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Restart [UOK]

Community-based restructuring of the built environment and sanitation systems for a sustainable future

Photo of Michelle Zucker
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Quick Facts About Urur/Olcott Kuppam*
Population: 1500+ Residents
Number of Establishments: 300+
Percentage of Available Toilet Facilities: 50%
Method of Sewage Disposal: Primarily discharged onto the sea shore

*Data from household survey conducted in Urur/Olcott Kuppam by Restart[UOK] team last week

Restart [UOK- Urur Olcott Kuppam] is a proposal hinged on improving the quality of life in settlements by focusing on the provision of basic rights such as access to water and sanitation for the inhabitants of Urur/Olcott Kuppam.


Urur/Olcott Kuppam [UOK], a historic centuries-old fishing village [kuppam - term used to refer to coastal villages in ancient tamil literature], is a recognised settlement in Chennai and is quickly growing beyond its infrastructural capacity. Despite being a recognised settlement by the government, the infrastructure in UOK is extremely lacking, leading to very poor standards of living within the community and limited options for improvement. Unable to meet the basic needs of reliable water sources and proper sanitation for the residents of the kuppam, the village panchayat [local government] is looking for new ways to improve the quality of life for its community.


The metropolitan city of Chennai is an agglomeration of villages. The majority of the fishing communities in Chennai live in small villages/low income settlements located along the shoreline. While all other historic villages in the centre have been completely urbanised, the fishing villages along the coast have been compelled into a state of poor infrastructure, sanitation and sewage disposal conditions. Those who make their living as fishermen are required to live in these areas in close proximity to the sea. These fishing communities rely on the cleanliness of the shore to sustain their profession and livelihood. 

Fishermen from these villages are considered to be small-scale artisans, consequently only able to earn minimal wages in comparison to larger companies. As these fishermen spend much of their workday on the shores--they clean, mend and store fishing nets there—the inadequate sewage disposal system poses a threat to their health.

In addition to contaminating the groundwater where these communities reside, the sewage seeps onto the shores where children play. In UOK, the vast majority of children are getting sick every other week as a result. Therefore, a system to improve sanitation would have the dual effect of preserving these villagers’ traditional fishing profession while improving their health and making the community more habitable.

Quick Facts about Marine Fishing Villages[MFV]

# of MFV in Tamil Nadu: 573
# of MFV in Chennai: 44
Households/Families Belonging to Traditional Fishermen: 96%
# of Fishermen Households: 192697
Average # of inhabitants per village: 1401
# of Families Living Below Poverty Line: 127245
Access to Electricity/Cell Coverage: 95%/96%

*Source: Marine Fisheries Census 2010, Tamil Nadu


Mapping The Future

The first step forwards towards developing sustainable communities involves collaborating with the villagers to gain an understanding of how they live and use public space in their kuppam. This step is key to sustainable development, as it activates the villagers to preserve their historic and cultural identity while planning for the future. Through this collaboration, we can begin to understand the opportunities and constraints, provide a public infrastructure framework for the commons to thrive and furthermore, develop a working prototype of the system. Once issues have been identified, we will work with local organisations and the community to identify adoptable solutions that fit their unique needs. 

After completing a comprehensive report to outline the existing conditions in UOK, the community will work with funds from the government and other sources to identify and implement a proper water + sanitation system. The report will be used to leverage investments and outline a strategic framework for development in UOK. In addition, local residents will be taught a participatory building process of the wasterwater treatment system. The wastewater treatment system will address present issues including sewage accumulation and contaminated groundwater, while the education and participation of the villagers will ensure the system’s longevity and upkeep. 

Finally, the residents of UOK will be asked to contribute a sustainable monthly fee to maintain the system. 


Water sustains us all, and for the residents of Urur/Olcott Kuppam who rely on the fishing industry, the water is also their livelihood. Together, we propose implementing a participative design process with local communities in an effort to address the large-scale issue of providing water and sanitation for all residents living in fishing villages throughout the state of Tamil Nadu. Our process-driven approach will allow for adaptation overtime to ensure sustainable growth that accommodates the needs of all inhabitants.

Upon completion of our work in Urur/Olcott Kuppam, we will begin working in similar fishing villages throughout Tamil Nadu to implement a similar process-driven approach. Every process will result in a strategic framework + report to catalogue existing conditions, resource availability, future planning/growth and custom design solutions. 

How would you describe the stage of development of your idea?

  • Ready for piloting

How big or scalable is the potential of your idea?

Currently there are over 1500 inhabitants living in UOK with 44 similar settlements in Chennai, most of which are lacking basic sanitation & water infrastructure. Why Start With UOK? We were approached by the community as they desired change from within. UOK as a cooperative society, is the first fishing village in Tamil Nadu to proactively address the issues of inadequate infrastructural & sanitation conditions that is predominant across a majority of fishing villages across the state. UOK hopes to improve their living conditions together as a settlement. They are 1 of the few settlements where the representatives are socially active, transparent & accountable, a prerequisite for a first time process driven approach. This particular quality of the kuppam's residents make it the ideal choice for a sanitation improvement project. Not only will this improve the everyday life of 1 single kuppam, but trigger the mushrooming of several such projects across the cities' fishing villages.

Explain the sustainability aspect of your idea

Restart [UOK] addresses sustainability in two major ways: through the creation of self-sufficient villages and the transfer of knowledge + skills to villagers that allows for the redevelopment of similar villages in Chennai. Restart [UOK] will use the initial capital investment to facilitate a participative design process to address specific community needs, while developing a resource network to connect the community with outside knowledge and organizations. The implementation of the community-specific design ensures that desires of the village are being met with suitable infrastructural solutions. By providing the villagers with tools and education, Restart [UOK] not only helps this single village, but equips our team with the knowledge to assist other communities facing similar issues throughout the state of Tamil Nadu. With urban development pressures and global warming playing a major role in the future of the fishing industry + coastal development, it is important that we begin to address the adverse impacts today. The uncertainty of this makes it even more pertinent for a process-driven approach to design development rather than solutions-based.

What types of financing would be required for your idea to be successful?

Market-based metrics will be defined by the framework presented to Urur/Olcott Kuppam following our initial survey and mapping of the village to ensure consumption and wastes needs are met. Together, we aim to create a dynamic, market-based approach where residents pay a monthly fee to subscribe to the “community-needs” fund which supports basic sanitation and water infrastructure after successful implementation by Restart [your city]. The money will be pooled by the local panchyat [government] to pay for on-going maintenance of the system and ensure its longevity. In time, as money accrues, it will be reinvested to support pilot projects In addition, each new infrastructural system implemented in Urur/Olcott Kuppam will be met with capital investment from future partnerships. Together, with residents and the local panchyat, we will begin to target grants that optimise social return for the benefit of Urur/Olcott Kuppam. Investments will help fund future strategic growth plans as prescribed by Restart [your city]’s framework in collaboration with the residents. If selected, the partnership with will fund and support our research efforts and process-driven approach to be utilised in marine fishing villages throughout the entire state of Tamil Nadu and allow for the incorporation of key design solutions.

If you are proposing to partner with other organizations, please explain their role and reason for partnership.

Key existing partnerships working locally in Tamil Nadu include: > The Coastal Resource Centre provides sustained support to coastal communities in challenging destructive development activities. CRC’s role will be to collect all information & communicate with the government authorities, and to form an effective network with all the other fishing villages. > Vettiver Collective, a voluntary space in Chennai is open to people of diverse ideologies to discuss, debate + take action on social and environmental issues. VC in based in UOK and will primarily support the team in liaising with the community. They will also be actively engaged in documentation and design phases. Key future partnerships will target environmentally conscientious social enterprises & organisations working locally in Tamil Nadu. Our process will work to identify organisations that will benefit from the sustainable development of MFVs. For example, Greenpeace and Save Our Seas could benefit from the overall goal to restore water related ecosystems in partnership allowing UOK to continue operating as an income-generating fishing village meanwhile preserving the precious, vulnerable marine life.

In-country experience

  • Yes, for two or more years

If you have been operating in India, what has been your focus?

We have been operating as a collaborative platform working towards the creation of livable cities through active community engagement. Past projects aim to create participatory, bottom-up initiatives to work with our communities towards a more sustainable future. Our main focus is to improve the quality of our public realm & built environment by educating and providing necessary skills for all residents living in Chennai. Currently, our focus is on providing basic sanitation and water infrastructure for fishing kuppam communities faced with growing issues resulting in sewage accumulation and environmental degradation.

Is your organization currently legally registered in India?

  • Yes

What states or districts will you target/are you targeting within India?

Tamil Nadu Chennai Pondicherry *Based geographically where our partners are currently operating. In the future, our initiative will be implemented in additional states and districts as desired by the local communities.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

We are passionate about providing access to clean water and sanitation for all citizens, especially those in low-income households, as we believe it is a basic human right. We aim to work directly with the community to ensure that the majority of the population currently lacking access to adequate sanitation infrastructure gain access in an effort to decrease health concerns and improve everyday living conditions for all. Lastly, we believe the future of Urur/Olcott kuppam resides in its ability to adapt and transform over time into a resilient, self-sustaining community which will serve as a ‘model village’ for the entire coastal commons of Tamil Nadu. Restart [your city] is a collaborative community made up of relevant partners to facilitate and research micro-solutions to be utilized by local residents and community members. Our partners include: Urban Design Collective, MOAD, Life Foundation Trust and local Panchayat members/residents of the UOK.

Is this a new or recent idea for your organization? How does it differ from what you are already doing?

This idea has been evolving over the course of the past few years. While the realisation of this idea is new for Restart [your city], each current partner/organisation's work aligns with this effort directly as listed below: Urban Design Collective (UDC) is a collaborative platform for architects, urban designers & planners to create liveable and sustainable cities through community engagement. In Restart[UOK], UDC will primarily contribute its expertise in participatory methods and community centered design. It will also be a part of designing the sewage treatment system. The Madras Office for Architects and Designers (MOAD) is a multidisciplinary team of architects & designers with combined expertise in providing a range of services from large scale urban design to human scale interface design. MOAD’s role will be to design the entire sewage treatment system along with the development of the working prototype.

What are the two or three biggest risks for your idea and how will you manage the risks?

1. There is a risk of the community not engaging themselves throughout the entire process and becoming a limited participatory-process. To tackle this we will ensure to establish a user-friendly, approachable platform that facilitates communication between all stakeholders. 2. A second risk is that there is political interference/hindrance at the implementation phase. UOK is a contested area in a high-value real-estate zone, such a risk should not be dismissed. Our strategy in response to this risk would be to consolidate efforts with multiple stakeholder groups and other NGOs working in the same area. 3. Lastly, there could be delays with implementation of the solutions with governmental support in UOK. The participative, bottoms-up approach we are taking will ensure that the process can continue in other villages while we wait should this be an issue. Our aim is to develop adaptive responses to ensure our metrics are met and each community's unique needs are considered.

How would you propose to track or record the households or customers reached?

For each participatory process, we will record + meet with every household in the community to collect data. In doing so, we can begin to understand the unique challenges + opportunities that exist to ensure our response will meet each community’s inherent needs. [See RestartUOK - Task List for more detail]. The collection of evolving real-time data will ensure all factors are accounted for when developing design solutions together with local experts. For UOK, the data has been collected.

If you had two years and $250,000 USD in funding, how many households or customers would you reach?

The average # of inhabitants in each Marine Fishing Village [MFV] in Tamil Nadu is 1401, or roughly the population of Urur/Olcott Kuppam. In which case, we can generally apply the calculated reach for similar villages with the understanding that conditions are different in each village. [See attached MFV document + quick facts listed in 'How big..?' section in our entry for more info] Starting with Urur/Olcott Kuppam, our participatory process would take approximately 12 weeks to facilitate Phase 1 -5. [See RestartUOK- Task List and Timeline attachment for more info] Two Year Reach - The initiative would take approx. 12 weeks/village. At Week 9 we could begin the initiative in the next village. As a result, in 24 month we could reach 12 villages or 4035 households = 573 [# of MVFs] / 192,697 [# of households] x 12 [villages] Long-term Reach in Tamil Nadu - 573 [villages] or 192,697 [households] *calculations based on current team size

How would you propose to invest $250,000 USD if you received philanthropic/grant funding support from

With $250,000, we could fully launch our initiative in UOK + begin our participatory design approach with communities ​facing similar issues all ​throughout Tamil Nadu​ and India alike. ​Up to this point we have been operating on little to no funding, with our team + partner's passion and belief in this process carrying us forward. This funding would allow our plans to become a reality and ​implementing them would be the first step towards developing a research incubator for process-driven design in low-income villages. ​This incubator will yield solutions + working methods not only for water and sanitation, but for many other issues faced by these communities such as food security + adequate shelter. In addition, partial funding would be allocated to define a set of metrics for this process to be applied on a broader scale and work towards impact assessments to ensure needs are being met effectively. The estimated budget for Restart[UOK] Phases 1-5 would be $27,000. See Attachment

What type of support beyond grant funding are you most interested in?

Beyond grant funding, we are looking for support and guidance to include but not be limited to: - Linkages to other organisations working in similar development conditions - Engineering support for proposed infrastructure and solutions - Advice on seeking funding from the government - Business analysis

Does your organization have Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) approval?

Our partners, The Urban Design Collective and Life Foundation Trust have been registered since 2013. Both organisations are currently in the process of acquiring their approval and will be complete by the end of the 2016 fiscal year [at the latest].
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Attachments (6)

RestartUOK - Cost Estimate.pdf

The cost breakdown is split into phases. Phases 1 - 5, would be approximately $27,000. The implementation phase cost would vary based on the community and infrastructure needs. As a baseline we estimated $50,000 for a total of $77,000.


Data provided by Marine Fishing Census 2010. Scalability and data are in reference to this document and first-hand knowledge provided by the Coastal Resource Center. Populations have increased since 2010 however data is not yet available.

UOK - Scope of Project.pdf

Outline provided by MOAD of the intended scope of work to be covered initially by the Restart [you city] team.


Illustration by Caroline Neel

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Join the conversation:

Photo of Mai Anh Nguyen

Nice story and great model to solve the problem. But i am a bit concerned about the monthly fee. How much do you think would be affordable for the resident? Would this possibly become a resistance? 

Photo of Michelle Zucker

Hi Mai Anh Nguyen , Thank you for your contribution! The monthly fee would be determined based on the community input and how much each household is willing to contribute. It is to ensure community investment and the long-term maintenance of the system. We have spoken with the residents of Urur/Olcott Kuppam and their local panchayat about the fee and gained support. In each village where we facilitate this process, we would adapt the funding + maintenance plan to meet their unique needs and desires. 

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