Dharavi: Weaving the Urban Fabric by Abel Feleke

In 2016, Abel Feleke of the University of Western Australia was awarded the 2016 RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship for his project, ‘Weaving the Urban Fabric: Examining the Significance of Community’. Dharavi, India was one of the many informal settlements he had the opportunity to travel to in creating his formative study into the relationships between communities, the built environment, and the urban fabric.

“Dharavi is interesting because you think when you go there it would just be one group of people but it’s like a universe, it’s a city by itself.”

“Dharavi is made up of micro communities. When you go from one area to another, the ethnicity of the people changes. They are grouped but they are co-dependent, especially economically, without each other they cannot really survive. One group might be the people that kill the goat for the meat, another group will use the leather, and another will make the bags.”

“The sense of community really exists in this kind of grouping of shared identities.  People group based on commonalities.”

“In Koliwada the houses are organised around cultural meeting points and places of work. What that does is makes a series of focal points within the community where people meet passively and increases the kind of interaction that occurs there. I felt that contributed to a sense of community or like a community consciousness.”

How would you describe the relationship between the built environment and the social networks that arise?

“It’s the expression of an identity so each of the communities have different customs and cultures and then that expresses itself in the way that they group and organise a space. That’s reflected in the way that they make incisions.”

“The representation of a cultural identity within the built environment.”

“It affects the social networks and also reinforces community ties and a sense of belonging.”

“There were a few redevelopment housing schemes looking at Dharavi but they didn’t really take into consideration that there was already an intricate society that lived there. I was talking to a social activist there (Jockin Arputham, a former Nobel Peace Prize candidate and founder of the National Slum Dwellers Federation). He was saying that people come to master plan a whole area but they don’t know where our boundaries are, where the cultural lines are of the community.”

“So I guess where you start master planning is looking at it as a whole, but it should be ‘incremental’. Then it needs to take into consideration that in each of those little areas there is often a number one family, religious and community leaders that have to be consulted.”

“There’s definitely traditions of living, the way people understand space informs the way that they live and then ultimately their social interactions and their economic means.”


How do you think the sense of community can be preserved when redeveloping informal housing in Dhavari?

“Just talk to people. I was working with Urbz in Dharavi and they’re an urban planning and design firm.  They always talk about this idea of user generated design. They talk with the people, they engage them and ask them what they want. Then they do an analysis of the spatial qualities and they also do a household survey so they can understand the people, their physical and material concerns.”


Were there any key links between the different cities you explored?

“There was a consistency individuals and communities had in being able to mould the environment. Even though they were crude interventions they had the ability to shape the medium or the place in which they create their social interaction which related to themselves and their identity.”

Feleke, A. Interviewed by Maria Da Cunha, 2017, The Tenth State, Perth.

All photographs taken by Abel Feleke and used with permission.

Maria Da Cunha

Maria Da Cunha is currently studying a Master of Architecture at the University of Western Australia. Upon recent travels to India she became interested in the relationship between Mumbai's built environment and its urban fabric.

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