Reinventing Dharavi

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 2 June 2015

In Mumbai, India, Dharavi represents one of the essential heartbeats of the city. The thousands of micro-enterprises that exist in its narrow lanes provide city services, jobs, and exports from leather to snacks for customers around the city and the world. The small businesses of Dharavi's thriving informal economy exist side-by-side with residential spaces — and often co-exist in the same unit. But while Dharavi has achieved a remarkable low-rise, high-density live-work community in the so-called slum, the one-square-kilometer plot in the heart of the city is not without its problems.

In December 2014, Mumbai's Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) decided to reach out to the global community to gather innovative proposals for addressing Dharavi's issues. The core idea of "Reinventing Dharavi — An International Ideas Competition" was to recognize Dharavi's unique character as a thriving and inspiring community, but also to see how its future might be shaped by innovative solutions to overcrowding, safety, health, livelihood, and housing concerns. It was a celebration of ingenuity in the 300,000-person neighborhood (there has been no official count and many believe the number is actually double or triple this estimate), but also a deep discussion on how creative thinking and problem-solving can improve the lives of current residents and future generations.

Twenty teams, with more than 150 members from 21 different countries, submitted proposals. The competition's only requirement was that the teams be interdisciplinary in order to address the complex housing, work, financing, health, sanitation, recreation, and legal issues. Their proposals ranged from bathroom towers that transform into public spaces, to an annual festival, to a collective brand that would increase marketing power and recognition of the area's diverse products. Dutch design group Felixx, for example, received an honorable mention for its plan to improve road networks and public spaces, which they believe will inspire residents and small businesses in those corridors to simultaneously upgrade their housing or structures.

The winning proposal said quite a bit about the long-term needs of Dharavi and what it will take to make a lasting impact. For years, innovative thinkers have drawn up ideas on enhancing what Dharavi does best — making extreme use of limited space. But the winning team, Mumbai-based Plural, proposed to forget all that and start by really understanding the needs of the people. Plural suggested a Dharavi Community Land Trust, an idea that would settle the issue of who owns and controls the land in a city of skyrocketing speculative development. "We have a vision to bring back the focus on the people's needs in Dharavi in a sustainable and human-centered manner," said Jasmine Saluja, a Plural team member. "We've had proposals on Dharavi since the 1970s, but the problem is that they've never included the people themselves."

The judges agreed, awarding first place to the novel idea. "We wanted to stimulate fresh thinking," said Cyrus Guzder, a member of the jury, at the competition's awards ceremony in December. "Even though we've spent some time walking around Dharavi, we must say the ideas were quite original, even from international participants."

Photo: Thomas Galvez

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