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Slumdog Urbanism

The following was cross-posted at

Slum India
Photo credit: Development Planning Unit University College London

“Contested Urbanism in Dharavi: Writings and Projects for the Resilient City” is a fascinating look at how some of India’s – perhaps the world’s – poorest urban residents seem to be successfully resisting the powerful political and financial interests that would like to raze their neighborhood, scatter its residents, and replace both with shining new buildings dedicated to the work and play of India’s richer classes.

Over one million people live in Dharavi, a roughly one square mile (239 hectare) slum nestled along a curve in Mumbai’s southern peninsula. As the setting for much of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” Dharavi is perhaps the most famous slum in the world—a hot entertainment property. “The crowded colourful buildings, open sewers, recycling workshops and alleyways teeming with smiling industrious people have become iconic images representing poor and dispossessed urban communities everywhere,” writes Peter Kellet in an introductory essay. But it’s also literally “hot property”–an expanse of under-developed real estate in one of the most dynamic cities in the global South, seen as an eyesore and impediment, by officials and developers, to Mumbai’s ascension into the ranks of the global financial elite.

“Contested Urbanism” documents in words and images the work of UK architecture students and faculty who visited Dharavi twice over three years in the late 2000s. They met and engaged with the residents of Dharavi and developed ideas for a more bottom-up form of development that would improve the neighborhood’s ramshackle conditions and services, while integrating rather than excluding the residents into visions of the area’s future. The book does not tell Dharavi’s story in a typical narrative arc—there’s no real end to the story. Rather, it is a compilation of essays, photographs, charts, and other design images that seek to fundamentally alter how planners and designers identify, define, and explore the potential of a slum for re-development and transformation – as if the people already there really matter.

Dharavi becomes the symbol of informal urbanism in how inhabitants of seemingly low resources generate solutions regarding housing and businesses

“Dharavi becomes the symbol of informal urbanism in how inhabitants of seemingly low resources generate solutions for the demands regarding housing and businesses,” writes urban design professor Camillo Boano, one of the book’s primary authors. “The resilient nature of Dharavi, with its archipelago of different activist and social institutions acting as a precedent for reconsidering all we previously understood about development, from the notions of home-based enterprise to the scale and reach of informal economies, exudes a reality of how the underprivileged facts of society plan, negotiate, and combat a superimposed exogenous plan.”

Among the textual tools that resilience activists and planners may find useful, there is a multi-part definition of “contested urbanism” that identifies the web of social, political, cultural, and class tensions that come into play in many development situations. There is also some discussion of a potentially potent notion, “the right to the city,” attributed to social theorist Henry Lefebvre, described by Boano and his colleagues as “a claim for the recognition of the urban as the (re)producer of social relations of power, and the right of all citadins to participate in the process of production in the city where they reside…more of an oppositional demand, challenging claims of the rich and powerful and the abstract space that facilitates the reproduction of capital.”

Heady stuff, although perhaps we’re more ready and able to comprehend it in the trailing trash-clogged wake of the Great Recession and Superstorm Sandy, and the brief spark of Occupy Wall Street.

Photo: “Dhavari: A Case of Contested Urbanism” by dpu-ucl, 2009

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