Creating empathy for worlds that are not one’s own has been anthropology’s biggest challenge and constant aspiration. With roots in colonial and imperial structures, the discipline’s self-reflexive journey towards becoming a tool for cultural translation inspires our urban practice. Exploring new cultures and neighbourhoods, becoming immersed in local ways of doing — and comparing lifestyles across diverse contexts in a value-neutral way — is our essential methodology.
Founded in 2008, urbz was born from the idea that residents are experts on their neighbourhoods, and that everyday experiences constitute vital knowledge for architecture, planning, urban development and policy-making. This is why we also embrace a participatory approach, one that allows us to expand our urban visions by absorbing very particular architectural and design expressions. More importantly, it helps us identify and collaborate with local actors involved in construction and in the life of the street on their own terms. Given the centrality of “the field” and commitment to “participant observation,” anthropological methods sit comfortably in this process, where each neighbourhood becomes its own universe, at once connected to others and independent, full of possibilities, teeming with the energy of its inhabitants.
The starting point for our practice was Dharavi, a bustling, dense, unplanned neighbourhood in Mumbai. Dharavi showcases what happens when there is no planner, architect or engineer calling the shots. Its contours are shaped around communities and daily activities. Its inhabitants are highly engaged and practice their agency every day, generating livelihoods and managing civic problems.
Neighbourhoods boast inner lives shaped by the people who live in them and by their physical and socio-economic conditions. Each place has its own personality. It’s key to us to understand the specific dynamics at work — cultural influences, local histories and, in the case of India, the realities of caste — and local practices and conventions, before we engage with it. Any intervention on our part means taking the local people along as partners.
Many of Dharavi’s inhabitants hail from communities formally labelled “marginal” through legal categories such as “Scheduled” or “Backward.” In their new locale, they have established a fishing village (Koliwada), an artisanal colony made up of lower-caste migrants (Kumbharwada) and intricate manufacturing networks with migrant labourers who maintain connections to their home villages all over. They have transformed the neighbourhood into a major economic hub, with a strong and robust presence in the leather industry, pottery, recycling, clothes and food-processing.
Our office has worked with Dharavi’s residents at different scales: from marginally improving their lives — by designing the smallest details of a house, like staircases, mezzanines and even stalls for street vendors — to undertaking major architectural projects and neighbourhood plans. In 2010, for example, urbz collaborated with the community to replace an asbestos-filled roof at the Dharavi shelter with more efficient Poly Al sheets. Four years later, artist Melanie Gritzka del Villar led an art workshop with local children there, with the group of participants growing organically to include siblings, parents and teachers. We work with self-taught building contractors who make houses on a footprint of 10 by 15 square feet as well as large community structures.
Dharavi demonstrates that all the things that go into the making of a strong neighbourhood are obvious: Mixed-use, high-density, low-rise development works in a diverse set of contexts and incremental improvement of streets and homes (as they grow in layers over a period of time) can create successful communities in a modern urban fabric.
Centralized, top-down planning, however, is chronically short-sighted, to say the least. In Mumbai, it typically transforms the physical appearance of neighbourhoods like Dharavi with mass-produced high-rise tenements that break up intricate networks of social and economic arrangements. Is it possible to evolve a modern language of urban intervention that does not do this? Can we work in urban contexts in a way that is culturally sensitive to the legacy of those who make them? Not just in terms of ethnic history but also in the variegated physicality that is expressed in the homes, streets and unique structures that residents bring into being as responses to their specific social and economic needs? We attempt to do precisely this through our continued work in the neighbourhood – work that increasingly acknowledges the significance of using an anthropological lens and committing to processes of participatory planning in the deepest of ways.
The word sangam means a coming together, a merging, and gully refers to a street. Sangam Gully, then, literally translates to “Convergence Street.” It is a dense and narrow lane of shops in the middle of Dharavi that bustles with people. They pass through all day and often late into the night as well. urbz has been documenting the communities that live there, their housing typologies and the spatial interactions on the street for more than a year now.
Our ongoing project aims to become part of the street’s evolution. Whatever initiatives we implement here are to be based on existing local typologies and practices and should work with the collaborative energy of local contractors, artisans and the users themselves. We envision an entire streetscape of homes, work-spaces and tool-houses (our term for homes that double up as economic units). These are open to a diverse set of design interventions made primarily by local contractors from the city.
We are specifically working on 16 structures that range in functionality from residences to workshops and tool-houses. The project invites contractors from all over Mumbai to collaborate on designs by working closely with residents, architects and artisans.
The process unfolds in two phases. In the first (under progress) we will select 20 contractors based on their motivation to participate and their past experience in construction. In the second phase, we will assign each construction manager a house to build along with a brief detailing the building’s functions and the future owners’ requirements. Since many of them work directly on-site without the use of graphics or drawings, the urbz team will provide them with technical support. Local artisans will then create models of the homes to further articulate their design.
The project primarily values collaborations among residents (or building owners), contractors and artisans. The contractors play a vital role by building on their intuition and vast experience to produce constructive and valuable results. And the residents are excited: They have expressed to us that they would like to see the designs that they have evolved through this participatory process with their contractors realized as soon as possible. The departure point is the recognition of the role of local actors in the production of their own habitats.
The project looks at how houses are built and imagined by artisans, who, day after day, build thousands of tiny houses that accommodate the multitude of low-wage workers that sustain the city’s service and manufacturing sectors. They represent a process in which a vast majority of inhabitants raise small amounts of capital from their familial and community networks to finance a local economy of incrementally growing construction projects.
Such spaces are often populated by self-taught experts and professionals who have emerged from a practice-based and experience-rich context of learning. But at urbz, we put preconceptions aside and use an ethnographic lens: Rather than see this grassroots development in opposition to certified practices, or through polarized narratives that get trapped in euphemisms of the formal and the informal, urbz considers them part of a common space of dialogue and collaboration. It’s a collaboration that sees the neighbourhood through the eyes and experiences of those who belong to it.
Viewed from afar, Dharavi is a slum at worst or an informal settlment at best. However, from the point of view of its inhabitants, it is a home, a refuge from harsh realities of previous lives, and a genuine source of economic security. It is a place that is constantly striving to improve itself.
Each resident wants to make an intervention to their home, each shop keeper wants to build on their existing store to create more efficiency or comfort, each commuter wants an easier and more secure walk through the street. Any urban practitioner must first and foremost respond to these desires of inhabitants and work with actors that are already doing so. An urban practice must have faith in the agency that people bring to the places they live in – and recognize that they have always done this. Architects, planners or designers need to validate the world of place-making outside the boundaries of their specializations. Perhaps even accept that there are times when collaboration is more effective, rewarding and practical than master-minding the results.
In his 1996 essay, “The Production of Locality,” anthropologist Arjun Appadurai pays a valuable tribute to agency and user-generated practices that can be a big source of inspiration to like-minded practitioners. He points out that a locality emerges when its inhabitants spontaneously engage in producing it. Most human societies live and operate from a sense of locality which they are themselves embedded in. Locality corresponds to a process, existing in a state of production — while neighbourhoods are tangible expressions of this process. Such a perspective potentially locates the tangible and intangible elements of place-making in the hands of the resident/inhabitant.
Appadurai also notes that neighbourhoods typically express an awareness of other places – neighbours – who/which exist around it. They may not be physically marked off from each other, but they are embedded in networks and connections that go beyond their location. A small shirt-making shop in a Delhi slum is at once connected to the village where its workers come from (and periodically return to) and the retailer who sells its goods in Nairobi or Istanbul. These are all varied expressions of scale, with real power dynamics and concrete expressions and institutional arrangements of their own. They all constitute the concreteness of our lived local reality.
Locality as an organizing principle makes it possible for practitioners working at all scales — regional, national or global — to privilege the local as the prime context. Even as modern societies are increasingly being conceived as large-scale, abstract arrangements — that have been further scaled up by technology and modes of mass production — it is important to evoke specificities of place within those generalizations. There is always a world of multiple and networked localities that exists everywhere.
Rather than conceive of urban practice as one that must respond to the large scale of modern cities in terms of an expanded physicality, we should consider instead relating to the “field” of our practice using an anthropological lens. A lens that allows us to retain the scale of locality in multiple contexts and work with each, one at a time. More importantly, to do this by appreciating the main actors that make neighbourhoods and value their acts by working with them.
Post-war Tokyo saw entire districts develop incrementally, to become part of the modern city. Even as recently as the 1990s, small, unincorporated contractors who had inherited traditional construction practices — preserved through apprenticeship and guild systems for centuries — constructed as many new buildings as did Japan’s large corporations. But when regulations that favoured big builders were introduced, artisanal-scale construction began to decline.
While industrialized construction has helped raise standards in many ways, much has been lost too. One of the principal causalities of modern regulatory regimes are end-users, who went from being co-creators of their dwellings to passive consumers of mass-produced living spaces. In Tokyo and across much of the world, the relationship between dwellers and local building experts has been severed, along with an understanding of the dwellers’ needs and means. Today, a good majority of urbanites live in spaces where the ability to produce their localities and its neighbourhoods is not recognized. Sometimes it is even penalized. This lack of validation reduces their power and ability to become a creative force of transformation.
On top of that, their homes are burdened with labels such as slums, shanties and informal settlements that reflect historical prejudices towards their habitats and identities. Typically, what gets sold as the only way ahead are wholesale makeovers and redevelopment projects. Sure enough, there are ongoing discussions about the “redevelopment” of Dharavi, with plans to turn the low-rise, high-density, mixed-use neighbourhood into high-rise mass-houses, composed of units as small as 18 square metres. These initiatives are often slow, bureaucratically mired in red tape, and financially strapped. When they do get realized, they produce mediocre structures and neighbourhoods with few economic opportunities available for residents.
What does the Sangam Gully project represent in such a scenario?
It makes a case for a proactive way ahead that relies on resources that exist within the neighbourhood. It highlights the skills and knowledge of local builders and artisans. It tells the story of individuals who have learned to carve a space for themselves by creatively appropriating and humanizing the process of making their home.
From Dharavi, it sends signals of solidarity to a pedreiro — a local mason — who takes pride in his latest home, built together with a client in a favela, in São Paulo. It nods in approval to the owner of a tiny house in Tokyo, fixing his deck with material bought from around the corner. It sees them as self-aware partners and collaborators in the production of localities.
Unfortunately, these efforts do not count in the dominant world of construction, architecture and planning. Those practices continue to embrace industrial technologies that keep building faster, cheaper, and bigger, facilitated by matching scales of finance. They are part of the logic that is constantly trying to take over neighbourhoods like Dharavi through “redevelopment.” Within its frenzied logic there is no place for local, small scale, artisanal construction. It’s a real pity: There is no good reason to believe that these systems are opposed or necessarily doomed not to coexist.
Tokyo’s post-war example is a good reminder that we can bring together different, maybe even opposing, ways of doing things. There is no reason today to believe that a singular urban spatial logic should be made into a norm. There are various kinds of economies, modes in which people produce neighbourhoods, ways in which livelihoods are arranged.
Using an ethnographic lens uncoloured by preconceived judgements of what cities should be opens a broader scope of urban possibilities. These do not necessarily challenge modern, technologically advanced forms — and can in fact work with them if allowed to do so.
Neighbourhoods and communities stumble or fall not because of a want in them – but because the world outside does not validate their agency. The cheapness of labour that resides within the neighbourhood may be valued and exploited, the economic profit that its industries generates can be celebrated, but its capacity to transform the neighbourhood from within is never given proper due.
This happens, or fails to happen, because we conceive of urban spaces and their urban practices in the narrowest of ways. There are many ways we can approach this with a more nuanced perspective. Anthropology is one useful tool to use — and there are others.
Our experiences of working in Dharavi convinces us of this. The neighbourhood is enmeshed in the economic dynamics of the city. Its artisanal resources are enormous. Its ability to improve its physical context is demonstrated every day in the work of the hundreds of contractors and builders and home makers and inhabitants who work together all the time, house by house, structure by structure, street by street.
Rahul Srivastava studied Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, and Matias Echanove studied Urban Planning at Columbia. They set up urbz in 2008 in Dharavi, Mumbai. They have worked on several design, architectural, planning, research and policy related projects in the neighbourhood and city. Learnings from Dharavi have helped them engage with urban issues in São Paulo, Tokyo and Seoul. Today their offices operate from Mumbai, Geneva and Bogota.
Urbz founders Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove reflect on community-driven placemaking in the Indian metropolis.