Welcome to MG Road

Walking on Mahatma Gandhi Road seemed like being part of a big never ending real time movie. This is the heart of Dharavi, the heart of Mumbai! My nose was filed with a mix of smells of samosa, chai – and lots of dust.

Along the road you can buy everything you can think of. At the end of this inspiring road, I found URBZ’s office. On the second floor of this office that doesn’t really feel like an “office”, a little team of passionate people and visitors are exchanging visions and ideas on how to engage with the neighbourhood in a meaningful way, and how turn the kids into actors in the future of Dharavi.

A little further down the road is the Dharavi Shelter. It didn’t take me more than a couple of hours to fall in love with the kids I met there. The light and spirit, the happiness in their faces, even though they live in a place called Asia’s biggest slum.

I just came to take photos and learn from Dharavi, but soon enough I was offered to conduct a workshop with the kids with the help of Himanshu and others at URBZ. We divided the kids into groups of 3 and gave them a camera. They showed us their Dharavi. They took us to places we would never have found on our own. This is a selection of the photos they toke.

It was a great experience but also way too short. Really hoping to be back in Summer and do this for a longer time. Like a week’s workshop. This is India, I think it will happen.

Lasse Bak Mejlvang, a freelance photographer from Denmark, conducted a day long photo workshop at the Dharavi Shelter and authored this blog post. All photos (except the third one) were taken by children attending the workshop. More photos here and here.

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INCREASING OPEN SPACE IN NEW TRANSIT CAMP

by Valeria, Serena, Daniela (interns at URBZ Sept 2010)


We are writing our second blogpost after having come back from Dharavi and started to work on our final thesis project in architecture at the Polytechnic in Turin, Italy.

While in Dharavi, we worked on a project for improving the URBZ office’s roof (see our other post, “A roof in Dharavi”). It was a fun project, and we got to explore Dharavi looking for low-cost materials and building techniques.

What’s more, it got us to look closely at roofs in Dharavi – especially in New Transit Camp – and the role they play in the district’s daily life. Most roofs are made of asbestos sheets, and they slope on one or two sides, probably to make the monsoon rains go away faster, but very gently, in order not to waste too much space vertically. Inside, there is nothing between the asbestos and the room, making it dangerous for people’s health because of the particles that surely spread into the air they breathe. That is the main issue we tried to solve in the office  when we put up (a part of) a false ceiling made of pallet racks and plywood.

But the most interesting thing we found out while looking at those roofs is something related to the actual life-rhythms of the district. We found that they are more than simple coverings to protect the house from rain and sun: they are surfaces to walk, play, sleep and work on.

One thing that immediately catches the eye is that the “roof-dwellers” are male, usually kids or youth . That is easily explainable: the access to roofs is not so easy, and it usually happens through small windows from which grill-boxes have been torn out or simply bent.  This assures that only very agile individuals can go there: namely boys – while girls are probably  prevented by social factors. What’s more, the surface is neither safe nor suited for walking on.

But what do they do up there? And why do they do choose to go up there?

The answer to the first question is in the pictures we showed. We saw somebody flying kites, somebody chatting, somebody charging his phone through the wires that run in bundles over the houses, somebody storing various objects and materials, somebody eating, somebody sleeping. But the two questions are actually intertwined. Because the reason they go there is dependant on what they can do there, and vice versa.

In the chaotic, overcrowded and over dynamic environment of Dharavi, space is the main resource. To cite one data –though as all data it is actually pretty meaningless in such a complex pattern – in Dharavi there is a mean ratio of 0,2 square meters of open space /person, while the international standard is of 12. This can give an idea of how cramped everything is, especially if we consider that most of the daily routine is spent in the street, or in the interstitial spaces between the houses. Every inch of space has its use and is exploited to its fullest.

It is obvious, then, that the roofs are experienced as a refuge space by those who can profit from them; for instance, since space to fly kites is very scarce on street level, and cars make it even dangerous, children prefer to climb onto the roofs where they have a certain quantity of open space all to themselves.

Starting from these considerations, we began to put down the main points of a project that we are now developing for our thesis: implementing the quantity of open space by building some sort of walkable-on platforms on the roofs.

To do this in a realistic way, we first had to fully understand a number of issues.

First of all, who is to build these platforms? The inhabitant? The Municipality? We decided to imagine  involving both those actors, thinking of the process in the way that Urbz usually does: somebody thinks of something and starts it, then if it’s good and it works, it is most probable that others will follow his example and that “something” will spread out, more or less quickly. So, we thought, imagining a scenario in which the Municipality decides not to go through with the DRP, it would build the first platforms over a number of houses and then look as other dwellers build them for themselves, over their own houses.

This decided, there was the problem of incentive to consider. Probably just having an additional surface would be enough for dwellers to want to have those platforms, but a further prod would make them even more willing. So it could be that the Municipality lifts the prohibition to expand houses just for those who wish to build the platforms. In this way, people would have the permission to expand vertically (limiting the expansion to maybe 1,6 meters so that additional space can be used for a number of functions but not for renting out to another family; in this way density doesn’t’ grow).

We then came up with two alternative schemes, which we present here.

x
Click to enlarge

In the first hypothesis, the initial platforms built by the Municipality are a kind of neighborhood space, as they serve a certain amount of houses for a certain amount of semi-private purposes, like manufacturing, hanging clothes, etc, while the actual owner of the house has the advantage that his house received an additional loft space beneath the platform. As the building of the platforms spreads, more and more houses have them and the ratio of open space grows. At his point, it can go either way: if the platforms have assumed a private use, meaning that each household tends to use their own and not go onto the others, the process can stop here. If, on the other hand (and we think it would happen this way), the platforms are used more “publicly”, as walkways, as selling points for hawkers, as markets, then the Municipality would decide to come back and install safe passageways between one and the other (Step III).

In the other hypothesis, the platforms are immediately seen as more “public”, as a public street on which hawkers can install their stands and manufacturing can find more space, and so on.

We then tried to imagine these platforms as a physical element in their different, possible conformations.

Of course, we are aware that given the permission to expand vertically, a lot of people wouldn’t miss the opportunity to build an additional floor beneath the platform in order to rent it out and have an income. Since our goal is simply to increase open space per capita, even if let’s say one more floor every two houses is built, the ratio still changes in our favor.

Of course, we are aware that our project would change the dynamics of the use of roofs: roofs are currently used as a refuge from the hyperactive streescape of Dharavi. Our project would strip them of this characteristic, as it most probably would happen that all the activities that are now cramped on street level would expand on the platforms and take them over. On one side, then, our project implies the loss of one fascinating aspect of Dharavi. On the other side, though, it also gives people the opportunity to shape that additional space themselves. In this way they are given the chance to use it as a refuge space if they want so, or to exploit it more thoroughly for economical reasons.

Briefly, we think this project might have a point of strenght in just that: providing dwellers with a sort of virgin space (two virgin spaces, if we count the loft) that they can adapt to their most urgent needs, while as things are now roofs are used in a certain way because it is the only way they can be used.

We are of course hoping that this post will receive a lot of critiques and comments, so that we can profit from the discussion and make this project better and more realistic. Till next time,

Valeria, Serena, Daniela are master students in architecture at the Polytechnic in Turin, Italy

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Learning from Dharavi… one house at the time

Our  time spent in Mumbai  is already over… it went so fast! Here is some of the output.

We worked on the URBZ building, measured each floor and drew the entire structure. We have to thank Rahul, Matias, Himanshu, Venkatesh, Bhau who have helped us during these  three weeks.

We produced a simple architectural board to show the initial stages of our work. We have given a print of it to each family living and working in the building and one will be kept in the URBZ Office.

On  Saturday 9th October, we had the chance to present our study in Dharavi in front of 50 architects from White Arkitekter AB who were visiting from Sweden. There was also a great exhibition of pictures taken by children from New Transit Camp (where the URBZ office is located).

9th october presentation

On the board we have tried to show, in a very simple way, how the building is structured:

-              Ground floor: two shops and a flat on two levels

-              Second floor: three flats

-              Third floor: one flat and the URBZ office

16 people live here (plus someone who sometimes sleeps in the URBZ Office).

Initially, it was difficult to get people’s trust and visit their homes. Little by little we got to know each other and we started understanding the way people live here. Architecturally, each space is pretty small (8 to 18 m2) and the facilities are basic.

This building is on the main road in the New Transit Camp neighborhood, Mahatma Gandhi Road. This road is intersected by  small lanes. This is the only part of Dharavi which has a gridded layout, since it was once a planned transit camp. The lanes are 1 to 3 meters wide on the ground. The upper floors of the buildings often touch each other as they eat up every available space. Consequently, the lanes often lack  light and ventilation.

The water is usually stored in tanks (from 250 to 500 liters) that people keep over the bathroom space. In the ground floor apartment  the tank is positioned in the small lane next to the house. In that same lane there is a pump, which is hand-operated by the owner once a day for one hour, early in the morning. It fills up the tanks in each flat. Water is included in the rent.

People use this water for drinking, washing, cleaning and cooking. All toilets  are located on the right-hand side of the building in order to get access to the pipes which bring fresh water and evacuate used water.

Water comes from municipal pipes, which run on the side of the streets. One of the main issue in Mumbai (not only in Dharavi!) is that these pipes often run next to the sewer, which is an obvious concern about contamination.


Water tank in the URBZ office (the toilets were built in one day).

water pump
Water pump.

Each house has electricity and each blocks on the lane has an electricity meter to which all the cables are connected. This comes from the New Transit Camp initial infrastructure, which was provided along with one story high houses). These were first converted into permanent living spaces and then developed into working spaces. The neighbourhood now has buildings up to four stories high.

cables

We have also discovered that TV cables and Internet connections (when they exist) are not just flying loose in the intricate web of cables stretching from building to building. They all end up in a control room located on 90 Feet Road. All the cables converge to the top floor of a tower building where they are controlled.

After spending time talking to people and trying to understand the way they live (thanks to our interpreter and friend Venkatesh), we have discovered a complex set of relations that gives lives over here some qualitative aspect that are usually difficult to find in such a big city.

Each person knows their neighbor well, the doors are always open when someone is inside, the outside space is a natural extension of the “private space”, the small lanes and the street are public spaces in which relationship are created, maintained and consolidated over time. A village/community lives in each of these buildings!

Would all this be possible in the 20-25 story building proposed by the Dharavi Redevelopment Project?

People here are asking for innovative solutions that can respond to their basic needs : cheap and good construction materials, minimum living spaces, privacy and spaces that allow relationships to continue to be strengthened.

Are we, trained architects able to design responses to these needs without destroying these neighborhood?

Miriam Bodino and Fabio Colucci

Pictures of our survey of New Transit Camp:

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landing in Dharavi (and trying to figure things out)

street shopsThis is Miriam and Fabio, architectural students at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy. We have landed  in Mumbai, more specifically in New Transit Camp, one of the many neighbourhoods of Dharavi.

We will spend almost two months in India, the first one in Mumbai and the second one in Bangalore researching architectural materials, usages and techniques.

As Europeans landing in Mumbai, we experienced culture shock immediately! The research started with  direct exposure to a totally different culture, languages, religions, ways of living, eating… Walking through Dharavi, entering in people’s houses and feeling foreign to everything around is a very special experience.

With URBZ we are in the process of analyzing an incrementally developed structure in Dharavi. We are mapping it in detail and  trying to understand – for instance- how water reaches the second floor, how electricity is distributed, which construction materials are used and how the building was developed and changed through time.

building sketch

It seems that all we will need is a few simple tools and lots of goodwill. Actually, we have been here for days. We don’t speak Hindi or Marathi (most of the people here don’t  speak English) and is not so simple to enter someone’s house asking questions about their life and home, measuring the small rooms in which they are living and working. That’s why we are starting with the building where URBZ’s office is located. We have been introduced to the neighbours who, although they don’t always understand what we are up to, are very welcoming.

The type of approaches we are used to can’t work over here. We are right now  simply presenting ourselves and our experiences, hoping that the people we talk to reciprocate. We have already learned so much and we are sure that at the end of this experience we will come back with much more.

We have illustrated this post with some of the drawings we are currently producing. This is the 3 storey building where the URBZ office is located.

Miriam Bodino and Fabio Colucci

first measuring notes

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The Shelter at Dharavi: Documenting Transformations

The following text is a documentation of a neighbourhood in Dharavi, closely connected to URBZ, that has taken steps to nurture its local youth by providing them with a creative space and the tools to learn a variety of invaluable life-long skills. This contribution will briefly showcase the inception of the Shelter at Dharavi, the processes that formed the backbone of its vision, and the children who have embraced the project’s outputs and are beginning to take advantage of the new activities available to them.

The Project’s Inception

The Shelter at Dharavi came into being through a locally-based initiative that was aimed at embracing the children living in New Transit Camp, Social Nagar. A local resident who had been active in the community felt that a particular element was missing; a space for youth to congregate, exchange ideas, create art, play, and learn. His idea was to create a new centre that would be accessible to the community’s youth. The centre would not only provide a space to meet but also a number of organized activities that local children would otherwise not have access to.

Through this grassroots process, the Shelter began to take its root. As the ideas and plans for the centre matured, a decision to construct a building on a recently inherited local plot was made. The local resident who took on the leadership role chose to approach URBZ, asking them to participate and assist local residents in the construction and realisation of their vision. This partnership was welcomed and the subsequent construction of the Shelter as well as the organization of the activities took on a collaborative and participatory methodology.

Soon after the creation of this partnership the Shelter wasted no time in quickly establishing itself as a community hub. A simple building was constructed and soon thereafter the local youth began to fill it. Several volunteers began to work with the Shelter, providing local children with art lessons and other fun afterschool activities. Throughout this time the children and their parents were consulted on what types of programs they would like to see at the Shelter. The results of this simple consultation process called for a fun publicity event, which would soon give way to a great deal of interest in the Shelter from both local residents and individuals from outside of Dharavi. The publicized event would take place over two days and would fittingly be called, Dharavi 48.

The Dharavi 48 Event

Dharavi 48 sparked a great deal of interest from surrounding communities and a number of individuals from outside of Dharavi. Organizers were excited to see an incredible response to the event, as the venue where it was hosted was bursting at the seams. The event showcased the artwork that had been created by local children and also drew upon a number of well-known artists based in Mumbai.

There were also a number of fun activities for all to take part in. Over the course of two days, organizers took participants back and forth from the newly constructed Shelter building and the local community hall, where the larger activities were taking place. Activities ranged from arts & crafts workshops to a lesson and performance by one of Mumbai’s foremost Capoeira experts (traditional Brazilian martial art/dance).

The local children were quite literally able to make their mark on their new centre as exciting painting activities took over the walls of the Shelter.

The event was a great opportunity for us to reach out to more people that came to learn about the Shelter, but most importantly for the children and residents to engage in a 2 day art event that brought people from outside to step into Dharavi for the first time and learn what this place is really about; a place where ambitions are strong, and aspirations are high, where children have an incredible energy and a capacity to learn and swallow the world if given the opportunity, where the world’s future artists and creative minds exist, where people have the will, the strength and heart to make things change for the better by themselves.

It is a place that needs to be legitimized so that people can synergize all their positive energy into working towards their future rather than battling against a system by which they are deemed illegal, by a system that doesn’t collaborate with the residents to understand who they really are, by a system that wants to use a ‘tabula rasa’ approach and force them all to start from zero all over again.

Current Activities

Since the Dharavi 48 event some of the more specialized activities that were to be offered at the Shelter have gained realization. Organizers from the Shelter were approached by individuals who were interested in continuing the highly inspirational Capoeira activities that captivated so many people during Dharavi 48. Another participant from the event came forward with a prop0sal for a formal photography class. Both of these proposals formed the first core set of activities that would be offered at the Shelter.

Photography Classes

Children are currently taking part in photography classes organized by photographer and instructor Alex Copley. The classes, which are run on Wednesday and Sunday each week, will take the children through the fundamentals of photography, teaching them the basics of light, composition, and colour. At current the classes are provided using five donated 35mm film cameras.

The children are split into groups, of which there is one camera for them to use.

Capoeira Classes

The classes in Capoeira teach children agility, respect, and self-control, all within an exhilarating environment of group energy, music, and dance.

The classes are lead by Mumbai’s own Reza Masaah, a renowned expert who offers high-level classes throughout the city. Children decend on the Community Hall every Sunday morning to take part in the classes.

Other Activities

The Shelter is currently open everyday from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, and later during the activities offered on Wednesday and Sunday. Throughout the week, the Shelter is staffed by a local woman who takes the kids through physical fitness exercises and other fun activities, such as arts & crafts and games.

Several activities are currently in the early stages of development; dance classes, formal english lessons, yoga, and further art classes.

Moving Forward

Our vision is to use art as powerful medium for expression, unity, sharing, and unlocking the community youth’s intuitive and creative impulses. We are working towards creating a safe and nurturing platform to free children to think and dream and sense.

Our mission is to continue to facilitate the development of creative initiatives in this space and collaborate in the connections of people to places – in this case a vibrant neighbourhood that is currently being planned without its residents’ participation.

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