Carlin Carr

Upgrading Mumbai's slums from within

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager


Mumbai's quest to become a world-class city shines with rhetoric of "clean" and "green." The efforts have spawned policies of making the city slum-free; demolitions, relocations, and high-rise government slum redevelopment buildings define much of the existing plan and actions. Standing in between the government's Shanghai dream and the existing state are the 62 percent of the city's population who live in slums. The "eyesores" are taking up precious city land that has grown in value exponentially over the decades. Plans to deal with the impediments ignore the vibrant upgrading and development that have been taking place inside these settlements all over the city.

From above, the city's thousands of slums look like crammed, dirty, and resource-deprived places. On the ground, however, it is a different story. A Dharavi-based organization, URBZ, which focuses on "user-generated cities," describes their home turf: "From the point of view of the new migrant, or that of the suburban slum-dweller, parts of Dharavi are aspirational. It is, after all, a centrally located, superbly connected business hub with seven municipal schools and dozens of private or NGO-run educational institutions. It has decent medical facilities and countless shrines and temples tailored to its fantastically diverse population. Over the years people have replaced their shacks with brick and concrete houses, which often double as retail or production spaces."

And, says URBZ, that self-construction process is key to understanding a new way of moving forward with slum areas. URBZ has launched an antidote to the heavy-handed government redevelopment policies: the 'Homegrown Cities' project seeks not only to acknowledge the local construction practices that exist in these neighborhoods, but also to catalyze the process by joining forces with URBZ's international network. "Our aim is not to revolutionize the way construction is done in homegrown neighborhoods, but simply to contribute to a process of constant improvement that is happening already," write Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, co-founders of URBZ. "We intend to become actors in the local development of housing and habitat in homegrown neighborhoods."

The plan is to develop tiny plots in collaboration with the community, talented local builders and non-local architects and engineers. They will then sell or rent each house to someone from the community at the same price as for any other similar structure. "We see process as a way to creating a long-term relationship with various neighborhoods, which will allow us to get involved at other levels as well," say Echanove and Srivastava. "This will help us highlight the good work being done there, and show that there are alternatives to the wholesale redevelopment of unplanned and incrementally developing neighborhoods. We want to demonstrate that architects, planners, and others can engage meaningfully in local processes, respecting existing morphology, supporting the local economy, and bringing in their skills and creativity."

For the group's pilot project in the Mumbai suburb called Bhandup, URBZ has launched a crowdfunding page. Donations will go toward the operational costs of the pilot project. For more on the Homegrown Cities project, visit its Facebook page or follow @homegrowncities on Twitter.

Photos: Homegrown Cities