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RE-GROUNDING THE CHAWL

URBAN VILLAGE IN MUMBAI, INDIA

My thesis project is about creating radically better social housing in Mumbai that will reimagine the ground to create better social + public + green and recreation spaces. I believe that a good housing project happens at the community scale. There is a role for envisioning better social, low income housing for Mumbai. We need to respond to the city’s growing densification & demand for housing.

The aim of my thesis is to spark a conversation about the future of affordable housing development in Mumbai.

PREFACE

Mumbai is India’s biggest absorber of distress migration, with almost half of its population coming from other parts of India. Mumbai continues to grow, attracting millions of migrants each year and landless laborers each year. The city was never expected to become the megacity it is today and, as a result, has been conceived by a series of planned and unplanned interventions within a diverse and multifaceted urban fabric. More than 55 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in informal settlements, and over 65 percent of its workfare is employed in the informal sector.

 

By the 1950’s, Mumbai (then Bombay) experienced an influx of migrants who came to work in the city’s many manufacturing and industrial sites. By the 1960’s, Bombay’s population grew to 4.5 million. It would grow to 9 million over the next 20 years. In the year 1991, India underwent economic liberalization, privatization and globalization. By opening India’s previously sealed markets, the country began to see a surge in foreign direct investments that altered the physical landscape of Mumbai. Mumbai’s IT boom of 1990’s transformed the city’s function from an industrial center to a post-industrial service hub. This led to another surge of migration to the city, resulting in a dramatic rise in informal settlements through the city, and a subsequent growth to the informal sector.

 

By the 1990’s, real estate became the biggest source of income for political parties. There was a need to free up urban land that could be sold on the open market. By 1995, many of the urban poor in the city found shelter in the ‘interstitial spaces’ within the city. These spaces were stretches of land near beaches, alongside railway tracks or on the side of roads, next to high-end residential towers; two completely different income groups cohabit the same urban space. The emergence of the new ‘Privatopias’ or gated communities in Mumbai to wall out, represented the state’s attitude towards the urban poor.

Mumbai can still have a better future. Several physical as well as political adjustments, if implemented, could greatly minimize much of the city’s drawbacks, and improve the quality of life for all of its citizens. There is an urgent need, to look Mumbai in its larger context. While there is definitely a need to increase Mumbai’s absorptive capacity, enormous opportunities exist in making better use of Mumbai’s current rapid urbanization.

 

While there are cues that Mumbai could take from other cities, it has many to offer itself. The growing informal settlements in the city (which is considered by many to be the city’s biggest urban problem) are a wonderful example of unplanned, intensive mixed-used development that are taking place throughput the city. The most relateable example here is Dharavi. While it is widely known to be Asia’s biggest slum, the informal settlement has a recorded 600,000+ residents living within it. Dharavi is not just a collection of substandard, unplanned housing, but rather of dense vibrant community. Industries are intrinsically knitted into its residential fabric. It is estimated that these smaller scale industries run by the residents of the informal community generate goods worth in excess of USD 500 million. In this sense then, Dharavi is no longer a ‘slum’ and far from the city’s biggest urban problem. Rather it is a significant contributor to the city’s commerce and employment.

 

It is also easy to forget that Mumbai is actually one of the few cities in the developing world who’s growth was structured around public transportation. In Mumbai, the public trains have played a vital role in facilitating growth and opening up urban land in the city. Close to 35% of Mumbai’s population relies on this public transportation today. While over 55% walk or cycle to work. With 29 cars per 1000 residents, the city also has the lowest car ownership rates.

There is an opportunity here to make the city sustainable in the future.

A CONVERSATION

We need to respond to the growing densification of Mumbai and create affordable habitable spaces of high environmental quality. The deficit of affordable housing in Mumbai has received a fair amount of attention by current and preceding governments.