The Dharavi Slum in Mumbai: a case study in new p2p urbanism?

We received this contribution via Nikos Salingaros, whose ideas on peer to peer urbanism we have featured before.

Two comments: the peer to peer relational dynamic represents the basic human freedom for humans to connect to each other and engage actions without permissions. It can flourish in global cyber-collectives, but also on a local scale, particulary in the interstices of the mainstream system, in places where control is the weakest.

Because of this paradoxical effect, it is possible to consider slum dynamics as a peer to peer system, which is the point of view of new urbanists like Michael Mehaffy, Nikos Salingaros and Prakash M. Apte, all cited below. They are defending the collective intelligence and value creation which have been constructed organically by the slum dwellers in Mumbai´s Dharavi slum, which is threatened by destruction, to be replaced by top-down designed social housing.

Another aspect is worth mentioning. Modernist approaches are often characterized by a hatred of the past, which must be destroyed. But after the deconstructive period of postmodernism, in which anything goes pastiches where made possible, now is the time for an intelligent neotraditionalism, which takes into account the wisdom of the past, critically weeds them with our new sensiblity, and uses the successfull patterns to create an organically evolving present and future. Such attempts are worth supporting, because they combine the best of the past and present and create a future that has been freely chosen, not imposed.

Let us ask this important question about participation: if the inhabitants were to be asked their opinion, would they choose to destroy their own neighborhood, or would they want to improve it?

Michael Mehaffy:

“A lot of people (Stewart Brand, Christopher Alexander, the Prince of Wales, Andres Duany and others) have begun to question the simplistic thinking that suggests slums=all bad, “projects”=all good. As we look more carefully at the actual structure of slums, we see some very useful things going on – some remarkable “self-organizing” urbanism. The trick would seem to be combining the useful qualities (mixed use, adaptability, resource conservation, complexity, etc etc) with sanitation, security, transportation, and greater economic opportunity. (Though as Stewart Brand notes, and Jane Jacobs noted before him, such communities are often transitional steps to greater economic opportunities, whereas the top-down models often become traps, or in the UK parlance, “sink estates”.)

Yet policy planners have not gotten the message at all, and seem intent on repeating all the same old horrendous mistakes of the “high modernist” era (to use anthropologist James C. Scott’s term). The latest news is that the government is planning to tear down the Dharavi slum, and replace it with a Corbusian scheme – instead of taking a more sophisticated, incremental and regenerative approach. (Such an approach has been proposed by Nikos Salingaros, along with Duany, Brain, myself and Ernesto Philibert from Mexico – see . An example in practice has been ROse Town in Jamaica, the remarkable pictures of which Steve Mouzon posted some time ago.)

I append the full article about this news from Planetizen below – here is the link:

A comment from Nikos Salingaros:

In my opinion, we have here a paradigmatic example of peer-to-peer network, spontaneously generated because the government has totally neglected these residents. The result is a thriving commercial and social system that, despite its many serious problems, contributes to the Indian economy. The imminent destruction of this peer-to-peer system is the belated recognition that living urban fabric has arisen despite the government’s neglect, thus challenging the government’s monopoly on building cities. There is a profit motive: money to be made by destroying these people’s self-built houses and social networks. Probably some well-meaning NGO is paying for new housing blocks that these residents will be moved into later. Their peer-to-peer networks are however dependent upon the spontaneous geometry of the existing urban fabric, and can hardly be reconstituted within the framework of a new industrial geometry. There is also the ideological side: worshipping the images of the Le Corbusier architectural cult, which demands the sacrifice of self-build complex urban fabric and allows only Stalinist housing blocks.”

Dharavi: India’s Model Slum, by Prakash M. Apte:

“Mumbai, India’s Dharavi is one of the world’s biggest slums — and its most notorious. Look beyond the stereotype, however, and you’ll find a successful settlement with a vibrant community and economy. But developers want to raze it all and start again. Urban development consultant Prakash M. Apte says Dharavi is a model that should be replicated, not redeveloped.

The Indian megacity of Mumbai has an estimated population of about 14 million. Of those, only about 35% live in ‘regular’ permanent housing. The other 65% live in informal settlements, which for more than a third of those people means squatting on sidewalks and under bridges. The rest — nearly 6 million people — occupy settlements on private and public open lands, some of which are more than 50 years old. Dharavi is one of the most famous, but unlike all others and despite its common depiction as a “slum”, it is actually a successful work-cum-residential settlement. Developers have been trying to redevelop the area for years, but Dharavi is a model settlement that needs to be replicated, not replaced.

Located in the heart of Mumbai, Dharavi has a population of more than 600,000 people residing in 100,000 makeshift homes, and one of the world’s highest population densities at more than 12,000 persons per acre. It is just across from the Bandra- Kurla Complex — a fast developing commercial center that has overtaken Nariman Point, the current downtown of Mumbai – and is also located close to Mumbai’s domestic and international airports. Despite its plastic and tin structures and lack of infrastructure, Dharavi is a unique, vibrant, and thriving ‘cottage’ industry complex, the only one of its kind in the world.

This is in fact the kind of self-sufficient, self-sustaining ‘village’ community that Mahatma Gandhi — the Father of the Nation — dreamt of and wrote about in his books on India’s path to development. Dharavi pulsates with intense economic activity. Its population has achieved a unique informal “self-help” urban development over the years without any external aid. It is a humming economic engine. The residents, though bereft of housing amenities, have been able to lift themselves out of poverty by establishing thousands of successful businesses. A study by Center for Environmental Planning & Technology indicates that Dharavi currently has close to 5,000 industrial units, producing textiles, pottery and leather, and performing services like recycling, printing, and steel fabrication.

Dharavi is full of makeshift shacks like these, housing more than 600,000 people. Photo by Flickr user Mumbai Magic.

A unique characteristic of Dharavi is its very close work-place relationship. Productive activity takes place in nearly every home. As a result, Dharavi’s economic activity is decentralized, human scale, home-based, low-tech and labor-intensive. This has created an organic and incrementally developing urban form that is pedestrianized, community-centric, and network-based, with mixed use, high density low-rise streetscapes. This is a model many planners have been trying to recreate in cities across the world. A simplistic re-zoning and segregating of these activities — common in the United States — would certainly hurt this very unique urban form.

The ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous development of Dharavi has led to the emergence of an economic model characterized by a decentralized production process relying mainly on temporary work and self-employment. The multiplicity of independent producers makes the production process extremely flexible and adaptable. Its viability is proven by the national and international market its products command. Unfortunately , Dharavi is depicted as a ‘slum’ that lacks residential infrastructure (roads, housing with individual toilets, public conveniences, etc.). In fact it is not a residential slum, but a unique self-contained township (in the sense of close work-place relationship so eulogized since the days of Patrick Geddes, but which has never been achieved in any of the new towns). Because of all these community-based successes, Dharavi needs to be replicated (albeit with adequate physical infrastructure). Instead, the state government wants to force the relocation of Dharavi’s population into tiny cubby hole apartments in high rise towers so that the vacated land can be commercially exploited by developers through the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan. At a conservative estimate, a development of this magnitude could fetch $460 million for a developer, a profit of at least 900%.

Workers in Dharavi’s thriving informal economy. Photo by Flickr user parasher. Any plan for Dharavi must explicitly take into consideration the work-place relationship developed over the years so that it does not destroy the existing intricate urban structure that has sustained the local economy. This plan must acknowledge existing economic activities and their spatial organization, and not destroy it in the process of redevelopment. Sectoral divisions of Dharavi proposed in the Dharavi Redevelopment Plan that would segregate land uses are evidence of the insensitiveness of the top-down approach to planning. The involvement of the concerned population in the planning process is a planning imperative if the redevelopment is to be successful from a human and urban perspective. But for the most part, the population of Dharavi has not had much say in the creation of the plan for their community. Case studies all over the world have documented the inappropriateness of high-rise resettlement projects in poor areas. The social and economic networks which the poor rely on for subsistence can hardly be sustained in high-rise structures. These high rise projects are not appropriate for home-based economic activities, which play a major role in Dharavi.

The least that can be done in this redevelopment plan is to refurbish the work places of the existing industries within the residential areas and remodel this project by providing low-rise high-density row housing for existing families engaged in home based occupations. This way, each house will have a ground floor and an additional story , as well as a terrace and a courtyard which can be used for these home-based business activities.

Unfortunately, the formulation of Dharavi Redevelopment Plan as a profit-maximizing real-estate tool leaves no room for exploring such sustainable and economically viable low-rise, high-density approaches. It exposes the DRP as a weak cover-up for a land grab of the worst kind.”

Prakash M. Apte is a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects and the Institute of Town Planners, a former Senior Adviser to the Royal Government of Bhuta, a former project chief for the Housing & Urban Development Corporation of India (HUDCO), and a former Governor of the Delhi School of Planning & Architecture. He also serves on the Panel of Consultants for the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and U.N. Centre for Human Settlements, Nairobi.

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2 Comments The Dharavi Slum in Mumbai: a case study in new p2p urbanism?

  1. AvatarPrasoon Kumar


    I am fairly new to this terminology of peer to peer urbanism but do find its application to slum rehabilitation very intriguing. I also find the discussion on Dharavi rehabilitation interesting. I agree with most of the thoughts that have been described above especially with reference to the top down approach to social housing. What I find missing though is a healthy critique on the government’s approach on Dharavi’s redevelopment. The government should be credited in giving momentum to this project, generating interest in the developer community and therefore successfully raising money to realize the project. In addition, the government has also introduced a few checks and balances based on its past experience with slum rehabilitation in Mumbai and elsewhere.

    Where I think the government has missed is by taking the entire complexity out of this project and oversimplifying the development process so much so that most of the stakeholders are being kept out of the loop. This is a single project that deals with 220 acres of land in the heart of Mumbai where approximately 8% of its population resides, and the level of research and discussion has been kept minimal. In short, the big picture is missing of seeing this project comprehensively in light of its contributions and impacts on the entire city and in the region.

    Mr. Apte’s mention of the resident’s lifestyle and Dharavi’s contributions to the City and urbanism in general is remarkable. It is important to respect this local culture and take the opportunity of redevelopment to enhance the physical environment around it, plug this community seamlessly into rest of the City but all this while accommodating modern real estate needs.

    This is also the premise of a redevelopment scheme that we have independently prepared to help the government make more informed decisions. ‘Dharavi Evolution’ is a planning led sustainable approach to redevelop Dharavi which is respectful of the community at the same time is realistic. The masterplan imagines the future Dharavi which is low rise, high in density and economically sustaining. It also provides for new development where it would enjoy its true value and emerge as a new catalyst of growth. We hope that our exercise could initiate a healthy debate and help the government in rethinking its current strategy. ‘Dharavi Evolution’ is available for download at the following link –

  2. Avatarhardeep kaur

    can someone give me the information regarding the description of key transport technology and planning orthodoxies which have shaped the dharavi slum area evolution ? and upto what extent it has become an automobile city?
    thank you

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