Dharavi and Beijing
The GSD and Harvard's South Asia Initiative kicked off a program of lectures and panels organized around the common theme of South Asian Urbanization Thursday with a screening and panel discussion of the documentary film Dharavi, Slum for Sale
The film explores many of the issues that surround informal settlements by following the efforts to develop the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. The mixed-use plan envisioned by the American trained Indian Architect Mukesh Mehta (who, it was sneered, used to design luxury homes on Long Island before moving back to India) distinguished itself by providing the slum's population with housing and a place to work, free of charge, alongside new presumably wealthier commercial and residential populations. This is, of course, also the downfall of the plan, as it becomes clear that this is neither spatially or financially feasible. Mehta's heart is in the right place, but his plan would likely have ended up removing the slum population.
In any case, what I found most interesting was the articulation of city-, if not nation-wide, dynamics that have spawned and perpetuated the slums. At their core, slums are symptoms of a broken housing market. When people, often migrants, have neither the means nor the opportunity to purchase housing, they squat. When this process is repeated on a large scale, you get a slum. Often initially located at the city's periphery, many of the mega-cities notable for their slum populations have expanded to the point that they find themselves with pockets of slums in their center. This is certainly the case in Mumbai, where the city’s financial district now lies adjacent to Dharavi. Increasing both the visibility, and potential value, of the slums, this process forces the issue of reform and development. Hence the film.
However, the power of slums is not solely derived from the value of the land they occupy or their visibility. India, being the world's largest democracy, also allows slum dwellers (pejorative?) to vote as bloc. In Mumbai, the residents of Dharavi, and the various grassroots groups that claim to represent them constitute a potent political force that wins them powerful allies. This is how the proposed plan is eventually defeated, as most of the major political parties sensed the opportunity and rallied to Dharavi's side. Combined with a relatively weak, if not disinterested, central government, this can make slums seem like a potentially permanent feature of Indian mega-cities.
I found myself thinking about my studio project in Beijing. This is, at first blush, odd. Chinese cities are notable, particularly in the world of rapid urbanizing developing countries, for the lack of large slum populations found Mumbai, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Lagos. Though a complex phenomenon, it certainly has something to do with the generally stronger role China's certainly stronger central government plays in managing the growth of its cities. This is in noted contrast to Mumbai that has I believe only one trained planner for a city of nearly 20 million. So it was strange to find myself recalling conversation we have already had a number of times in studio.
Our project lies about 13 miles southeast of the center of Beijing along the Sixth Ring Road in an outlying district of the city called Tongzhou. The area is slated for development of the “green” variety, but is currently home to a “permanent” population of about 40,000 and a migrant population that is probably twice as large. The one thing we keep hearing is that the local government, and therefore the studio as well, cannot kick the non-migrant population off their land, and that any successful scheme has to clearly address what to do with this population. The local government has the option of buying the land, but I presume that we are supposed to come up with a more elegant solution. In any case, I just found it interesting given the contrasts usually drawn between these two counties. Of course, the Chinese government routinely kicks people off their land for a pittance but, as must always be said, China is a place of great variety and in this instance, because these people in this place belong to a formal collective and thus have stronger rights to their land, they enjoy a power more akin to a resident of a slum in Mumbai than someone 15 miles away in the core of Beijing. Sometimes the Chinese government is quite strong, but it can also be weak and shockingly ineffective too.
I had expected to blog this event, but did not expect to end my post talking about China. I fear this may be a recurring theme this semester….