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Geneva-London-New York-Tokyo-Mumbai-Geneva. These are the professional stages of Matias Echanove. In his backpack he brings back a great deal of experience in participatory urban planning, which focuses on the needs of the residents. The 43-year-old is now applying his expertise in western Switzerland.

This content was published on December 7, 2020 - 3:00 p.m.

Matias Echanove is a nomadic urban planner with an arguably unique career. After studying in Geneva, his path took him via London, New York and Tokyo to Mumbai. That was in 2008.

During a conversation in his office in Mumbai, the father of two children, both of whom were born in India, said the stay in Japan was particularly formative.

"The gradual development of the city of Tokyo after World War II [where elements are gradually added] was what attracted me in the first place. These buildings were built by the residents without financial support from the state. They learned the skills from the craftsmen. Step Step by step, house by house, new quarters were created, "says Echanove.

"That was not an urbanism planned from above, but one that was carried out according to the immediate needs of the population and in a context of scarcity of space. The mixed use, that is, living and working in the same place, can still be found in Tokyo today", says the town planner.

Urban planning that includes the needs of the residents and the use of local know-how - this model shaped him. "In contrast, I regret that the simplistic and predominant view is to break everything down and then erect blocks of buildings or apartment towers for speculative purposes."

"Slum" from the cinema

But what do the two metropolises Tokyo and Mumbai have in common? The economic capital of India has some similar characteristics, especially in the Dharavi district.

There houses and apartments, which also serve as a place of work, have sprung up like mushrooms. The quarter of almost three square kilometers became famous through the film "Slumdog Millionaire".

But beyond fiction, Dharavi appears as a mystery. Because the territory is not clearly delimited, nobody knows exactly how many people actually live there.

According to various sources, it should be between 350,000 and a million residents. "We have calculated that the population density is a hundred times higher than that in Lausanne," says Echanove.

In addition to its density, it was above all the complexity and intensity of the quarter that prompted Echanove to undertake a comparative study of Tokyo and Dharavi. The latter was originally a fishing village.

A meeting with the Indian anthropologist Rahul Srivastava was significant in this regard: "It enabled me to understand how Dharavi works, its complexity, its cosmopolitan character and the challenges its residents are faced with," says the urban planner.

This meeting finally led to the opening of the Urbz office in 2008. The collective of around 20 people today has branches in Mumbai, Geneva, Bogota, Sao Paulo and Seoul.

It brings together urban planners, architects, anthropologists and social workers, among others. "We always work in the experimental mode: We make use of all our skills and try to get the teams to know and interact with each other as well as possible."

Now that he has got to know Dharavi better, Echanove does not see the quarter as a slum, i.e. a slum: "It is not a housing estate made of cardboard walls and tin roofs, it does not look bad, it is not poor or run down. It is very dynamic, in constant Change. Much of the waste in Mumbai is recycled. There is even a leather industry here that exports its products all over the world, "he says.

But for him, Dharavi is officially a restricted area because it is legally considered a slum. Sanitary facilities and running water in houses are illegal. The residents have to get the water from municipal sources, fill buckets and use public toilets.

Despite the closure, Urbz is rebuilding six houses in the former fishing district with the help of local craftsmen. Four of them are still under construction.

A model for the price of a house

The pandemic has slowed down projects, but they have not been abandoned. In 2016 Urbz asked small contractors in and around Dharavi to design models for the best possible workshop house for the area.

The result was an unexpected success: five models were presented in the MAXXI Museum in Rome. After being exhibited around the world, the M + Museum in Hong Kong, built by Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron, recently bought three of them.

This project was followed by another on a larger scale: "Homegrown Street". Urbz asked the residents of a street in Dharavi where their house is located to imagine what it will look like in seven years.

Local craftsmen then built three model houses. These were recently exhibited in Lille, the world design capital in 2020. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the project had to be canceled. But the goal remains to complete the models of a further 13 houses.

“We want recognition for a form of gradual and participatory urbanization in India that is indeed universal but is considered illegitimate. In the end, we realized that we could sell a single model in museums for the price that we could sell a single model , could actually modernize an entire house. So the idea would be to help the residents of this street financially to redesign it according to their wishes ", hopes Echanove.

Success in western Switzerland

In 2019 Echanove returned with his family to his hometown of Geneva, Switzerland. In the case: the participatory approach to urban development. Since opening the Urbz branch there in 2016, he has been traveling back and forth between Switzerland and India on a number of occasions.

The timing was perfect: Urbz was able to benefit from a change in the law in Geneva and a political decision in the canton of Vaud to land orders. Since 2015, residents of Calvinstadt have had to be consulted about partial development plans.

"There were very few experts in this field and the application of the consultation methods developed in India was quickly adopted in French-speaking Switzerland," says Echanove.

And in Lausanne, Urbz was entrusted with advising the population in connection with the development of the Place de la Riponne, which was included in the international ideas competition. Three of 36 projects were awarded prizes.

Expert and citizen jury

"This is the first time that a mixed jury of experts and citizens has been formed for a project of this size," says the town planner. "Soon, with the help of makeshift arrangements that showcase the strong ideas of the award-winning projects, the city will conduct a full test with the population on the Place de la Riponne."

In addition, the authorities in Geneva commissioned the Urbz office to help them program part of the Praille Acacias Vernets project. The study concerns the heart of the quarter and combines living, culture and economic activities on an area of ​​60,000 square meters. Urbz first examined the merits of a cultural center in the vicinity of the project.

"We were of the opinion that this should not only be a positive factor, but the central theme of this project: a connection between the different target groups, an identity generator for the neighborhood. The cultural center should also be seen as a vehicle for economic development. We identified a need for artist residences as well as mixed apartments, i.e. spaces in which people live and work, "he says.

Mumbai and Geneva may be worlds apart, but the issues surrounding people's coexistence are not that far apart.