alleyways keep shade and keep the areas cool, serve as small areas where neighbors can easily communicate, and even serve as conduits for different kinds of games that take place at night, which are totally dependent on small spaces. I would suspect that much of these activities would not have developed if they spaces were not as they were. This, in essence, ties people to place, and makes wide ranging fully redeveloped and planned proposals dangerous.

It also seems as if these alleys serve as filters from the outside world, thereby serving as gateways on multiple levels where people can monitor their streets without having to erect physical gates. I very quickly felt comfortable moving around in these spaces, as you receive very warm, gentle, sincere, and affirming smiles, hellos, etc. The public spaces were some of the most intimate and active that I have ever been in, and they grew organically over time without much planning. Don’t get me wrong, there needs to be much more open space, but it should not come at the expense of the quality and type of spaces that already exist. The question remains, how can you maintain and allow such spaces to still exist while continuing to develop and improve infrastructure, open space, economic opportunities, etc?

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