Vertical Slum

Would it be possible to make a slum sky-scraper?
If you are interested in slums and informal settlement, it is likely you know about Torre David in Caracas. It is a known landmark of informal settlement appropriating a failed sky-scraper project. It even features in movies and an episode of Homeland[1]. Less known so far is a concrete carcass in Dharavi where squatters made their homes after the developer had to leave the project too early. For us it is a fascinating case where differences between the informal and formal sector come to light.  

In Kolya Khata building at the heart of Dharavi, squatters have appropriated the first and second floor, whereas all other floors are vacant since 2005.  Kuttiwadi, April 19, 2013.

It happens that housing projects fail while they are still under construction. An example is the 256 tenements Kolya Khata building in Kuttiwadi, Dharavi. The story goes it was developed in 2005 for the relocation of slum dwellers who occupied land along railway tracks. The contractor failed to finish the project within the budget, went bankrupt and now the building is subject of lawsuits. All that was built was a GF+7 concrete structure. Gradually, squatters appropriated the structure and added doors and window grills. Nowadays, the first and second floors are inhabited. Higher floors are not, since the pressure in Dharavi's water system is too low to reach that high, and carrying water all the way up is not an option. Since the abandoned upper floors would be a ideal place for drug addicts, the residents of the lower floors have actually blocked the staircases that go further up. Ground floor is also not inhabited, as it is perceived as unsafe; it is the domain of glue sniffers and drug addicts. The people in the slum surrounding Kolya Khata would rather see the whole building disappear. They complain about the bad effect criminals have on their youth. Rumor has it people even move out of first and second floor nowadays.

Kolya Khata's ground floor is a hangout for glue sniffers and drug addicts. Kuttiwadi, July 25, 2014.
The vacant floors in Kolya Khata put forward several issues. Bearing in mind that Kolya Khata sits at the heart of Dharavi, surrounded by slums where the demand for housing is enormous; one would expect the building to be appropriated in no time, whereas it clearly is not. Of course, regular water piping does not reach high enough, but the use of DIY piping and an electric pump is common in all India. The vacancies on ground floor are just as enigmatic. Most settled Dharavians live on ground floor and rent out the upper floors of their dwellings. The idea that living on ground floor is unsafe is apparently not that relevant. This suggests that a layout with a central double loaded corridor that is for circulation only and with tenements that have their back towards public space is deeply contrary to what people prefer.

The 75% vacancy in a context of severe housing shortage suggests that living conditions in Kolya Khata building are worse than in regular ground bound slums. The structure, i.e. the design of the building, is apparently not even suitable for squatting. This case suggests a profound mismatch between high-rise and what people need. Demonstrably, people prefer to pay a considerable rent for a slum dwelling to squatting in a free of cost third floor half-finished tenement.
This also sheds light on the phenomenon of people leaving other high-rise redevelopment projects and returning to the slums. It supports the observation by SPARC that people leave market-supplied mass housing because of its inadequate design.

[1] The Tower of David, Homeland, season 3, episode 3 (episode 27 overall).

The Slums and the Sea

Demolition of slums is often done by people, mainly other people. Nature however can be just as annoying. Of course, politicians and planners frequently feature in slum dwellers’ bad dreams. We’ll talk about that in another post. This post is not about people destroying homes, it is about nature. 

Front doors sit awkwardly high above the ground since the footpath is washed away (together with a whole row of houses). The pink house has improvised steps of stacked rubble.
In Sagar Kutir (see Wormhole post below) homes are built on Bombay’s sandy beach and therefore under constant threat of the Indian Ocean. The search for buildable land brings people to claim land from the sea although undoubtedly it will be claimed back some day. The seaside of Sagar Kutir is marked by remains of washed away homes. Some are reduced to rubble scattered in the sand. Others have partly disappeared, leaving half a home behind. Sometimes the cut is astonishingly clean with household items still on the wall while most of the house has vanished. 
The remains of households are visible after a collapse. Sandbags must keep the sea from washing away more sand and houses.

Semi open barricades help to soften the impact of waves.
The photos in this post show man’s ongoing struggle with the power of nature. We see that people build obstacles in order to break the waves. Such barricades are built of whatever the sea brings to the beach. Maritime waste is turned into protective structures. It is typical of vernacular architecture to build with local materials. This is a perfect example.
Here too vernacular architecture is marked by the use of local materials.
There is a little lesson here about building light versus building sturdy. Kacca[1] houses have the advantage of being light and mobile; we’ll discuss them in a future post. Although they are less durable than pucca, it is often possible to relocate them whenever the sea comes too close. A pucca house is made of concrete and bricks and impossible to move. It offers more protection, but primarily through resistance. And as we know, in light of the power of the ocean resistance is futile.

[1] Kacca houses are made of softer materials and have a temporary character. Pucca is more permanent, with more durable materials. Read more

The meaning of the word Slum

Typically, slums are found on land that is less suitable for building than where the planned city goes. Favelas in South America are often found on steep slopes. Dharavi is built on marshlands. The word ´slum´ actually has its origin in the problematic location of housing. According to The Making of the English Landscape (Hoskins 1977) the etymology of the word ‘slum’ goes back to the 1820s and refers to the geology of the land on which the upcoming large scale industries in England were built. Since steam-power was not yet available for trains in the early Industrial Revolution, most of raw materials and finished products were transported by canal-barges. Industries therefore were located near canals, often on grounds that lacked sufficient drainage. In those days, the local term for these marshy lands was 'slump,' meaning wet mire. The same word also occurs in Saxon and Scandinavian languages. Most of the accommodation for the working class developed near the factories and consequently the ´slums´ were the housing that often suffered from drainage problems.
Nowadays the word slum raises debate as it is often used to express a negative sentiment about areas and to derogate the people who live there. At the same time, slum dwellers don't mind so much or even take pride in using the word. Certain academics claim it is politically correct to avoid the s-word and stick to 'informal settlement' whereas the UN and many other organizations keep it simple; they call the spade a spade and thus call the slum a slum. Since this blog promotes an open attitude towards slums, we deliberately use the word slum in order to counterbalance the negative connotation.
Hoskins, William George. 1977. The Making of the English Landscape. Repr. London: Hodder and Stoughton.