DIY urbanism and what it means to build with the community.

Working in partnerships with the community, local authorities and leaders is the most sincere way to bridge the gap between everyone’s needs and aspirations. The Anganwadi is an experiment in codesign and collaborative building exercise that can facilitate such partnerships.

THE CONTEXT

Delhi’s Masterplan 2021 envisions a global metropolis and a ‘world-class’ city. With facile interpretations of world and class, the plan fails to adopt an inclusionary and non-discriminatory approach in its delivery programs. As a result, the city is facing an inherent contradiction in its urban identity- one that lies in both, the elegant and planned lanes of Sundar Nagar, and the clumsy DIY urban form of Lakshmi Nagar. Today, there exists a negotiated equilibrium between Delhi’s top-down aspirations for a modern city and the parallel and pragmatic self-organisation of its excluded citizens. While the masterplan takes care of the former, the latter needs our closest attention.

To fill critical gaps in urban infrastructure, many citizens have self-organised to build homes informally. Such DIY construction is driven by a single family’s short-term aspirations enforced by their socio-economic constraints. Contingent to land tenure, such neighbourhoods and their inadequacies formalise over time and inadvertently fail to function in the bigger realm of the city.  While we cannot stop individuals from self-building, it is vital to engage at an early stage to negotiate a common ground between individual needs, larger community’s aspirations and the long-term urban vision for the city.

Working in partnership with the community is the most sincere and complex way of finding a common ground. It is a well-documented fact that good partnerships gather active community support and are crucial in increasing the life-span of the urban and social interventions as the community takes over in the long run. Such engagement builds political confidence in the community as they learn to influence the outcomes collectively. Through mutual trust and respect, meaningful dialogue with the community can empower individuals. However, such partnerships are labour-intensive and require continuous commitment on both sides.

Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation

THE ANGANWADI PROJECT

Last month, I worked with Social Design Collaborative (SDG) on an innovative co-design and collaborative building exercise with an informal community in East Delhi. In response to a growing need for a safe space for kids, SDG and the local community decided to build an Anganwadi, a colloquial term for an Early childhood development + daycare centre. Here, the building team comprised of the residents, local leaders, grassroots groups, and NGOs working together in the Basti.

The decision to build an anganwadi materialised through weekly community interactions over eight months. These early-stage conversations helped to identify the needs and priorities of the residents and prompted whole-hearted community engagement. The project was funded by the Housing and Land Rights Network(HLRN) and supported by grassroots NGO groups like Koshish and Humana.

Taking a step further from the participatory design process, the project’s focus was to go beyond co-designing with the community and partner with them in the construction and management of the project. This project gave me the opportunity to understand what it means to build with the community.

THE PROCESS

THE COMMUNITY

The basti is located below a metro station, extending alongside. It has around 1500 residents inhabiting 250-300 self-built kachcha (informal) homes. The residents belong to the Kapadi community and work as street performers or day labourers. They are known to barter utensils for clothes. In casual conversations, the residents revealed they had migrated from central Uttar Pradesh and lived here informally since the 1980s. Over the years, the community endured dislocation due to Metro rail construction and recently, from a fire-breakout. Each time, they managed to reassemble and rebuild and somewhere in the process, this indicated a strong attachment towards the land.

THE DESIGN PROCESS

Weekly community meetings

SDC and the community designed the anganwadi in their weekly interactions over several months. Recurrent interactions gently brought forward the priorities and aspirations of all stakeholders involved. These meetings also helped in substituting the technical terms with demotic vocabulary that could be used by all to communicate the design ideas. With paper models and 1:1 prototype of the structure, we translated the most popular ideas into four key design elements. After that, the community members gradually refined the design and aesthetics of the anganwadi while building.

At present, the absence of affordable construction material and a surplus of fabric has prompted the residents to use cloth like sarees, along with used plywood and bamboo cane as a versatile building material. Due to past incidents of fire-breakouts, it made sense to substitute the bamboo with slotted angles and expose the community to safer, alternative building materials.

THE DESIGN

Key design elements and the subsequent improvements by the community
The final exterior and interior look
Keeping in sync with the transitory nature of the basti, we designed the structure with slotted angles and a nut-and-bolt system for easy assembly. All materials and tools were sourced from the nearby second-hand goods mandi (market). In the design, the angles are placed in a 5×3 grid and 4 to 8 feet apart and braced with diagonal angles. The metal angles are covered with second-hand plywood and painted. The roof is fabricated with used tin sheets and transparent acrylic sheets for ad hoc skylights. The interior loft spaces were created by horizontally bracing the slotted angle at the height of 5′ and placing large plywood sheets on top.
Doors and windows were placed at different height to create a playful facade and kindle curiosity

THE BUILDING PROCESS

SDC and the community constructed the anganwadi over five weekends.  Working together to build the structure facilitated knowledge-transfer and skill sharing on both sides. For example, the community became familiar with construction tools such as a drill and power saw while being exposed to their DIY tools and methods of construction.

The collaborative engagement encouraged multiple perspectives to surface during the building process. As a result, both the method and the product responded to a broader set of needs and aspirations. For instance, as architects, we were mindful of making the structure functional with access to optimum light and ventilation. While Manu, a dad, showed concern about babyproofing the sharp corners and making the interiors safe for kids. Similarly, the local Pradhan(leader) wanted a spacious and multi-functional interior space to hold future community meetings. Conversely, while building together was a great learning experience on either side, the lack of skilled builders lengthened and complicated the building process. It also increased the risk of injury among community members.

The building process with the community.

GRADUAL TRANSITION

Becoming a part of the building process enabled the community to develop a strong sense of attachment towards the anganwadi. While building, the community slowly gained expertise by asking questions and suggesting alternative methods and tools for construction. Such interactions helped even out inherent power imbalances present between the community and the professionals.

A relaxed construction process gave us the necessary time to identify a dedicated team of skilled builders among all community members. For instance, we started building with 30-35 members and had a group of 4-5 committed workers towards the end of the fifth week. A gradual and consistent engagement allowed the community to develop an organic and sustained sense of ownership towards the structure. It made the transition seamless and easy.

As the construction came to an end, the residents, local leaders and the NGOs like Koshish took over the project. To mark this transition, KOSHISH held art and dance workshops with the residents in the newly constructed space. Such workshops prompted the residents to come together and collectively use the anganwadi.

Art workshops held by KOSHISH in the newly constructed Anganwadi

THOUGHTS

In my opinion, Delhi’s 2021 vision doesn’t do justice to the needs and aspirations of the community above and many others. Consequently, they step up to fill this gap by constructing in a needs-based ad-hoc manner. Ironically, their priorities don’t align with the city’s wants either. To bridge this gap between two such wildly disconnected entities, we need to move away from the top-down models of planning/design and equally unmindful individual needs-based processes. By starting to look at partnership models, we can maybe bridge the gap between people want and what the masterplan thinks is needed. Working together with the communities, leaders, grassroots groups, authorities and all possible stakeholders can present us with the opportunity to align all needs, wants and aspirations towards a shared vision for the city. 

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