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by Shruti Shiva, 9 June 2015
Seven lessons from a successful slum upgrading project
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Oringially published in by Shruti Shiva

The local women's group aided many aspects of a project aimed at improving living conditions in the Yerwada village outside of Pune, India. (Prasanna Desai Architects).

PUNE, India — Over the past five years, the Yerwada slum area on the outskirts of Pune has gone through a remarkable transformation.

Where once there was an unplanned maze of narrow alleys, now there are spacious inner lanes. Ramshackle homes made of bamboo sticks and asbestos sheets have been replaced by sturdier structures made of brick and mortar. Yerwada is still a noisy, busy place, but there is now room for small squares where children play cricket, small yards where women dry chilies for cooking and places for residents to park their cycles.

The changes in Yerwada are unusual in India for two reasons. First, they improved the area without razing it and relocating the residents elsewhere, as remains the general approach to illegal squatter settlements in cities across India. Yerwada's residents have had to put up with a lot of demolition and construction, but the fabric of their neighborhood — and all of the social and business connections woven into it — remains intact. Second, engaging residents was an important part of the process.

The Yerwada project is part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, a revitalization initaitive that wrapped up last year and carried the goal of envisaging a "sustainable and slum-free city." It was led by Prasanna Desai Architects in collaboration with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an NGO that works on housing for the poor. Most important, unions from the slum-dwellers' communities themselves were key players.

Yerwada's streets used to be an unplanned maze of narrow alleys, but now are
wide enough to let in light and create public space. (Shruti Shiva)

As a student studying what architecture can do to alleviate poverty, I recently spent almost a month in Yerwada. As I talked with residents and planners, it became clear there was much that other cities in the developing world could learn from what has happened here. What follows are seven lessons that other cities can take from Yerwada's experience.

Listen to the residents. The mahila mandal, or local women's group, was a key player in almost every aspect of the project. The women offered local knowledge and connections, as well as a collection point for advocacy on behalf of Yerwada's residents.

The architect's team held community meetings, with the aim of incorporating the public's suggestions into the design. This back-and-forth process of making proposals and then incorporating design changes was mediated by the mahila mandal until a consensus was reached. The input led to design solutions that may not otherwise have been taken into account. For example, an elderly inhabitant who could not walk inspired house designs that located senior citizens on the ground floor.

Map the existing layout. The architect's team began with mapping the footprints, streets and openings of seven slums across Yerwada. This informed a master plan that took into account the uses of streets, their angles and what if any semi-open spaces existed, as well as how those spaces were being used in their current contexts. When it came to mapping structures, they turned to the local women's group for help. The women were able to identify which houses and buildings were built as permanent structures that would be essential to keep.

Retain what can be kept of the existing area. Getting rid of substandard shelter and building sturdier new housing for the residents was a big goal of the project. But so was keeping as much as possible of the old neighborhood intact. Permanent structures identified through mapping were retained. Residents whose temporary homes were demolished often moved into new homes built on the same site or close to where they previously lived.

Full-scale models of new homes gave Yerwada residents a chance to experience
housing layouts before construction. (Prasanna Desai Architects photo)

Build up, not out. Some of the new homes were stacked one on top of the other, or clustered together. This allowed space to be reclaimed for public streets and squares, along with some additional semi-private home spaces for verandas, patios and backyards. As 9-year-old Aashna Sheikh told me, "Now there's place for the houses, and for us to play!"

Use local labor. The women's organization helped to identify skilled laborers, such as carpenters and masons, whose skills were needed in the construction process. Using local labor not only reduced the overall cost of the project but also increased public participation and the community's ownership of the project.

Employ spatial modeling. The architect's team made makeshift spatial house models out of cloth and bamboo on a 1:1 scale. This allowed Yerwada's residents to experience the spaces of the different housing types and voice more informed opinions and grievances about the layouts.

Housing isn't free. The scheme was able to provide 300,000 rupees per house (about $4,800 U. S.), which accounted for 90 percent of the cost of construction. The remaining 10 percent was put forth by the beneficiaries, who developed a sense of pride because their money and effort went into the building. Residents now take up maintenance with as much energy as they did during the building process. "For a salesman with an average income," says Yerwada resident Habib Sheikh, "to get a house with good facilities like this would have been impossible."