Posted May 31st 2011 at 8:58 am by
in Thesis Chronicles, Urban informality: Improving open spaces in slums

Four Shades of Beige: A Slum Rehabilitation in Bangalore

This post is part of Thesis Chronicles.

Today, rehabilitation is a key component of all official slum clearance in India. Although this is generally a positive trend, the planning of rehabilitation areas is often quite uninspiring and tends to create areas of monotony and segregation. The lack of planning and cohesive design in these projects threatens to maintain the segregation of Indian cities into social enclaves.

One newly built slum rehabilitation area is located in Austin Town in central Bangalore. In total, 86 households used to make up a slum pocket on a small, banana-shaped plot. The government tore down the whole slum settlement in 2010 and constructed four four-story apartment blocks with approximately 20 apartments each in its place. Governmental funding and local NGO assistance supported the construction and its developers consider it a “model pilot project.” At the time of this post, all buildings are just about to be finished and ready for the return its former slum-dwellers. The buildings look nice and clean, and the apartments receive a reasonable amount of light through several windows. To consider it a “model project,” however, a little surprising since the external spaces and overall planning are quite poorly thought-out.

Firstly, the whole settlement is surrounded by an impermeable concrete wall, which makes the settlement pronouncedly separated from surrounding areas. Given its narrow banana-like shape, the wall makes the area feel very secluded and locked. Wherever situated in the settlement, the walls are always present. We found it somewhat odd that a new neighborhood built with these clearly isolating attributes, especially since its composition of residents wouldn’t change. They didn’t need a wall surrounding them before, why would they need it now?  According to the lead NGO, the walls are there to “mark the end of the site.” By closing off the new area like this, it effectively creates an enclave in the neighborhood, strongly delimiting accessibility. In a city where segregation between rich and poor is so evident already, and where the urban fabric is developing into a patchwork of enclosed spaces, this is hardly desirable.

Another concern is the lack of open spaces in close proximity to the apartments. Since the apartments are extremely small (25 m2) for an entire family of several generations, families need external spaces for their daily responsibilities. The narrow gallery corridors attached to the apartments are merely one meter wide, and could hardly function as much more than a drying rack for clothes without clogging the transportation route. For ground floor residents, there is plenty of space by the front door, but families living on the first, second and third floor would have to take a trip downstairs to the ground floor each time they wished to use the open air spaces. When studying various slum areas around Bangalore, we found that most slum dwellers intensely use the external space immediately outside the front door, almost as an extra room. This is where residents do laundry, wash up, create handicrafts, play, socialize and sometimes perform cooking duties. Without these spaces, life becomes much more complicated for the slum dwellers.

Regarding open ground space in the Austin Town settlement, there is a gap between each building. This space could be used as a social spot, as well as a place for work or domestic duties. By leaving the space clear, it encourages the slum dwellers to use it for a variety of uses, including urban farming, kettle husbandry, washing, and playing. No “label” is put on the spaces, thus opening it up for multi-functional uses. However, without a pronounced hierarchy between these spaces in the layout of the site, there is also no framework for a strong “community centre” or “town square.” In an area with 86 households, some kind of community centre could add extra value to the neighborhood, and have the potential of strengthening bonds between people from different apartment blocks.

In the Austin Town settlement there is also a standard size of all apartments, without exceptions. If a family is exceptionally large, they are not given a larger apartment, but instead two apartments. Any typical housing project around the world today would offer a variety of apartment sizes and types would to reflect the general variety of household sizes. It is generally also cheaper to build homes in different sizes instead of giving large families two homes with two sets of bathrooms and kitchens.

Planning projects like this show some disregard to poor people’s needs, and a lack of interest in building worthy, sustainable neighborhoods for slum-dwellers, who compose a large proportion of India’s population. Significant government spending goes into these projects, however they lack considerate design and planning. Building massive housing blocks of standardized homes like this recall the Million Programme housing scheme in Sweden in the 1960s, where old human-scale housing was torn down to give way for new large-scale apartment blocks. In these projects, the apartment sizes were generally standardized and didn’t always suit the intended clientele very well. To keep costs low, the government constructed massive, non-site specific, impersonal, pre-fabricated buildings. None of these housing schemes were intended to become ‘bad’ or “undesirable”, but many turned out so in practice.

Today these projects face massive problems and costly rehabilitation upgrades due to widespread vacancy, poor outdoor as well as indoor environment, poor maintenance, and high crime rates. The areas’ de-humanized scale and poor coherence with the rest of its cities have appointed them planning ‘failures’ many times over. Is India prepared to do the same mistake in the wake of their rehabilitation schemes?

Post by Stina Hellqvist and Johanna Bratel. Stina is originally from the small town of Stjärnsund in Dalarna, Sweden. She received a B.S in Landscape Architecture from SLU in 2008 and has since then been studying Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at SLU and Cornell University. She has also spent one year as a landscape architecture intern in a firm in London, UK. Johanna is currently living in Malmö in the south of Sweden, she received a B.S in Landscape Architecture from SLU in 2008. Since then she has continued her studies in Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at SLU as well as Corvinus University of Budapest. She also worked as a producer in New York in spring of 2010.

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