The poignancy of an abandoned home: Voyeurism and research in Tangtou #ShenzhenDiaries
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
The Happy People of Shiuwei #ShenzhenDiaries
If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.
The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.
As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).
Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.
Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!
For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter, Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.
Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).
It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.
Some concerns with private “mixed use” #redevelopments #Affordability #London #Dockyards
Having visited both Berlin and London this year, I can’t help but think about how the metropolitan centers of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and how redevelopment has become a vital ingredient in keeping these “global cities” alive and kicking!
My friend and guide to London this year, Jhilmil Kishore is a conservation architect and, knowing my interest in housing and cities, she took care to point out to me the transformations in the city. As we strolled the streets, we talked about gentrification and affordability, about the failure of public housing and the increased dependence on the private sector as a provider of services. Not far from her own neighborhood, she showed me the high-end adaptive re-use projects and redevelopments at Southwark and also took me to the fantastically glittering privately-owned and managed business district of Canary Wharf.
Since the 2012 Olympics, this part of London has been busy getting a makeover. Experts have noted that public investments have now made surrounding areas attractive for private real estate developers. For instance, the Canary Wharf Group is embarking on a new project also in the dockland areas along the River Thames. They are about to redevelop Woodwharf, currently a 16.8 acre site for light industrial use, into a mixed use area reportedly with “3.1 million sq ft of office space, 1.25 million sq ft of residential development, 200,000 sq ft of retail space, and a 200,000 sq ft hotel” as mentioned in a news report. The residential areas will come up first, to complement the financial district at Canary Wharf. And a new transit line will connect the area to central London.
It’s definitely a positive that the project pushes mixed use as the way to go, but I’m wondering what the thinking is on catering to a range of price bands on residential and rental properties. A mixed use city block really reaches its potential when entrepreneurs, start-ups and mid-size companies can hope to do just as well as big corporates. And when a mix of different kinds of people can live in close proximity to each other. Of course in a city like London, we hope transit can solve some of those issues but I wonder if we rely too heavily on that one thing!
I do accept that developments like the proposed one can benefit other parts of the city, even if not geographically connected but related through a set of networks. Of enormous concern in this case is the impact on the existing communities in these areas. Earlier privately redeveloped areas haven’t really benefited local neighborhoods much, creating very few jobs for locals and usually displacing them as the rents and property prices become unaffordable post redevelopment. This thought provoking piece in the Global Urbanist highlights this aspect and suggests that more social investments are also needed if new developments like these are not to be seen as resentful and hugely traumatic by residents. How accountable is a private developer to do the right thing and create more inclusive neighbourhoods? This is a problem area, unless the city government lays down some ground rules. Once again, I don’t know how it works in London and maybe my UK-based friends can enlighten me.
As an urban planner, I’m always amused to see how planning tools and trends become marketing mantras for the real estate sector. Walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, smart, sustainable…all the right catch words for now but it doesn’t always mean the developments are actually being planned that way! In the end, no matter what the current trends are, developments need to see beyond financial returns if they are to have long-term benefits for the city.
Mr Nath, Please consult widely and wisely before you take Delhi the Shanghai way! Sep 4, 2012
Urban professionals are likely to view Minister Kamal Nath’s obsession with higher FAR with a liberal dose of skepticism. Turning Delhi into a Shanghai or a Manhattan is exactly the kind of glitzy dream private sector developers have been selling to the government for many years. Which makes me suspicious indeed about how exactly this all will happen, who it will benefit and who will lose out.
We do know that Indian cities have a really low Floor Area Ratio (FAR, or Floor Space Index, FSI). We also know increased FAR would create a lot more space. Space that is much needed. But will we be smart about the kind of space we want to create? Let me explain. There is this peculiar herd mentality among developers in India and developers tend to have a short-sighted approach. NCR towns have many ghost malls and ghost commercial buildings that were built to sell space to speculative investors. That may not happen in the city centre, but in order to make the optimum use of the increased space, we do need to be really smart about ensuring the right mix of uses are accommodated in the high FAR zones. We need a new kind of vision, new ideas, innovative fresh thinking. Affordable housing, public spaces, large green areas, accessible public spaces at suitable scale, safe spaces for children, walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, sustainable communities, a whole host of new concepts need to be built into a new vision for Delhi.
To densify is not enough, it needs to be done very sensitively. People need to be involved. We need to take firm decisions, not pander to a specific class of people, politicians, bureaucrats, the usual suspects. Increased density will need a new moindset and buy-in from all the above mentioned anf that is an uphill task. For instance, New Moti Bagh is a government colony recently built. Driving past is enough to see what a colossal wastage of land it is, in a prime South Delhi location. Smartly built apartments or duplex villas would have freed ample spaces for more multistorey housing and a large green lung for the neighborhood. Instead, the government has built a large number of ill designed, poorly planned, sprawling ‘bungalows’ that smack of an outdated post-colonial mindset of what the ‘sahib’ is entitled to. Urban Harakiri is what I call it.
And of course, there is that critical piece- infrastructure. Roads, sewage, drainage, electricity, water, public amenities, parking, so many details to get right if increased FAR is to be a reality. The carrying capacity of the land needs to be increased hugely by planning, engineering and investment. This is an enormous opportunity for sustainable design as well.
My third concern is more at an urban design scale. How exactly will the FAR increase happen? Will low-density areas that are now aging and dilapidated, like some Central Delhi government colonies, be slated for the redevelopment? I certainly think that is a great opportunity to give the city much-needed housing, retail, commercial space and public spaces right in the heart of the city. Then there are sensitive areas in the city that cannot be touched, like historic precincts. Will redevelopment happen in an incremental manner, or will we expect things to be razed to the ground and replanned and rebuilt? These are all issues that impact the lives of common people as much as they affect the economic survival and success of the city.
All I know is that there should be far more public debate about the measures proposed by our Urban Development Minister. Citizens deserve more information, more transparency about monumental changes that will impact their lives closely, give a new identity to their city and therefore impact their identity as well. Citizens and urban professionals must be involved to build a new vision. I cannot emphasize this enough. If we do not insist, we will once again see our beautiful city being raped and plundered, like it was when the invaders came in during the Medieval Times. Ironically, these would be invaders from within. And we would be defenseless and defeated.
Slums can inspire, but what of it? Review of ‘Poor Little Rich Slum’- 9 Aug, 2012
Who can put down a book that showcases a series of tear-jerking, heart-warming success stories? Not me! And in that sense, Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi are spot on with their book Poor Little Rich Slum on Dharavi in Mumbai.
However, as a writer and an urban planner, I viewed the book through my critical lens and I must confess I’m not too impressed.
Don’t get me wrong. I am completely in agreement with the idea that informal settlements like Dharavi are the energy centers of our cities. Certainly, the innovation and zesty approach to life’s seemingly insurmountable problems that we urban practitioners see among slum dwellers makes most of ashamed of the often-whiny note we strike in our relatively comfortable middle class lives.
As an attempt to place India’s slums in a positive frame of reference among middle class readers, this is a great book. And perhaps the starting point we need. It is no mean effort to say in simple words what many experienced and intelligent people fail to see. And every effort, small or big, is needed to turn conventional thinking about slums on its head!
What NGOs, social entrepreneurs and slum dwellers already know is what the world out there needs to recognize. Not because its general knowledge, but because when the educated middle class accepts and understands their interdependence on slums is when sufficient pressure will be built on the system to take a reality check. As long as we are willing to pay exorbitant sums to buy swanky apartments on land that is carved out of evicting poor slum dwellers, the battle is one lost before it even began. So speaks the socialist in me, at any rate!
Somewhere towards the very end, after many stories of success, the book makes its main point, according to me. That redevelopment the way governments (pressurized by developers) see it, is not a future that is fair to slum dwellers. Not only does it take away what is meaningful, replacing it with lip service in the name of housing and infrastructure; it also means taking away homes and livelihood from many renters who are part of the vital life force of slums. Somehow improvement in the modern world seems to be synonymous with leaching away character and homogenizing everything into cookie cuter homes and people with horribly predictable lives. Clearly that’s not the way life is and certainly not life in the slums, the vibrancy of which the book brings out admirably.
What don’t I like? The book reads very much like a self-improvement book. It has, hidden in it very subtly, but unmistakably, a preachy tone. The slightly philosophical twist at the end of each tale was a nice touch, but in many instances, the words didn’t quite fit. “That’s what humans beings must do, with the fabric of life” at the end of a case on someone who runs a ladies’ tailoring business is nothing short of cheesy.
Poor Little Rich Slum is an attempt to simplify an incredible complex issue and package it cleverly for readers who have no exposure to the subject. It is intended to be an inspirational book, but fails to give a well-rounded picture. Yes, we need to create awareness, but I don’t agree we should do this by oversimplifying the story, by only talking about the success stories while neglecting to carry even a single not-so-happy experience? As I read the book, with experience of working in other slum areas in other cities in India, I wonder about how Dharavi has come to be the Mother Slum. Glorified in its tattered robes, the ultimate symbol of messy urbanism, the pin-up hero for those of us who want to give the poor a space, a voice.
Despite my minor reservations, what the book is doing is making me want to visit Dharavi. Now! I grew up in Mumbai and have visited and even spent entire days in slums and chawls tagging along with Manda, who was my nanny. I called her Mavshi and we would go to meet many of her relatives who lived in chawls and slums and mill housing. It was fun. I felt completely at home. But Dharavi was not one of these. It has come home to me, through this book and from other people’s narrations that Dharavi is special. Having worked in slums in Delhi, methinks it would be interesting to experience the Mother Slum!
Rampant redevelopment of Delhi’s residential colonies cannot be the sole mode of housing supply -Apr 26, 2012
I walked through Pamposh Enclave in south Delhi today, a route we take often to get to our office in Greater Kailash Enclave. An astonishing number of private homes in this quiet, sleepy residential colony are being torn down to be replaced by larger, higher, swankier builder floors (commonly used term for the conversion of a single family home into a set of apartments, usually three or six depending on the size of the plot).
Something fundamental is changing in these localities. Built perhaps in the 70s, Pamposh (which means lotus) was an enclave of migrants from Kashmir. These Kashmiri Brahmins imbued the place with the elegance and charm of their community, which largely comprises highly educated people, many of them doctors. The edges of the colony abut major roads and have already seen commercial development in the last decade, but of late the redevelopment mania has reached its innermost lanes. Two major changes are immediately seen. The increasing density achieved by replacing one or two families with a minimum of three brings more traffic and poses a greater load on infrastructure. The increase in volume and height dwarves the trees and changes the experience of walking and living here. The buildings bear down on you now, whereas they appeared receded before.
The other thing hard to miss is the new aesthetic that uses wood, glass and steel as its vocabulary. As blind an aping of modern architecture as we see in the pseudo Greek and pseudo Gothic elements in homes around the city.
You see a seemingly more professional approach to construction (cordoned off sites with large logos of construction companies and developers) co-exist with sites that follow the most primitive practices (mixing cement haphazardly in small basins, slathering plaster willy nilly, etc).
It is alarming that a city as large as Delhi has this type of redevelopment as the only type of housing supply to its middle and high income groups. A much scaled down and poor quality form of the same accommodates Delhi’s swelling numbers of low income residents in urban villages and unauthorised colonies! And then there is the mushrooming of satellite towns (Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad, Faridabad) that are growing so fast they are unsustainable and barely liveable!
This city cannot go on like this. Urban land that exists within city limits desperately needs to be freed ( through densification, reasoning, etc) to allow for a more sensible housing supply scenario. The government needs to think this through and develop a vision for Delhi that takes in the needs and desires of its citizens. They say Delhi belongs to those with a heart (Dilli dilwaalon ki) and our hearts do not deserve to be broken!