Urbz was founded in 2008 by Matias Echanove, Rahul Srivastava, and Geeta Mehta in Mumbai, and now has additional offices in Bogotá and Geneva. The diverse team of architects, designers, urban planners, anthropologists, economists, and policymakers bring various skills to shape each project from many different perspectives. The collective is committed to information sharing and public participation, operating under the belief that the everyday experiences of the residents of the communities they work with constitute essential knowledge for architecture, planning, urban development, and policy-making.
In addition to their physical work, Urbz also endeavors to change the word ‘slum,’ and how it is received; ‘slums’ are not apocalyptic, crime-infested, disease-ridden sewers, but ‘homegrown neighborhoods’ that lack adequate infrastructure. The extent to which they lack such resources is often a case of deliberate political manipulation.
Urbz confronts the most daunting problem facing slums: the value of their real estate. Often, well-meaning city planners inspired to create ‘humane’ living conditions collaborate with profit-minded developers to execute the most common form of slum rehabilitation: level & relocate. Nowhere is the specter of this method more omnipresent than in Mumbai’s Dharavi – often misunderstood as Asia’s largest slum and home to somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people.
Located near the center of Mumbai and surrounded by posh neighborhoods, Dharavi would be worth billions to private sector developers seeking to build new housing, malls, etc. The people of Dharavi, therefore, become a problem for developers and are seen as hindrances needing to be relocated for development to take place. Urbz is part of a vanguard seeking to help the residents of Dharavi by bringing recognition to the local construction practices and pushing back against the economic and political forces driving relocation.
One such effort can be understood through the ‘homegrown street’ project, which recognizes the talent and skills of local builders in homegrown settlements by providing a space for showcasing their ideas and design imagination. Putting preconceptions aside and using an ethnographic lens that works with the language of architecture, the project explores the design imagination of local artisans who, day after day, build thousands of tiny houses that accommodate the multitude of low-wage workers sustaining the city’s service and manufacturing sectors.