Urban landscape design in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum

The urban landscape of Dharavi, MumbaiKevin McLeod has shifted his gaze from Castleford to Dharavi. Properly critical of the sanitation, he finds much to praise in its community spirit and, like Slumdog Millionaire, criticizes the Bombay policy of trying to move the residents into Corbusian blocks of flats. He finds Dharavi as a happy place where everyone lives together and works together. Most people work within Dharavi so little money wasted on commuting. Kids don’t wear hoods and mug old ladies, because they have work to do. The crime rate is extremely low becuase everyone knows what everyone is doing. Dharavi is in fact like a medieval European town. We got rid of them in the mistaken belief that ‘foul air’ (rather than foul water) was causing infectious diseases. Now that this mistake has been cleared up, we should rid the world of highway regulations and let people build dwellings on narrow lanes if that is what they want to do.  Dharavi is sustainable and will survive unless the police clear it.

I remember spending a morning in a Roman town on the south coast of Turkey. There were no residents and no visitors. It was empty. One day, Dubai will be like this. The owners should have learned something from the Indians about sustainable urban design, instead of paying them peanuts to build Chicagos on the the Gulf.

(Image courtesy markhillary)

Note: Dharavi rhymes with laramie

31 thoughts on “Urban landscape design in Dharavi, a Mumbai slum

  1. Leo Phillips

    Can we really design in the character that is so vibrant in places such as Dharavi?
    In Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” he writes of age and decay, organically formed cities of torture and triumph, music and charm and beauty. Surreal cities of true character.

    Are these cities to be ever invisible and only present in our minds ?


    In Cities & The Sky 4 the city of Perinthia was planned with apparent perfection of order only to give birth to deformity and pain.

    Do we as designers have any hope in creating cities and newtowns with character and community?

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    It all depends what is meant by ‘we’ and by ‘design’. If the words refer to a variety of people making different contributions at different points in time then I would say ‘Yes’. But if ‘we’ is read as individuals who belong to a professional group but work as maestro designers then I would say ‘No’. And despite Kevin Mcleod’s enthusiasm for Dharavi, I do not regard it as a perfect place!

  3. leo

    It was mainly in reference to masterplanning. In one of the Urban Design Lectures last term one speaker was negative about “masterplans” as closed desings and wished for more “frameworks” as open ended idea skeletons.

    Maybe framework is more about a variety of contributions at different points and masterplanning is more about the maestro so geared toward masterplanning?

    If so why are

    Dharavi is far from perfect as a whole, but the perfect parts will be lost. I myself hold no hope for the idea that improvements will be made and the community will survive. With the land worth so much the developers will pack up the dwellers and leave them to rot in pigeon-hole-shoeboxes, and walk away with the slumdog’s millions.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    I agree about the concept of a framework. This is what Harold Nicholsen provided at Sissinghurst, allowing Vita Sackville West to work on the theme with planting and construction ideas.
    Re Dharavi, I share your pessimism but it is possible that Slumdog + McLeod will influence the outcome. Looking at the UK, it is a terrible pity that modern ‘housing estates’, are finished when they are built, with very little scope for the evolutionary change which all other settlements in history have experienced.

  5. Christine

    Leo, when you ask the question ‘Do we as designers have any hope in creating cities and newtowns with character and community?’ in a blog about Dharavi (a Mumbai slum) I wonder what qualities you are alluding to?

    Unhabitat says a slum is “a run-down area of a city characterized by substandard housing and squalor (filth) and lacking in tenure security.” [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slum ]

    Presumably if the residents of Dharavi had the opportunity of acquiring equity in their dwellings, were assisted with ensuring that the dwellings were structurally safe and adequate public sanitation and refuse services were provided we would no longer be writing about a slum. As you say the character and community already exist at Dharavi.

  6. Tom Turner Post author

    The ownership issues are central and should be considered as part of the ancient conflict between migrants and settlers. Settled peoples think ‘we have ownership rights – why should we give them away?’. Migrants think ‘their ancestors were migrants, so why shouldn’t we settle here like they did?’. Since there is right on both sides, conflict is inevitable. Landscape and urban planners should see their role as one of mediation, not dictatorship.

  7. Gordon Evans

    When the Soviet bloc began building horrible, pre-constructed tower block estates around existing settlements such as Potsdam, the better off and well connected lost no time in moving out of their beautiful apartment blocks originally created for King Frederick’s court followers, turning their backs on the master-planned city and their stable communities, despite the fact that these were no slums in the sense of Dharavi. People are extremely motivated by perceived self-betterment and personal comfort, perhaps more so than satisfying master plans.

  8. Tom Turner Post author

    Of course people do not want to live in ‘horrible, pre-constructed tower block estates’. So why are they ever built, and why is China building them at a faster rate than any other country has ever done? It is because the people who inhabit them do not have the POWER to decide. Bureaucrats and developers give power to engineers and architects. We would do far better if we took garden and landscape design as the paradigms for city development. This is the underlying idea for what has been called landscape urbanism.

  9. Gordon Evans

    My point about Potsdam was that precisely the people who did have the power to decide chose to swap their roomy, beautiful apartments for the tower block estates. I guess this shows that some people prefer the benefits of central heating and hot running water to those of living in architectural masterpieces. And that some people do not maybe put such a high price on environmental quality as the kind of people that contribute to this blog. I would personally prefer uncomfortable winters in a crumbling, noble edifice to a warm life on the 20th floor of a Plattenbau, but I suspect that I am in a minority. China and other countries are building tower block estates in response to demand, I don’t think that they are simply herding the dispossessed into them and the Chinese estates that I have visited are not full of kids wearing hoods and mugging old ladies. Perhaps landscape urbanism is not in a position to move fast enough to meet the burgeoning demands of the emerging economies? Perhaps the tower block estate is a viable alternative? Perhaps the land take of a low rise community like Dharavi is not sustainable in places of rapid expansion like Mumbai?

  10. Tom Turner Post author

    I misunderstood. But there is an underlying issue with regard to housing. The history of residential planning takes a problem->panacea format. Each group of reformers believes it has hit upon key problem and identified a universal panacea. But people differ and tastes differ: some prefer crumbling, noble edifices; others prefer tower blocks with aircon. The choice should be with residents, not with authorities or engineers or landscape architects.
    I do not think you are right about all the new residents of tower blocks in China. Lots of hutong residents were forcibly dispossessed and moved into gormless towers where they could not afford to pay for the water or the electricity and no longer had any land on which to grow food. At the other end of the scale, many rich Chinese choose what an English estate agent would call a semi-detached villa or town house.

  11. Leo Phillips

    The threat in Dharavi is that a place, that has become an ancestral home where life is happy, busy, safe and beautiful has high employment and low crime, will be demolished – bulldozed and replaced with a “vertical slum” in form of high rise flats reminiscent of the 1960’s failures in architectural and social terms. If this happens then what will have been accomplished? A move backward in terms of social life and soul in return for financial security (the tenure).
    Yes there is most definitely “substandard housing and squalor” but with financial input into water treatment and drainage the slum city could be a slum no more but a model for a sustainable lifestyle allowing the community to continue. the qualitities are clear

    My fear is that developers will win out with the claims on territory for financial gain in disregard for a certain quality of life currently apparent. The plans for the future deveopments do not seem so great either.

    The reason i ask whether “we as designers have any hope” is in acceptance of the group of designers I refer to as inclusive of those who have created thousands of vertical failures. And their failures lead me to question design as a whole in that design, as ideas, may only ever remain an idea, or dream, and in reality be limited to what becomes the result of so many developments – rotten, neglected symbols of neglect.

    If people are willing to destroy what is good in so many ways and replace with what seems to be only for financial gain then i am lead to write cynically. All too often the perception of self-betterment is sold……..by the designer. And on the contrary places like Dharvi should be accepted as sustainable for rapidly expanding city like mumbai, tosh to the “land take”.

  12. Christine

    It seems like the sensible first question to ask is who owns the land and in what form of tenure on which Dharvi is located? Everything else flows from this.

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    It obviously does not ‘belong’ to the residents but many organizations which have looked at the ‘problem of slums’ have argued that squatters should be given rights. See http://wadias.in/site/arzan/blog/new-york-dharavi-and-art-deco/
    “When, in the name of redevelopment, a businessman is getting ready to “Raze” Dharavi where the residents have lived for over 50 years; where are the American “Brains” of the Bill Clinton promoted Foundation who recently held a conference in USA to vociferously propagate tenure rights to the slum dwellers of the third world for the land they occupy so that they can register their ownership documents, get access to institutional finance, redevelop their area to increase the wealth of the city?”
    India has an old land ownership system (unlike eg Southern Africa or Australia before the colonial era) but it was based on principles which would now be regarded as just as unfair as Europe’s feudal system, or the ‘unequal treaty’ which let Hong Kong become a British colony.
    I also think it is unfair that Indian migrant workers in the Gulf states have so few rights.

  14. Stefan

    regarding the question of design. its strange to think that early examples of town ‘master planning’ gave rise to beautiful cities like Rome Paris and Petersburg, while 20th century planning has gone so badly wrong.

    i think you have to lay the blame squarely at the door of the modernists for this one, and their attempts at social engineering – especially their belief that if you designed in a certain way, people would choose to behave in a ‘better’ way, rather than giving people what their hearts desire

  15. Tom Turner Post author

    So do you think Kevin McLeod might have been converted? His line on the Grand Designs show has always been to praise modernist designs to the skies.
    To blame ‘modernism’ for Dharavi, I think you have to interpret the word very broadly – as the idea that science tells us how our lives should be led. Though not a smoker, I sympathize with David Hockney’s view that too much action is being taken against smokers on the unsound assumption that everyone wants to live as long as possible and in as risk-free way as possible.

  16. Gordon Evans

    Hausmann summarily demolished many “slum” settlements in his recreation of Paris, and his planning had as one of its aims the requirement to make it easier for the military to move around the city and quell the unruly population. Perhaps we have not set the emerging economies a very good example here, as in so many other fields where we Westerners now like to advise them to behave better.
    I think that 20th Century planning and the modernist movement as a whole are simply not pleasing to the British psyche, favouring as it does the domestic scale and organic development. Certainly the “modernist” planning of cities such as Beijing and Abu Dhabi has not gone badly wrong in the social sense: both of these cities have extremely low rates of crime and vandalism, in Abu Dhabi I don’t lock either my house or my car. Designers are not at all responsible for the social failings of the populace, government policies and the people themselves are.

  17. Tom Turner Post author

    As Karl Marx said: “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it”. So what do we need to change if we want better cities? It is necessary for urban designers/landscape architects to replace engineers/town planners at the apex of the professional hierarchy. Even places as poor as Dharavi would benfit – in fact if they had asked Patrick Geddes, when he was in India, he would have done them a plan at breakfast.

  18. leo

    and, pray tell, how are the landscape architects (and urban designers) to become positioned at the apex of the proffessional hierachy?

  19. Stefan

    i agree with Gordon that designers can’t be held responsible (or hope to have too much influence over) social failings. perhaps thats where 20th century planning went awry – by believing that we can ‘design out’ human foibles and social issues our approach has become too rational, to the extent that the spontaneity and vibrancy of somewhere like Dharavi is anathema. in fact, the trend over the past century seems to be to ‘design out’ character and atmosphere in favour of
    intellectual purity. if people were free to adapt change and create their own spaces, perhaps some of that character would return?

  20. Tom Turner Post author

    Urban designers have done better, but landscape architects have been far too timid about taking a lead and explaining to society at large how towns should grow and change.

  21. Christine

    It seems the government is ultimately responsible for the redevelopment.

    The government intends to rehouse the residents, but only those who lived there prior to 2000. Other objections to the redevelopment by the residents include the amount of land they will be given and whether they will be able to continue their existing small businesses.

    Apartently builders thinking of bidding for the project have been cautioned about “the resistance which they will have to face from the slum dwellers since everybody has so far been used to living on the ground level.” [ http://www.financialexpress.com/news/blueprint-for-a-new-dharavi/140257/ ]

    So although on the face of it, the residents seem not to be opposed to the redevelopment in principle (they only object to either the loss or dimunition of existing benefits) the political whispers suggest the true situation may be more problematic.

    What is the thought process behind the proposed new form? This may be due to the increased height(7 storeys) being necessary to free up land within the development area for uses other than provisions for existing residents. Which means the project has two agendas. Always a difficult starting point.

    There are obvious infrastructure issues in the settlement as it exists.
    [ http://www.sra.gov.in/htmlpages/Dharavi.htm ] Dharavi is built on a swamp so there are issues also with flooding. So attention would need to be paid not only to the architecture but also to locational issues which might ultimately effect the form of the development and whether it could realistically be maintained in close to its current state.
    [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharavi ]

    Art Deco has obviously been adopted as a style considered to have some relationship to existing architecture within the city and perhaps the government believes it will give the new development a more sympathetic and familiar character than a modernist style.

    Considering Agenda One: Redevelopment for the benefit of existing residents.

    I would not strictly advocate that the area be considered cultural heritage in the way that the Houtong’s of Beijing are. However, if there was a prevailing view among residents that they wished to preserve as much as possible the existing form and pattern of Dharvari – in the first instance I cannot see why this cannot be done. And done well.

    The architectural style would then be derived from the settlement as it exists….which seems to be predominantly two storey detached dwellings with the second storey overhanging the first.

    After doing a physical survey of the area it is simply a matter of considering all the issues of health and safety and infrastructure provision and working through them systematically and creatively.

    Considering Agenda Two: More would need to be known about this? Perhaps it is an issue of how the project is financed? And the desire to provide additional facilities on the site, ie schools, hospital, police stations and post offices. [ http://www.homeless-international.org/standard_1.aspx?id=0:37913&id=1:32596&id=0:380&id=0:277&id=0:262 ]

    Another strategy might enable these same facilities to be provided by a different model?

  22. Gordon Evans

    Tom, I thought that in England we landscape architects had been given a good chance at town planning during the New Town programmes. I always rather liked Milton Keynes, Harlow too, but not many other people seemed to and it didn’t catapult our profession into the apex of the professional hierachy. Why not? Whoever lands at that apex needs a very robust strategy, the pace of new town growth all over the developing world is astonishingly fast and it is a fact of life that economic considerations favour the grid plan and the standard plot that it generates. All deviations from this require very persuasive concepts and often a political overview that is willing to make economic considerations subservient to qualitative judgements. Dictatorships can turn out to be very good clients in this respect.

  23. Tom Turner Post author

    The UK landscape profession’s involvement in the New Towns programme was a direct result of a provision in the New Towns Act that special attention would be given to their ‘landscape treatment’. This provision was a result of successful lobbying by Geoffrey Jellicoe and it resulted in the best 20th century examples, in the UK, of how to relate urban development to its topographic/landscape context. When they stopped using the New Towns Act, after Milton Keynes, the provision no longer affected UK urbanization. The UK Landscape Institute did nothing to publicize the results achieved in the New Towns and no comparable provisions were, so far as I know, included in other legislation. So engineers with fanciful sanitary/health/safety regulations have been able to determine the pattern of urban expansion.

  24. Tom Turner Post author

    To have decided on an Art Deco style without resolving any of the underlying problems is bizarre. Apart from a few diplomats houses and Maharaja’s palaces (eg Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace) I do not think it had any place in the architectural history of India. My guess is that the unhealthiness of Dharavi would be eliminated in a few years if the residents were given titles to the land they occupy – and since they will not be able to clear the land without riots and unwelcome media coverage of lathi-wielding police charging the poor, they might as way sit down and write out the title deeds.

  25. Christine

    Tom it is a shame that the professions seem to be set against each other…perhaps they all need to go on a Gilligan’s island style experience and so understand the importance of landscape, architecture and sanitation to quality of life!

    You are right the landscape strategies of Milton Keynes deserve greater publicity.

  26. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes, its a shame about the professions. But they also work together for common goals, as do politicians, doctors, most married couples and the army/navy/airforce.
    Remote sensing and, more generally, Geographical Information Systems (GIS), encourage people to work together, as did the famous Blue Marble.

  27. Christine

    The blue marble photographs are very beautiful. [ http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/features/blue_marble.html ]

    I can see from the satelite imaging of Mumbai that Dharavi is in a very desirable location within greater Mumbai. [ http://www.maplandia.com/india/maharashtra/greater-bombay/dharavi/ ] It seems to be already reasonably accessible to civic infrastructure such as schools (including the Don Bosco School and the Institute of Chemical Technology)hospitals, transport and parks.

  28. Tom Turner Post author

    At a minute scale, London once had a comparable problem in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The greenspace was occupied by squatters who slept under sheets of polythene. Eventually, the police cleared them away. They have the same problem in Tokyo public parks and for an inexplicable reason, let them be. Sadly, I am not in favour of public parks becoming squatter camps and then evolving into residential suburbs.


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