Back to the Future
Like Turner, we believe that decision-making and initiatives on housing-related issues are better dealt with at the local level. In what we call “homegrown neighborhoods,” users and construction workers are often neighbors. This proximity does something that is seldom acknowledged: It increases the agency of the end-user, and along with it, her sense of identity and attachment to the place where she lives. It also keeps precious resources within the area, distributing jobs and salaries locally. Finally, it reduces the cost and increases the quality of housing. This is because local contractors rely on their reputation within the neighborhood to get more jobs. They cannot afford to break their oral contract with their client and neighbor.
Our contention is that only by working within the existing fabric and with local actors can urbanists, architects, engineers and policy makers contribute meaningfully to ongoing user-led improvement in homegrown neighborhoods. This is why we have just started a new project called “Homegrown Cities” that aims to demonstrate that an alternative to “redevelopment” is possible. We want to combine our observations with relevant aspects of Turner-inspired schemes and adapt them to the contemporary context of Mumbai.
This project will start in Bhandup, a hillside “homegrown neighborhood” located in the northeastern suburbs of Mumbai, where we have been active for a few years documenting local building techniques and contributing to the construction of a Hindu temple. From above, Bhandup looks a lot like a Rio favela. Within, it has the same vibrancy and similar issues – the biggest of all being prejudice from the middle-classes and the administration. This neighborhood is typically low-rise, high-density and pedestrian. It is also mixed-use, hosting a great variety of businesses within its residential fabric.
Each time we visit the area we see new houses being built by local masons and residents. Most of them are one or two stories high on a 150-to-200-square-foot surface. Bhandup residents have access to water, and electricity is available to each house. Most people have television and cell phones. No one there is dying of hunger, and there are no beggars. What this neighborhood needs most is to be recognized as a viable model of urbanization – not as a slum. Our intention is to support the efforts of its residents and local builders.
Our long-term aim is to help improve construction techniques and promote the creation of a cooperative housing society that can take an active role in managing and planning the area. We also want to provide opportunities for cross-learning and technical collaboration between residents, local builders and professionals from outside. This is a long-term project, which will develop incrementally, along with the neighborhood.
Our departure point is modest and ambitious at once. We aim to building a house, together with its future users and local masons that we have known for some time. Once completed the house will be sold at the same price as any other small house in the area. Houses that are put on the market locally are usually sold within two months at most because there is an enormous demand for affordable housing in the city. This process will be repeated until we build a critical number of houses. Our intention is to innovate as we work, learn and deepen our relationship with the residents. One of our many ideas is the creation of a trust fund that would allow us to put houses on lease, so that even those with no access to capital can get access to housing. If successful, the model can be repeated in other places.
We do not intend to revolutionize the way construction is done in homegrown neighborhoods, and we certainly don’t want to impose a new process. The idea is to contribute to the incremental improvement that is happening already, and share our knowledge and network. This will help us highlight the good practices already existing, and show that there are alternatives to the wholesale redevelopment of unplanned and incrementally developing neighborhoods. We hope to be able to demonstrate that architects, planners and others can engage meaningfully in local processes, by respecting existing morphology, supporting the local economy and bringing in their skills and creativity.
While participatory schemes are multiplying all over the world, government-led participation planning often restricts the agency of end-users to the selection of a series of preselected options. Instead of treating them as voters and consumers, users should be seen as intelligent agents and producers of forms. Soft planning regulations encouraging users to be actors of development may help. This approach differs from 1970s experimentations in participatory planning, which according to some, was leading to poor design outcomes, resulting in giving a bad name to the approach. What it calls for is the recognition of the ways people are already participating in the formation of their habitats. And then uses these emerging forms and processes to engage with the area from a planning or architectural perspective.
Recognizing existing forms and communicating them to others requires the combined skills of ethnographers and designers. It also demands a capacity to establish links between parallel universes, such as for instance the neighborhood and the municipality. It must involve field- study, interaction with local actors, reporting, analysis, drawings, understanding of construction techniques and materials, land and space use, among other things. Most importantly, in order to grasp the relation between physical forms and social processes, one must engage with end-users and allow their expertise to informally lead the planning process. Similarly, the involvement of local actors in the construction process, such as craftsmen and masons, is essential – not only as laborers, but as active, thinking agents with a deep understanding of the ecology of the neighborhood.
Chavez, R., Viloria, J., Zipperer, M. (2000). Interview of John F.C.Turner, World Bank, Washington D.C.
World Bank Energy And Infrastructure Operations Division, South Asia Region. (1997). Implementation Completion Report India: Bombay Urban Development Project.
Rybczynski et al. (1984). How the Other Half Builds: Volume 1 – Space. Vastu Shilpa Foundation. Ahmedabad. Minimum Cost Housing Group Publication Series, McGill University, Montreal.
Bhatt (1990). How the Other Half Builds: Volume 3 - The Self-Selection Process. Vastu Shilpa Foundation. Ahmedabad. Minimum Cost Housing Group Publication Series, McGill University, Montreal.
McGuirk, J. (2011). PREVI: The Metabolist utopia, Domus, Milan
Alternative Law Forum (2011). Slum Policies, Part 3 of the Study. Bangalore.