Marking the uncharted: A tale from Sangam Vihar

A City for all
A truly pluralistic sociaety. Courtsey – The author

In her book Ordinary Cities: Between Modernity and Development, author Jennifer Robinson poses the question on whether we are living in world cities or a world of ordinary cities? The author is opposed to the binaries that exist in planning language around us like north-south, urban-rural etc. and calls for cities to be analysed as spaces of production in the context that they occur. At the same while looking at the fate of planning and space production in Delhi today, I am reminded of Scott Bollen’sUrban planning amidst Ethnic conflict‘, Delhi’s caste and ethnic division runs deeper than what meets the eye. It is only when one is confronted with figures such as 75% of Delhi’s population lives in unplanned settlements that one confronts the nature of the problem. This other 75% which often lives in settlements classified as Slums, Unauthorised settlements, Urban Villages, rural villages, regularised settlements etc. is subjected to a very different standard of urban life than the privileged 25%. These settlements are often left undemarcated on plans and master planning documents, this keeps the fate of these unplanned settlements in a constant limbo, catching the residents in a web of illegality, they are often made to pay more for services; denied at will and so on. Given this background how is a design professional expected to engage in such a context to ameliorate the conditions in these unplanned parts of the city? or more importantly, how can one design for the other 75%?


One such solution is provided to us by the Delhi project of the urbanXchanger Delhi leg organised and initiated by the Alfred Herrhausen Society and curated by Ute WeilandMarcos Rosa. Through the initative, architecture and urban design offices of Anagram, Delhi and FAR, Berlin came together to ideate on Sangam Vihar, an agglomeration of unathourised settlement in South Delhi. The design firms engage with Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, a NGO that is working in the area. Sangam Vihar is a bustling neighbourhood with over a million residents in an area less than 7 square kilometers, making it one of the densely populated areas on earth. The place is a microcosm of people from all over India and houses arrivals made up of mostly land-less peasents from the countryside, who come to the city in search of work opportunities. The place came up in response to the failure of  DDA to provide adequate low-cost housing for incoming residents in the city.

Walk taken along the edge during the immersion workshop_Daniel Grenz
The architecture offices walking through the forest at the back of the neighbourhood. Courtesy – Daniel Grenz

Sangam Vihar is straddled by the city on the North and Asola Wildlife Reserve on the South and remains vulnerable to seasonal flooding, disease outbreaks, inadequate municipal servicing and so on. The massive neighbourhood that reminds one of Parisopolis in Sao Paolo although based on a neat grid is poorly serviced and it sometimes takes upto one hour for residents to get out of the neighbourhood. The residents have been fighting for over three decades now to get legally authorized but their calls have fallen on deaf ears. The area is still demarcated as partly agriculture and partly forest land on the official masterplanning documents. Keeping this in mind the architect collective sought to work at this through their innovative ‘Schizo Plan’approach, whereby they intended to operate at multiple levels to negotiate the legality of the settlement.

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Through one of the approaches the ubiquitous google maps icon was utilised to demarcate the edge of Sangam Vihar with the forest. This not only demarcated the sensitive ecology of the forest for the residents but also demarcated the living ecology of Sangam Vihar as a neighbourhood. Through charting various events along the edge the architects were able to phenominalise solutions to the problems inside the community and how these could be solved through simple gestures.

Next physical approaches to the event icons were marked on the ground as arrows to guide the residents to them.

Which was followed by actual events that followed various themes such as ‘the game of composting’, ‘follow the waste’, ‘composting workshop’, ‘cleaning percolation pits’ etc.

The events attracted a good participation amongst the residents and was helpful for entry level activities in the neighbourhood. The mobile setup will hopefully now travel to the other blocks of the neighbourhood and other parts of the city that face similar challenges. The ‘urbanXchanger’ platform allowed for simultaneous experimentation in cities of Sao Paolo, Cape Town and Mexico City, where architects similarly engaged with other firms to bring about collective action. These sort of projects will hopefully seed an alternative form of practice among architecture and planning professionals to start engaging with the other 75%.

I am proud to share that the exercise is being exhibited at this year’s Venice Biennale – Reports from the front, under the LSE Cities pavillion – ‘Conflicts of the Urban Age’

(The author was the local coordinator for urbanXchanger Delhi and also for the Urban Age Award in 2014)


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