Improving Urban Shantytowns
The official response to these slums used to be efforts to demolish the shanties and evict the squatters. But this simply resulted in the slum relocating elsewhere.
Then relocation schemes attempted to move the illegal squatters temporarily to a makeshift camp while five- to six-story apartments could be built. But this proved to be both capital-intensive and socially inappropriate. The residents could not adapt to these dwellings and simply resold their flats and moved back to the slum. Such projects failed to help those who needed housing the most.
Then came efforts to upgrade the existing neighborhoods by providing primary infrastructure. This also failed because the community was given a passive role as beneficiaries. Without their active involvement, their neighborhood would rapidly deteriorate again.
Introducing Slum Networking
Against this backdrop of failed attempts to deal with the problem, Parikh's concept of "Slum Networking" learns from the lessons of the past and makes a radical proposition. Instead of seeing squatters and their communities as a nuisance — the inevitable consequence of malignant urban growth — Parikh looks for and reinforces resources within the community.
He had observed that slums develop in neglected land areas along rivers and canals, often the natural drainage paths of a city. So his approach develops a topographically sensitive layout that links several slums of a city to optimize shared infrastructure.
The cost of an underground sewer system is reduced because the lines follow the natural slope of the land. Cleanliness, hygiene, and permanence are emphasized to the extent allowed by a low budget. Community toilets are dismantled and replaced by individual ones.
Families are encouraged to take piped water into their homes via looped networks instead of branched ones, to equalize water pressure. Roads are built lower than their surrounds so the road itself can become a stormwater drain during the monsoon.
Himanshu Parikh Engineers Inc. makes a detailed survey plan of the existing houses and divides them into groups based on quality of construction. The better and often larger brick houses are left in place as long as they do not interfere with the landscape created for water disposal. A few houses may have to be relocated to build roads or sewer lines, but in a typical slum these would account for no more than two to five percent of the houses.
Where possible, slum dwellers are allowed to buy the land they are "squatting" on. This allows them to invest resources more confidently in their property. Community development is a crucial part of this concept because it brings self-empowerment to the entire community and harnesses existing resources. Resident volunteers form neighborhood committees whose participation is fundamental to the program.
Parikh does not think slums are inevitable, and he sees their transformation in a larger context. He explains: "Working inside out, i.e. starting with quality infrastructure in the poor areas and working outwards to produce larger networks for the city or village, not only integrates the two levels, but actually produces far cheaper infrastructure at both levels."
He continues: "Having established the connection between slums, the best infrastructure paths of the city and its environment spine, the slums can actually improve whole cities rather than be parasitic on the parent infrastructure." So people who live outside the slums also benefit.
The benefits of Slum Networking in Indore have been extensively documented. In networking 181 slums, the city gained 225 miles (360 kilometers) of new roads, 185 miles (300 kilometers) of new sewer lines, 150 miles (240 kilometers) of new water lines, 120 community halls, and some 120,000 trees.
With the new sewer lines in place, the rivers Khan and Saraswati, once reduced to open sewers, now carry water again. This all occurred within seven years in a city that had had no effective sewer system to begin with.
The water system has meant improved health among residents, who now need to spend less time carrying water from wells distant from their homes. Independent studies conducted by the World Bank's Water and Sanitation Program have found a 90 percent reduction of fatal diseases and a doubling of family income. These factors have meant a tenfold increase in the average investment of a family in shelter.
After a multitude of awards, most notably the United Nations World Habitat Award for Urban Development in 1993 and the 1998 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Slum Networking is gaining worldwide recognition.
Work has begun in villages of Saurashtra and Gujarat, in the city of Bhopal, and in the vast slums of Mumbai. Similar concepts are being adopted in other developing countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines.
In urban India, the local governments seem to be mending their old ways and accepting these new approaches. But professional planners continue to see the slum in isolation. Planning at the city level seldom uses slum networking as a tool to harness city infrastructure.
In May 2002, the seven-member team of Himanshu Parikh Engineers Inc. merged with the international 700-person firm Buro Happold Consulting Engineers. Buro Happold's interest in Slum Networking should bring fresh vitality to a field previously occupied only by a few concerned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the more apathetic local civic bodies.
The merger is likely to have ramifications for Slum Networking all over the developing world. The Dutch engineer Marie Zanders, who represents Buro Happold's office in Ahmedabad, says: "Slum Networking has already had a direct effect on the lives of one million people. We plan on further broadening its scope not only in urban India but also in the villages where majority of the population continues to live."
The scale of the task remains daunting. Twenty-five years ago, 25 percent of the city of Mumbai lived in slums. Today this figure has increased to 60 percent. Yet the lessons are simple, and these projects demonstrate that change is possible. When self-empowered, poor people too can live with dignity.
Sarosh Anklesaria has completed his graduate studies in architecture from the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology, (CEPT) Ahmedabad, India. His interests include issues related to architectural design and urbanism.
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