"A city, alas," wrote Charles Baudelaire, lamenting the
cataclysmic transfigurations sweeping through mid-19th century
Paris, "changes more quickly than man's heart may
change." And nowhere is the shape of the city today undergoing
more rapid and intense transformation than in the financial
capitals of Asia's emerging economies. These cities, unlike the
scores of new multi-million-inhabitant urban agglomerations
of China, or new-build exurban extensions such as South
Korea's Songdo New City and Noida, not far from New Delhi, do
not occupy greenfield tabula rasa. Their fabric is the product of
stratification, compromise, adaptation and ingenuity, and the
predictable consequences of the sudden arrival of capital are
spectacular acts of erasure, negotiated for the most part behind
the closed doors of boardrooms and planning departments.
The fate of vast swathes of the city – of entire communities
and economies, the urban equivalents of bodily organs – can
come to rest on semantics, definitions and subtle questions of
In the battlefield that is the contemporary city, every cartographic technique – from Street View to municipal charts, and from gis to OpenStreetMap – possesses a politics of its own, whether deliberate or inadvertent. Enter the word Dharavi into the search box of Google Maps, and you'll find yourself abruptly catapulted into what appears to be a large patch of light yellow nothingness wedged between two suburban railway lines in central Mumbai. In this yellow-tinted cartographic void, the surrounding tangle of roads melts away and detail is conspicuously absent. As large patches of nothingness go, one quickly notes that this one is strategically positioned – a stone's throw from the Bandra-Kurla Complex, an area which after decades of northward expansion has become the city's financial and commercial epicentre, and just as close to many of the city's most important commuter hubs. Switch over to satellite view, however, and the scene unexpectedly transforms – the bland void is replaced by a speckled, irregular carpet of urbanity teeming with life.
Dharavi is revealed for what it is: one of Mumbai's districts, home to several hundred thousand residents and nearly as many small but vibrant businesses, tightly-packed workshops, crowded basement factories, ceaselessly industrious enterprises, liminal ateliers suspended in a spatial limbo between inside and outside, hi-tech print labs juxtaposed with low-tech tool shops and countless miniscule grocers—not to mention over one hundred places of worship. This throbbing, pulsating urban landscape is often characterised as Asia's largest slum, hemmed in on all sides by some of the most valuable real estate in India's financial capital. But it is unique only in its strategic position. Otherwise, it is emblematic of how half the city's population lives.
Zoom in towards block No. 4/6/12, past the railway lines, and the headquarters of what is probably Dharavi's only resident design practice spring into focus. Not that it is in any way discernable from its surroundings, since urbz resides on the top floor of a typical three-storey structure, the uneven product – like its neighbours – of several decades of incremental growth and unabated adaptation. Accessing the office involves scaling several narrow, uneven flights of stairs, then clambering up a near-vertical metal ladder.
Dharavi is home to between half a million and one million people – no one is really sure of the exact figure since no recent and reliable demographic statistics exist. A 1986 survey conducted by the National Slum Dwellers Federation counted 530,225 people grouped into 106,045 households, and a total of 80,518 structures, but the numbers have certainly grown since then. If the estimate of half a million to one million inhabitants is correct, its density is somewhere between four and eight times Manhattan's – a reality that is almost unimaginable, to a Western observer at least, if one considers that its buildings are on average three stories high. That Dharavi is a slum, however, is a notion that Matias Sendoa Echanove and Rahul Srivastava, the founders of urbz, resist. Terminology, they point out, like cartography, carries baggage, and defining the district as a slum designates it as a terminally diseased district where demolition and redevelopment is inescapable – a condition that amounts to something of a wet dream for the administration and the city's developers, who are only too aware of the multibillion- euro value of the land it stands on.
Reconsidering it as an infrastructurally underserved urban district, as urbz does, is an attempt to linguistically dodge preconceptions and focus instead on the remarkable potentialities latent in Dharavi's extraordinary socio-urbanistic make-up. As the epicentre of Mumbai's light industry and artisans, it is a phenomenally productive reality in modern Mumbai. One conservative estimate places the annual value of goods produced in Dharavi at 400 million euros, which, if one considers the infrastructural investments (or lack thereof) that went into making it, probably qualifies it as the most efficient and productive district in the city.
As if to acknowledge that cities are complex entities that don't lend themselves to generalisations, Echanove, an urbanist of Swiss-Spanish origin, and Srivastava, who studied social and urban anthropology, chose not to lump all their activities under the umbrella of the urbz office. In parallel to urbz they run several activities, among which the Institute of Urbanology, a research centre based in Goa devoted to understanding the incremental developmental processes and daily practices that define the identity of cities such as Bogotá, Tokyo, Istanbul, New York, New Delhi, Goa and Mumbai, yet elude representation through statistics and cartography alone. In contrast to the data-driven approach that has defined efforts to understand cities in recent decades, the practice of "urbanology" relies on understanding and documenting urban ecosystems through direct engagement with people and places – charting homegrown practices in the fields of housing, artisanship and trade, and the physical and theoretical spaces where these fields converge. To make this possible, the "urbanologist" must borrow from the social sciences: "At most times," they write in a text on their blog airoots/eirut, "the urbanologist and the anthropologist are one and the same."
This quasi-anthropological approach towards the observation of urbanity derives largely from the belief that designing for a context such as Dharavi – or any urban condition, for that matter – must necessarily occur with the involvement of its inhabitants, the end users. For urbz, Dharavi is a kind of laboratory where a new bottom-up, self-organisational approach to urban design can be bred. Taking a leaf from Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour's book, they claim that learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary. urbz highlights, for example, the contrast between the government's response to the housing crisis, i.e. large-scale production of low-cost housing blocks that quickly turn into vertical slums, and the far more numerous housing units of far better quality being built by contractors and end users at lower prices in Mumbai's many unplanned settlements.
A specific example offered in support of this thesis, and later the subject of an urbz workshop at Sir JJ College of Architecture, is a house built by contractor Amar Madhukar Nirjankar in the Utkarsh Nagar neighbourhood for 2.5 lakh rupees, or approximately 3,850 euros. In the narrative of urbanology, the contractor is a key character: he condenses into a single persona all those qualities of pragmatism, ingenuity, business savvy and political astuteness that make the machine that is Dharavi tick, despite the absence of any formal planning or infrastructural investment. Echoing David Harvey, Echanove and Srivastava perceive the city in general, and Dharavi in particular, not as the place where the factory exists but rather a factory in itself, in which producer and product are one and the same, and in which the contractor—together with the postindustrial artisan and the hardware dealer—is a vital node in the social structure.
Echanove and Srivastava are acutely aware that the continued existence of Dharavi, let alone any improvement of its infrastructure and living conditions, depends on how the debate around its future is framed. For its part, despite the well documented productivity of its workshops, the government has squarely defined it an "informal settlement" and placed it in the hands of the Slum Redevelopment Authority, which unsurprisingly announced its intention to raze the district to make way for the development of new real estate. "Dharavi," the municipality asserts, clearly unconcerned about concealing its voracity for developable real estate, "is the opportunity of the millennium." Current inhabitants would be offered some kind of tenure – in most cases tiny apartments, potentially elsewhere – but the vast majority of the enormous profits generated would unquestionably end up in the pockets of the developers. urbz and the Institute of Urbanology counters this with a sort of artistic guerrilla action, disseminating through its blogs perfectly credibly images of Dharavi streetscapes merged with urban vistas of Turin, Tokyo and other cities. The message is clear: since the incremental growth of cities is the default form of urban development all over the world, Dharavi is everywhere, and the problem of integration between new and old cannot be simply swept under the carpet. Joseph Grima (@joseph_grima)