Observe the uses and value the «  already there  »

Pune and Mumbai, INDIA

Christophe AUBERTIN, Merril SINEUS, 2014

Centre Sud - Situations Urbaines de Développement

This sheet proposes to rehabilitate precarious housing areas by relying on local knowledge and know-how which are often a lesson to us Westerners in terms of resource preservation and waste recycling.

« Slums are a cancer, » say their critics. In India, as in other developing countries, the trend among politicians and planning professionals is to build new housing for the inhabitants of slum areas. However, concrete actions still often follow the process of eradication/reconstruction, thus denying a model and a culture which, despite their many defects, are rich in inventiveness and popular skills. For a young architect, foreigner and novice, the analysis of the informal housing areas aimed at understanding a way of life, revealing qualities, know-how that the local populations no longer see, or that are not valued because of their popular connotations. In our observation approach, we wanted to use existing practices that we considered effective, to make the most of them in the rehousing projects. These must be adapted, economical and sustainable ; by showing pragmatism, contextual « opportunism », by freeing themselves from both Western models and local prejudices.

Observation sketch of a slum house, Pune, India

An alternative and adapted housing project : teaching the slum

Thus, with a view to rehousing, the spatial characteristics and practices observed in the slum can be reinterpreted in the new constructions. The alleys are, for example, a place where neighborhood relations and community ties are expressed. The doors of the dwellings are often open, in relation to the shared space of the alley. In a building project, if the door opens onto a dark corridor and a broken elevator shaft, the family will be isolated.

On the other hand, one can imagine a system of distribution by corridors, like that of traditional collective housing. The space is then made profitable and the social links of proximity reinforced. Each household can invest the corridor space facing it, as an extension of its apartment. The transformations carried out by the inhabitants are architectural appropriations that need to be facilitated and enhanced. In the same way, one finds in slums of small family businesses at home on the ground floor, a system which can be preserved in new housing in buildings. One-story apartments offer possibilities for openings and extensions to add commercial space. The architecture in general must be simple and pragmatic to offer maximum freedom to transformations initiated by its users.

Observation sketch of a slum house, Pune, India

Sustainability and common sense : a cultural ecology of the field

«  The least polluting energy is the one we don’t consume ", we are told in Europe about sustainable building. In India, the energy not consumed is mostly energy saved. Despite a high level of pollution and collective negligence, the populations of the slums often give beautiful lessons of applied ecology. Economic constraints call for a host of tricks, initiatives and practices for solid and exemplary results in terms of sustainability. Travelling is done by bicycle even though the streets and urban centers are increasingly unsuitable for it, rainwater is recovered for watering plants and drinking water is strictly rationed. Concerning recycling, everything is transformed because nothing must be lost! Thus, waste is sorted and those that can be sorted are recycled.

In most of the large Indian metropolises, the answers offered to environmental questions tend to privilege an exclusively technological approach by reproducing solutions that are valid for Western cities, in totally different socio-economic contexts. Social housing projects must take into account notions of sustainable housing and urban planning and give back their place to the positive skills of the inhabitants. They must first of all show economy and simplicity of use, and allow families to transpose their know-how into the new habitat.

Urban development projects in India, as in Europe and other emerging countries, must take into account the political and economic influences that intersect with the objective of improving housing, whether they are slum upgrading or neighbourhood rehabilitation. Documented knowledge of urban development situations, as well as the constructive and unifying skills of inhabitants in precarious situations, could in the long term serve to develop concrete policies for a social management of the city and a more participatory and supportive development.


Sineus M., «  Les ONG de développement et d’amélioration de l’habitat dans les villes du Sud ", master’s thesis in urban planning IFU «  Expertise Internationale Villes en Développement ", under the direction of Serge Allou, 2006

Aubertin C., «  Emerging urbanities : slums and alternatives. Urban development and slum clearance. Pune, India ", TPFE under the direction of Marie-José Canonica, Nancy School of Architecture, 2006