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Envisioning Change for a Contested Mumbai Neighborhood

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Paige Vickers

Welcome back to The Architect's City, a monthly series inviting an emerging architect to reimagine an existing structure in his or her city, submitting a speculative proposal for Curbed readers.

Mumbai's Dharavi is many things at once: a three-square-kilometer former mangrove swamp at the center of a voraciously growing city; generator of an estimated $600 million to $1 billion in yearly revenue; home of somewhere between 500,000 and a million residents. Raucous markets teem with scents and transactions, workshops and sweatshops buzz behind thin walls, and houses range from shanties to meticulously cared-for brick and concrete homes. A single street may lead to an old church—a relic of the city's Portuguese influence—an overflowing collective toilet, a schoolroom where children shout in Tamil, Hindi, English, Kannada, Marathi, or Urdu, or an architect's studio.

This slam of disparate habitats has been characterized as "Asia's largest slum," a contested honor in more than one way—others surpass its size, and "slum" may not be the best descriptor for Dharavi. It is a "subcontinental Harlem," flush with the attendant emotional and cultural associations and riches. Municipal authorities and developers eager to put the area to more economically fruitful use call it "the opportunity of the millennium."

Dharavi is, in short, contested territory. Conditions for its residents, many of them very poor, should be better, on this everyone seems to agree. While the area has electricity and running water, it lacks proper sewage systems, trash collection, and other basic infrastructural services. But existing as it does in central Mumbai, Dharavi's future invites varied visions.

City efforts to address Dharavi's improvement via resettlement have littered Mumbai with low-cost, high-rise housing blocs, sinking into varying stages of decay: daubed with mold or shedding layers of concrete, overpacked and devoid of the amenities of the neighborhood it replaced, community and economic underpinnings. Residents who ran small shops or rented an upper floor of a home, who produced pottery in a back-room kiln or repaired shoes streetside find themselves commuting far from home to seek work, resulting in traffic and congestion. In many instances, say Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, co-founders of Mumbai urban development collective urbz—which they founded and operated for six years in Dharavi—residents sell these new apartments and move, often to suburban slums with the economic opportunities and infrastructural difficulties of the one they left. Rather than solving the initial problems of low-income housing, these high-rises scatter the poor among other neighborhoods further from the city center, where the cycle begins anew.

Dharavi is home to multi-generational homes, preschools, shops, boarding houses; tanners, potters, contractors, builders, all in the same place, utilizing the same amenities, coexisting in the reflexive symbiosis of a well-designed neighborhood. Rather than fulfilling the stereotypical "slum narrative" of "resilient but backward," Echanove and Srivastava point out, Dharavi has proven itself more sophisticated than the plans to replace it. Residents install ad hoc plumbing systems, or build second and third stories on stable brick-and-concrete homes as small businesses thrive. Existing as it does under the specter of its destruction, its piecemeal improvement is an exuberant rebuke to the last ten years' worth of government plans. Why not, propose Echanove and Srivastava, embrace and channel that creativity and tenacity?

Urbz suggests, in a way, leaving well enough alone. Rather than beginning with the false notion that Dharavi offers a tabula rasa, their team starts with what they call a tabula pronta, a table already laid with considerable riches. Dharavi's tens of thousands of houses are "an existing stock of affordable housing, waiting to be improved and infused with better civic infrastructure."

"Slum redevelopment usually means destroying what's been built up over time by residents and replacing it by something else that has no history and no future," says Echanove. "For us, the neighborhood itself is the most interesting starting point: people's stories, needs, economy, and investments, emotional or otherwise."

With Mumbai architecture firm sP+a, urbz proposes a steel infrastructural intervention to allow for water, refuse water, and structural stability. With its slim streets, tightly packed homes, and small horizontal footprints, they suggest looking up to find room for improvement and growth. After placing a minimal but strong architectural net, of sorts, overlaid atop what already exists, local contractors and builders would then steer its growth.

"The population is by and large upwardly mobile," says Echanove. "Our proposal enables residents to safely build higher and get more space, which they can use for themselves, as rental or as businesses. The same structure can also be used to bring basic services such as water and electricity."

Neighborhood conditions would then improve naturally, based on residents' own requirements. Their proposal envisions terraces, upper-level courtyards, and bridges built atop the highest levels of the structure, creating a new level of connection among buildings. Green roofs could eventually be installed. In the process, Dharavi sheds its classification as a "slum" as it acquires infrastructure and investment, and its residents no longer look into uncertain futures.

"It's a political argument we're making, too," says Srivastava. "Residents' ideas and local initiatives are often discarded on aesthetic grounds as well. We take as a starting point people's engagement [in the neighborhood] on several grounds, without too much judgment."

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