Community Aesthetics in Heliópolis

by Teresa García Alcaraz

Heliópolis is known as one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in São Paulo, with 120,000 people living in an area of less than one square mile. Legend has it that architect Ruy Ohtake once called it the ugliest part of the city, prompting members of the UNAS community organization to ask him to help make it beautiful.

Heliópolis. Source: Roberto Rocco

To their surprise, Ohtake agreed and began working with residents to transform the ubiquitous brick and concrete walls into a vibrant cityscape. Together they decided on a flexible color scheme to use in painting the neighborhood. Ohtake selected the trim for windows and doors to subtly unite the composition.

Streets in Heliópolis before (above) and after (below). Source: Daniela Schneider

Painting didn't begin until each participant was happy with his or her choice. In the meantime, Ohtake found a local company to donate supplies. When everyone was ready they painted the buildings together.

Ohtake found that participants acquired a "civic sense not by any concept handed to them by an architect, but by action, from results they achieved while making their own environment more beautiful."

This project may seem like another celebrated attempt by an outside expert to address a situation that needs more than surface treatment. Still, it prompted residents to get to know each other and work together. At least as important as the results, collaborative planning and execution generated a sense of community around a shared purpose.

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Reversing the Panopticon

by Dieter Zinnbauer

The infamous Panopticon, conceived by Jeremy Bentham and thoroughly analyzed by Michel Foucault, is emblematic of architecture's role in surveillance and discipline — a blueprint for the perfect prison. It allows a watchman to observe inmates without them being able to tell whether anyone is actually watching them, generating an eerie sense of being monitored all the time.

Panopticons by Jay Crum. Source: Celeste

Bentham's Panopticon blazed a trail for many technological interventions designed to help governments monitor and control public space. Check out Skywatch, for example, the mobile observation structure used to keep an eye on the Occupy Movement in New York City. This high-tech platform — equipped with sensors, cameras and tinted windows — is also used at crime hot-spots.

Greenpeace Twitter wall. Source: Transparency International

Anti-corruption NGOs, such as Transparency International (where I work), help people monitor and control what their governments do. In essence, this is about reversing the Panopticon. Tactics include establishing openness and accountability policies, mobilizing civic action and raising awareness. Returning to the spatial aspect of the Panopticon, important questions arise: Can we shape the built environment in a systematic way to empower citizens vis-à-vis their governments? Can we literally design for transparency and accountability?

Albert Sirleaf's public bulletin board in Monrovia. Source: Ambient Accountability

The term "ambient accountability" refers to creative adaptation of the built environment for the purpose of citizen empowerment, as explained with examples in "'Ambient Accountability': Fighting Corruption When and Where it Happens." To encourage dialogue on this subject, I've started collecting related information, ideas and images — including the public bulletin board above — in a blog about Ambient Accountability. I welcome everyone to add to the collection.

"Panopticon, Isla de Pinos" by Stan Douglass. Source: National Gallery of Canada

So how can we turn the Panopticon around? Contrast the classic Panopticon, a prison tower (above), with the bright red Infobox (below). The Infobox was a viewing platform set up in 1995 so that people could observe a massive public-private redevelopment venture in Berlin.

The Infobox public viewing platform at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Source: archINFORM

The Infobox made it easier for citizens to track the progress of significant changes in their city — a largely symbolic gesture for public relations, but at least a step toward publicly monitoring the work of public officials and private developers.

What other design interventions could help turn the Panopticon around? Can we adapt the built environment for democracy and accountability? I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Dieter Zinnbauer is a specialist in policy and innovation for Transparency International. More of his work can be found on the Social Science Research Network and Ambient Accountability websites.

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Moscow’s Protected Landscapes

by Svetlana Samsonova

My home town, Moscow, has earned its reputation for abandoned industrial zones, flashy business districts and traffic jams. Visitors are often surprised to discover that it is also a green city.

High-rise buildings near the Khimka River in Moscow.

As Peter Sigrist mentioned in his series on public green space in Moscow, there are 96 parks and 100 square kilometers of forest within the city's borders. He describes some of these territories and considers how political processes influenced them over time. Some are now protected based on their acknowledged ecological or cultural value. Having recently completed a research project on protected areas, I'd like to add a series of posts on their current state and future prospects. This is the first, offering a brief historical overview.

Moscow's protected areas: 1. Tushino Park, 2. Izmaylovo Park, 3. Tsaritsyno Park, 4. Pokrovskoe-Stresnevo Park, 5. Sparrow Hills Park, 6. Setun River Valley Wildlife Preserve, 7. Teply Stan Park, 8. Moskvoretsky Park, 9. Ostankino Park, 10. Petrovsko-Razumovsky Park, 11. Skhodnya River Valley in Kurkino, 12. Kuzminki-Lyublino Park, 13. Kosino Park, 14. Skhodnya River Valley in Molzhaninovo, 15. Troparevo Park, 16. Sokolniki Park, 17. Zelenogradsky Park, 18. Bitsa Park, 19. Losiny Ostrov Park, 20. Degunino Park.

Precursors of today's protected areas have existed since the 16th century, when some territories were placed under special protection by the royal family and nobility as hunting grounds and private estates. These landscapes usually included not only houses and outbuildings, but gardens, farmland, meadows and woods.

A Russian estate in the painting "Grandmother's Garden" (1878) by Vasily Dmitriyevich Polenov. Source: Tretyakov Gallery

Losiny Ostrov (Moose Island) and Izmaylovo Park were strictly guarded hunting grounds for Grand Princes and Tsars. Other protected areas have estates or country houses within their borders.

Historic estates in protected areas: 1. Brattsevo (16th century), 2. Tsaritsyno (16th century), 3. Pokrovskoe-Stresnevo (17th century), 4. Vorobyovo (15th century), 5. Vasilevskoye, also known as Mamonova Dacha (18th century), 6. Troyekurovo, (17th century), 7. Troitse-Golenischevo (17th century), 8. Spasskoye-na-Setuni (17th century), 9. Kuntsevo (17th century), 10. Ostankino (16th century), 11. Petrovsko-Razumovsky (18th century), 12. Vlakhernskoye-Kuzminki (18th century), 13. Lyublino (18th century), 14. Kosino (17th century), 15. Uzkoye (18th century), 16. Znamenskoye-Sadki (18th century), 17. Yasenevo (18th century).

Due to limits on development, these territories have remained relatively unchanged since the 16th century. They are thus increasingly rare and valuable in today's rapidly growing metropolis.

A picturesque ravine in Tsaritsyno Park. Source: Sergey Vershinin

The first Russian Forest Act was adopted in 1804, when Emperor Alexander I issued a statute "On the Improved Protection of Forests and the Establishment of Forest Management in Moscow." Losiny Ostrov became the first official protected area in Russia.

Urban moose in Losiny Ostrov Park. Source: Lintas Tour

The modern history of Moscow's protected areas is based largely on the 1935 General Plan, which established a greenbelt 10-15 kilometers wide around the city limits. It included forests, meadows, fields, farms, gardens and towns, with a total population less than 270,000. The plan also included a ring of parks around the city center: Sparrow Hills, Fili, Serebryany Bor, Izmaylovo, Timiryazevo, Pokrovskoe-Stresnevo, Ostankino and Sokolniki. Today these parks are all protected. Wedges of greenery were to connect them to the greenbelt, creating comfortable microclimates and improving public health. Between 1940 and 1980, construction of factories, residential areas and roads significantly reduced the amount of green space in and around Moscow.

In the late 1980s, there were mass protests to protect green areas against increasing construction and neglect. The main problem areas were Losiny Ostrov Park, Bitsa Park, Teply Stan Park, Brateevskaya floodplain, Kosino Park, Tushino Park and several river valleys. Such environmental protest movements had never happened before in Moscow, and successfully captured the attention of public officials. In 1989, the Ninth Congress of People's Deputies focused on urban environmental problems. They released a report on environmental degradation, calling for action to preserve urban green space. Goals for the use of Moscow parks changed dramatically: urban development and environmental protection were given equal status.

Growth of protected areas in Moscow between 1973 and 2020.

The Moscow Soviet of People's Deputies (Mossovet) decided to set up a system of protected areas, and the second (Bitsa Park) appeared in 1992. Since then, the network has increased substantially. In 2004, the municipal government approved a plan for the "Development and Management of Protected Areas in Moscow" with a list of existing and planned sites up to the year 2025.

There are now 20 protected areas in Moscow, which comprised 14.4 percent of the city's 154-square-kilometer area before the 2012 expansion. Can these territories survive in a densely populated megacity? In upcoming posts, I'll focus on the mysteries of these territories, with detailed information on specific sites.

Sveta Samsonova is a junior research fellow in the geography department at Moscow State University and former president of the European Geography Association for Students and Young Geographers.

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Informality and Injustice in the Resilient City

by Andrew Wade

William Hunter is an architect, urban designer and teaching fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU), University College London. I recently caught up with him to discuss his new book, "Contested Urbanism in Dharavi: Writings and Projects for the Resilient City," a collaboration with Camillo Boano and Caroline Newton. Dharavi — perhaps the most famous informal settlement in the world — has featured on Polis many times and we're excited to return via William's experience.

How did this project come about?

The book is a culmination of work dating back to May of 2009, when a group of students from the DPU's Building and Urban Design in Development program travelled to Mumbai for a three-week research trip. Professor Camillo Boano led the project in collaboration with SPARC, an Indian NGO focused on housing and infrastructure for the urban poor. I was a student in the course, and for most of us it was the first time we'd encountered such extreme informality — from the harsh living conditions to the flourishing economic activity and political activism. This was an arena in which conflicting processes of empowerment and exploitation make comprehensive transformation seem unattainable.

Grappling with what we found in Dharavi from practical and theoretical points of view, we arrived at a studio module for the next three years. The attention and collective effort given during this time warranted proper documentation — compiling the group's research, reflections and project work into a single volume. Former students, DPU staff and many others helped us prepare the book for publication.

Why Dharavi?

There seemed to be thousands of microscopes pointed at this plot of land in central Mumbai with the powerful, if unsubstantiated, epithet "Asia's largest slum." Dharavi was at the tip of everyone's tongue — in academia, in the media, in works of non-fiction and fiction, even in cinema. Release of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" earlier that year created a somewhat glamorized image of slum living that seemed worth interrogating. Our involvement was part of this wave of intrigue, but with a challenging objective.

The DPU had established longstanding relationships with SPARC, Homeless International and Slum-Dwellers International (SDI) as well as their national affiliate, the National Slum-Dwellers Federation (NSDF). We knew that we weren't the first student group to land in Dharavi, though we felt at the time — and still do — that we were approaching the situation differently from the way others had. We shared an affinity for the architecturally driven projects by groups from Columbia University and TU Berlin, but were focused more on studying the roots of social problems and the experience of local communities. We wanted to understand the power relations at play in "slum upgrading" plans in order to inform a participatory design process.

What did your group focus on?

What's interesting is that Dharavi isn't even Mumbai's largest slum, let alone Asia's. The peri-urban Mankhurd-Govandi and Dindoshi settlements, for example, have eclipsed Dharavi in size and estimated population. But because of Dharavi's prime location at a potential transit hub just south of the Bandra Kurla Business Complex, it's caught up in conflict over Mumbai's future development.

The Dharavi Redevelopment Project (DRP), a scheme proposed and managed by architect-consultant Mukesh Mehta following a report produced by McKinsey and Company in 2003, aimed to establish a foundation for transforming Mumbai into a "world-class city" free of informal settlements. Hypothetically, this would be a great thing; living conditions are dire, with an alarming lack of basic services. But the DRP involved suspect means of implementation: among the approximately 40,000 square feet of private residential and commercial space, each Dharavi household would receive only 270 square feet of resettlement housing, and only those who could prove that they'd lived in the settlement prior to the year 2000. The project threatened places of residence and employment. Its profit-driven approach placed residents on the defensive, rendering Dharavi a perfect storm of contested urbanism.

Would you say that contested urbanism is a new global phenomenon?

It's not a new phenomenon, but definitely global. The Occupy Movement is a viral example. It involves conflicts over local space that extend to conflicts over governing the commons at other scales, over access to local and global resources. Urbanism also involves reading and investigating a place. While it seems like a familiar idea, we attempted a more critical interpretation through the notion of contested urbanism. We wanted to unpack the many different and at times contradictory power relations at play in Dharavi. We were also thinking about how similar processes take place in other settings around the world, and how to confront them in theory and practice.

How did you confront these instances of local and global spatial conflict?

We examined relationships between space, politics and society. Our approach is rooted in Lefebvre's "production of space," Heidegger's "human spatiality" and Foucault's assertion that "space is fundamental in any exercise of power." We also drew upon Lefebvre's "right to the city" and the "critical regionalism" of Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre. These concepts shed light on conflicts between people and top-down control over urban development.

The inner conflicts of development practitioners required attention as well. When we visited Dharavi and began writing about it as a studio case study, a focus on contested urbanism helped us escape the tendency to think mainly in terms of design solutions. It served as an alternative way of thinking, of enriching the possibilities for critically assessing and acting within a highly complex urban setting.

Resilience comes up often in urban planning and design, often without much critical reflection. What role did it play in your project?

In the face of struggle for equality in the city, and certainly in the wake of natural and manmade disasters, the idea of resilience is very important. The ability of individuals and communities to address immense challenges is based on unwavering effort. We see this all over the world: in southern Louisiana — where I grew up — following Hurricane Katrina, in the massive rebuilding underway in Haiti. The list goes on and on. But the everyday resilience in Dharavi is unmatched in terms of DIY building and economic activity.

Almost everything in Dharavi is part of an informal process, from the sanitation systems to the electrical grids. There is a profound coping mechanism on display, with people adjusting to a severe lack of services and a precarious future. Yet Dharavi's streets are as vibrant and bustling as those of any "global city." You can find almost anything in its markets and much of the goods are actually produced locally. I remember an article in the Economist that estimated the value of annual production in Dharavi at $500 million, and much of it is sold outside the settlement. This activity in the midst of such unhealthy and unjust living conditions is evidence of profound resilience.

What is in store for Dharavi, and what implications might this have for addressing urban poverty worldwide?

In Dharavi, the latest news is that the DRP has been momentarily thwarted by grassroots opposition. The Indian Alliance (SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan) and the Special Advisory Committee of Experts appointed to "humanize" the DRP have contributed substantially to this effort. It is a great achievement, calling attention to the need for revising policies like the Slum Rehabilitation Act, which places unfair limits on eligibility for resettlement housing.

A parallel issue is recognition, which has always been an obstacle in Dharavi and other informal settlements. The government just doesn't know how many people live in these areas, as surveys quickly become outdated with the constant flow of urbanization. Securing accurate population data is a positive step toward upgrading infrastructure, housing and services.

Informal settlements place unique demands on mainstream planning. Their strengths and weaknesses have to be taken into account when approaching redevelopment. Projects like Homegrown Cities can help by supporting local solutions to housing development and preserving resident livelihoods.

Engagement with contested urbanism requires critical, inclusive and locally specific problem-solving. People will continue to overcome obstacles and outperform expectations. This is evident in Dharavi and in so many other settlements around the world. Informal resilience and DIY ingenuity show that cities can be built and governed from below. At the same time, slum residents require and deserve the same level of services that other members of society receive.

Advance copies of "Contested Urbanism in Dharavi: Writings and Projects for the Resilient City" can be purchased by sending an email to

Credits: Photos by William Hunter.

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