Holcim Foundation


Upgrading without destroying

Retained diversity – Maintaining strengths while upgrading informal habitats

A working group at the 4th International Holcim Forum in Mumbai examined how the standard of living in informal settlements can be improved without destroying the strengths and identity of the community. The workshop led by Hans-Rudolf Schalcher (former Member of the Board and Head of the Academic Committee) looked at improving the standard of living for the residents while trying to preserve the valuable social structures in these communities.

The central question of the workshop led by Hans-Rudolf Schalcher, member of the Board and former Head of the Academic Committee of the Holcim Foundation, was: How can the standard of living in such settlements be improved, without destroying the strengths and identity of the community?


To answer this question, a discussion was held amongst experts including Architecture Professor Michael Sorkin (The City College of New York, USA), SPARC Founding Director Sheela Patel (Mumbai, India), and Gustavo Restrepo, winner of the Holcim Awards Gold 2008 Latin America (Medellín, Colombia) – covering topics such as urban growth and dynamics, everyday life of poor city dwellers, and conflicts between planned and spontaneous growth. 

In his vivid presentation, Uday Athavankar, Emeritus Fellow of the IIT Bombay, pointed out that there is no general recipe; rather, one must always ask the question: Is this or another approach applicable to this specific case? Athavankar presented two entirely different approaches in Mumbai: the upgrading of existing informal settlements and the creation of higher-quality replacement buildings. Both approaches have certain advantages and disadvantages, and neither is applicable everywhere.

“We came to the conclusion that slums are the product of failed policies, of bad governance, of corruption, of inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets, irresponsible financial systems, and a fundamental lack of political will,” said American architect Sarah Graham in her summary presentation of the workshop findings. 

Each case must be considered and solved for itself – because no slum is like any other, not even within the same city. Thus, for example, the densely developed residential towers of the SPARC project in Mumbai are “an enormous upgrade,” whereas the case of Dharavi is different: “We were all impressed about the level of common sense and self-sufficiency there,” said Graham, “and the conclusion of all this must probably be: Upgrading informal habitats sustainably is about allowing a maximum number of people to have a future that makes sense by improving social, economic, and environmental conditions.” 


Mobile Workshop

Led by Indian architects and urban planners Keya Kunte and Ameya Athavankar, the Blue Mobile Workshop took the participants first to the SPARC resettlement site in Mankhurd. The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) plans and realizes habitats and infrastructure for the very poor. The new multi-story residential buildings that the NGO has built in Mankhurd are simple but very practical – and are prized by their residents, as one immediately feels when talking with them.

A visit to Dharavi followed. Dharavi is perhaps the most famous informal settlement in India and one of the largest in Asia: Here one million people live on two square kilometers of land. This neighborhood grew organically and today is in the middle of the city, as Mumbai has grown around it. Dharavi is notable for its diversity and well-functioning network. Much work takes place here; even in the smallest shacks one finds tiny factories or businesses – and an enormous spectrum of forms and quality of housing.

Last Updated: March 04, 2014
Article Details
Mumbai, India
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