Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Creating space vertically

by: Juan Carvajal and Kirthi Ramesh

As we squeeze through the alleys of the Sweeper Colony, Sonu, a girl from the community, shows us some tiny rooms where often 2 or 3 generations crowd together every night to sleep. Walking further through the tight pathways, we suddenly notice a narrow two-storey building towering above the one storied houses. Curious about its function, we de­cide to take a closer look. Arriving there we meet Ajab Lal and his son, Rajak Lal, who are the tenants of the house. They make a gesture inviting us to climb up all the way up to the rooftop. After tackling the grips of iron jutting out from the wall in irregular intervals, an excellent view of the community awaits us.

The rooftops of the Sweeper Colony in Narayanganj

Twelve years ago, Ajab Lal built a small room above the narrow passage adjacent to the neighbor’s house, just big enough for two people to sleep in. By that time his daughters had already been married and moved in with their in-laws, but his sons were yet to be married. While girls traditionally move to their in-laws house after marriage, boys stay with their pa­rents. Sensing that the 7m² room on the ground floor would not be enough to ac­commodate him, his wife, his two grown-up sons and their families, Ajab decided to enlarge their living space. With no space around the house the only possibility was to build upwards, on top of the hallway as their own roof is slanted and shared with the neighboring house.

Ajab Lal

This was not an easy undertaking. Ajab first had to get permission from the Pou­rashava who owns the land and builts the houses. He approached the chair person of the community to discuss the matter and then went to the Pourashava who ap­proved his request. His next challenge was actually building the new upstairs room. With little outside help it took him about 20 days to carry out this project. Today his newly married younger son sleeps in the small room on the upper floor while he and his wife live on the ground floor. His older son, who lived in that room before, moved to another house nearby with his wife and their three children.

The vertical extension of the house

For many community members, however, the reality is still a crowded one. This is not unusual in Bangladesh where the over­all population density is one of the highest in the world with 1075 persons per km². In fact, in slums the population density is about 200 times higher, despite the fact that most slum dwellings are only single storey, as in the case of the Sweeper Colo­ny. Population density in the Sweeper Co­lony is 150 times higher than the national average, with as many as 168 172 people per km². This can lead to situations whe­re 15 people live within 8m2. In return for their work as cleaners for the Pourashava no rent is charged, which is the major re­ason why most families stay despite conti­nuing population growth.

Some community members tell us that they are all very proud of Ajab’s intelli­gence but, for various reasons such as financial constraints, lack of knowledge on construction work etc., so far no one else in the Sweeper Colony has taken up this idea to vertically extend their houses.

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