Slums Are Good For Cities


In finding ways to deal with the crisis facing cities all over the world, we can learn a lot from the way poor migrants build their neighbourhoods.

One example of that can be seen in Dharavi, home to roughly 1 million of the 19 million people living in the Mumbai urban agglomeration. I first became interested in Dharavi during business trips to Mumbai, when I started exploring Dharavi’s informal economic life.

Between 1985 and 2000, with occasional but minimal government investment, the mega-slum transformed itself into a massive, globalised industrial economy in its own right. Now, on my visits to Dharavi, I am met with the executives of export-oriented companies founded by their destitute migrant fathers and grandfathers.

This place, I have realised, is a Rosetta Stone for understanding the workings of urban processes, free of imported ideas and plans, foreign capital, government regulation and investment schemes. Here in Dharavi, the basic logic of city building is laid bare.

But not everyone sees Dharavi that way. Certainly not the successful property developer Mukesh Mehta.

I met Mehta at a new four-star hotel not far from Dharavi. He pulled up in a sleek, black, chauffeured car, dressed in a smart jacket and flawlessly pressed shirt. He had returned to India from a career in New York some seven years earlier to make an impact on his country of origin. Rushing through introductory niceties while he took phone calls and made food orders, Mehta fired up an animated PowerPoint presentation that summarised his plan to redevelop Dharavi.

"Every person is entitled to the dignity of a secure shelter," it intoned, sounding like a declaration from a United Nations summit. He bemoaned Dharavi’s "subhuman conditions" and the stifling of the area’s "enterprising slum dwellers". After quoting Mahatma Gandhi, his presentation explained that the project would "retain existing families and businesses" and provide a "sustainable development master plan". It would take a "holistic approach" that was "integrated" into the larger master plan for Mumbai. "The needs of all the stakeholders," he said, would be considered to provide "economic upliftment and empowerment".

Hitting his crescendo, Mehta then showed how his plan would help transform Mumbai into "a new Shanghai". Dharavi, the erstwhile slum, would be converted "into a world-class cultural, knowledge, business and health care centre," the presentation claimed. It offered pictures of modern laboratories, museums, and performing arts centres to illustrate his vision of transforming Dharavi into "a premiere destination," making it part of "mainstream Mumbai".

At that point he took me through the details. The current migrant city would be razed and cleared. Households with an established residency in Dharavi would be provided with a free 225-square-foot, two-room apartment in a high-rise building near their current location. If people wanted more space, they could buy it at market rates. Sewer lines, drains, and private toilets as well as a safe electricity network would be installed. Recreational areas would be relocated and upgraded. Nonpolluting industries would be "rehabilitated", and polluting industries would be relocated to new manufacturing zones, many outside the area. To him, this plan was a humanitarian no-brainer and an urban development win-win solution. It would bring order, cleanliness, infrastructure and green spaces to replace the fetid, congested, unsanitary slum.

Wrapping up, Mehta invited me to support his efforts. And then he dropped the real news, still to be publicly announced: in a closed-door meeting, the chief minister of the state government had decided to implement his plan. He had confronted many nay-sayers — "vested interests" he called them — and there had been many others along the way who lacked the conviction to help him turn his vision for Dharavi into a "world-class" reality.

Dharavi, the bustling, disowned city-system of Mumbai, was to be dismantled, rearranged, and rebuilt into … a suburb. I was numbed by what I’d heard. How could someone like Mehta, who had observed Dharavi for so long, miss the most obvious fact about it: that the residential-industrial city-system was proving itself every day in the marketplace to be world class? It stood as probably the most successful, scaled poverty-reduction program in the history of international development. Within the Indian context, Dharavi’s migrant generations had developed an accessible, replicable city-system for the advancement of the country’s poor majority. It was a stunning example of Indian entrepreneurial ability and ambition.

With millions of poor households migrating to India’s cities each year, it seemed almost obvious that this migrant city system just needed to be accompanied by the same public investment in urban infrastructure offered to every other Mumbai city model and master-planned suburb, and replicated throughout the country.

But like so many brilliant examples of urbanism razed in the name of modernisation — like the livable, efficient hutong areas of Beijing or the famous West End district of Boston — Dharavi would be replaced rather than transformed by India’s modernisers. Mehta was speaking the language of transformation and charity, but his proposals for the new Dharavi suggested that he little understood the difference between a city-system and a master-planned district. The images of the "Slum-Free Dharavi" were a tailored version of one of the ascendant new city models for Mumbai’s growing middle classes — call it the Mumbai new suburb city — intermingled with crowded high-rise residential compounds, not unlike those that had been used to expropriate established African-American districts in the 1960s. Mehta’s project was the latest skirmish in the protracted low-intensity warfare between competing city-building approaches that makes Mumbai a city of chronic crisis.

Mumbai’s new suburb city model is a hybrid of the high-rise, mixed residential, office and retail complexes developed as a kind of plug-and-play solution for aspiring new edge city "downtowns" in North America, for railway station areas in continental Europe, and for master-planned districts of Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. For the city fathers of South Mumbai the new suburb city provides workable units of change, which plot by plot respond to the urgings of a commissioned McKinsey & Company report on how to become a "world-class city".

Why do it this way? Indian cities have centuries-old traditions of urbanism. Yet, as in most places, they are poorly understood. So like Kuala Lumpur, the cities’ elites "benchmark" themselves to elusive global standards, champion foreign city models, and abandon legacies rather than adapt them to today’s challenges.

Other options for Dharavi’s renewal are clearly available. The latest urbanist revivals of Europe, North America, and Latin America favour incremental redevelopment of deteriorated low-income areas to increase the equity of established residents and match their building investments with new public infrastructure and facilities. Rio de Janeiro leads the way. Having learned the futile folly of slum clearances and high-rise relocations in the 1960s–1970s, in the mid-1990s Rio started to convert its famed migrant city favelas into more stable, lawful, sanitary, mixed-use neighbourhoods, with minimal clearing and relocation. In the first phase they organised all of the city’s departments — planning, public works, and social services — into a single team that went to each favela to research, design, plan, and build new drainage, toilet and sewerage systems, roads, clinics and recreational centers in close working partnership with the communities. Then, in 2002, they steadily granted legal titles to the residents, household by household, in exchange for each household’s compliance with official building codes.

In Europe, planners learned the folly of ghetto clearance and master-planned urban renewal in the 1960s–1970s, so incremental renewal strategies are now common practice in dilapidated districts, including those dominated by low-income residents, immigrants, and informal enterprise.

In Lisbon, 60 per cent of recent building permits have been for this kind of incremental revitalisation. In North America, gentrification by students and low-paid professionals — a hybrid of the traditional phenomenon of ethnic succession in inner-city neighborhoods — is a common path to regeneration. New renters upgrade apartments and create new social amenities. They eventually become homeowners and establish small businesses. Building their urban association, they secure public investments to match their private ones. Housing subsidy programs can be instituted for low-income home purchases or rents to prevent the wholesale dislocation of established low-income residents.

Even in Asia, there is a history of city-building that offers an alternative to the clear-and-rebuild approach.

As we were meeting with Mukesh Mehta, urbanologist Matias Echanove was also exploring Dharavi, trying to learn its language. He concluded that Mumbai’s migrant city had remarkable similarities with, of all places, the development of modern Tokyo. After Toyko’s destruction in World War II, he explains, the city rapidly recovered by melding two traditions of city-building into a unique city-system that Echanove calls the Tokyo Model. In postwar Japan, the country’s central planners focused on rebuilding Tokyo’s wrecked water, sewerage and road systems. But the rebuilding of the city’s housing and commercial spaces was left to residents. Tokyo did not impose Western-style zoning to regulate and separate land uses and building types. Its citizen city-builders reached back into their traditions of small-town life and created a flexible city of village-like, residential-commercial settlements, in some ways remarkably like the migrant-entrepreneurs of Dharavi.

The result was a city-system that families recovering from war could incrementally manage, enabling rapid reconstruction of the world’s largest city. Tokyo’s densely packed areas of mismatched buildings, notes Echanove, are slum-like in both form and history. The neighborhoods are even somewhat structured like Dharavi, organised along busy commercial lanes crossed by more private, narrow community lanes that are often hardly wide enough for a single automobile. This structure, he argues, contributes to Tokyo’s vibrant small-scale commercial sector and to the safety of its neighborhoods.

Then why so little debate in Mumbai about the possible alternatives for Dharavi’s redevelopment? There is a kernel of potential middle ground in Mehta’s concept. A middle way could be found in which he would retain the existing apparel, jewelry, and footwear industries within an upgraded manufacturing zone, and allocate land nearby to training and research institutes to support these industries. His plan would provide standard infrastructure, health facilities and amenities. But his lack of commitment to the spatial order of the existing city-system or to engaging the residents as co-designers of homes and family workshop spaces undermines the basic economics and ethos of the city-system.

In the end, Mehta’s plan to "save" Dharavi seems all too crass: if you take nearly a million people living in buildings that are between one and three storeys high and resettle them into smaller units in seven-storey buildings, then you create vast amounts of new, undeveloped land. In Dharavi’s case, this land is located in central Mumbai — some of the most valuable real estate in the world. The whole thing reminds one of the charitable "urban renewal" of Black Bottom in Detroit, a grand scheme born of deeply conflicted motivations. Mehta seemed to be telling the same story in Dharavi’s vernacular. He would later say that Dharavi also represented "a gold mine that the government was not seeing … I’ve tried to take the opportunity to cash in on that." "Slum-Free Dharavi" would create a massive real estate boon for its proponents and establish a central strategic foothold for Mumbai’s emerging new suburb city.

It would also create a windfall for the city’s political class. Bribery is an industry in Mumbai. Corrupt land deals are as much a part of life as traffic jams and Bollywood films. The total cost of Mehta’s plan would exceed $2 billion. The demolition and redevelopment would be divided into five large contracts of $250 to $600 million each. The winning corporate bidders would pay a large "premium" to the government, to use Mehta’s words, for their redevelopment rights. Mehta’s presentation estimated that as much as a billion dollars would flow in payments to the state government.

But on a bigger historical scale, the momentum behind the Slum-Free Dharavi scheme and the lack of more creative alternatives is a part of a long-standing territorial struggle between Mumbai’s two entrenched, competing cities. On one side is the informal city, whose slums develop over time into new migrant cities. On the other side is the official city and its economic strategies. As its builders, financiers, architects, large retailers and politicians align their interests behind the reliable, world-class profitability of the new suburb city model, their control of the city is reinvigorated. In between these parallel city-building projects is the criminal sector, which extracts money from both sides.

In this way, the situation facing Dharavi is an example of a much wider tension found in cities everywhere. When competing alliances — one empowered through sheer numbers, the other through its capital and social status — secure advantage and predictable economic benefits through mastery of fundamentally opposing city-building approaches, their competition inevitably becomes territorial. The battle for Dharavi is part of the larger drama of the global city in crisis.

This is an adapted extract from Welcome to the Urban Revolution by Jeb Brugmann (University of Queensland Press).


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