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mixed-use development

Success when we deemed it failure? Revisiting sites and services 20 years later

Sumila Gulyani's picture
Between 1977 and 1997, the World Bank supported “sites and services” projects in 27 cities across India
A freshly-minted architect stood staring at a sea of toilets. Row after row of them, on small “housing plots” meant for low-income families who would build their house incrementally as their incomes and savings grew. The neighborhood was “planned” and provided with services—under a World Bank-supported “sites and services” project—to serve as the anti-thesis of and an antidote to the slums that were, at the time, increasingly becoming the only housing option for low-income families.

It was 1980 and the architect, Barjor Mehta, was deeply disappointed. There were no houses, no people and no chance that they would ever come, given the seemingly god-forsaken location—in an area called Arrumbakkam—so far from the city center in Madras (now Chennai). Having just completed his thesis on housing, he wrote a scathing news article in the Times of India denouncing the sites and services approach. Barjor wasn’t alone in his critique, and by the mid-1990s the World Bank had almost entirely abandoned such projects.

In October 2015, Barjor, now Lead Urban Specialist at the Bank, invited me to revisit Arumbakkam and other neighborhoods developed, between 1977 and 1997, under four Bank-supported sites and services projects: With my colleagues Kate Owens and Andrea Rizvi, I visited 15 of the 28 sites developed in Chennai and Mumbai. We also reviewed archival material, analyzed satellite images, and recently presented our preliminary findings (download a peer-reviewed journal article here). Now, Barjor and I agree that previous assessments of failure may have been both premature and erroneous.

Why?