Karachi’s development and the principles of urban planning


By Arif Hasan

Some cities have done well while others have become increasingly degraded and difficult to live in. An analysis of the successes and failures of these cities in dealing with growth, points to four planning principles which if followed can help make cities less conflict prone, economically sustainable and liveable for the vast majority of their population. These four planning principles are discussed below.

One, planning has to respect the ecology of the region in which the city is located. Not doing so results in vulnerability to cope with natural disasters, depletion of subsoil aquifers, desertification of natural green areas, flooding, pollution of water bodies, the death of fauna, flora and areas of recreation, and an increase in environmental related diseases and stress.

Two, landuse has to be determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on land value alone. Not doing this is one of the major reasons for social conflict and fragmentation as it results in traffic congestion (which the best traffic engineering projects have failed to overcome); pushing the poorer sections of the population out of the city and thus creating disparity, economic loss and social conflict; an increase in commuting time and hence in transport costs and mental stress; the death of multi-class recreational and entertainment space; and a loss of self-respect among the more marginalized population.

Three, development must cater to the needs of the majority. This “vast” majority consists of lower income and lower middle income groups. They are people who live in informal settlements, far away from their places of work; they are pedestrians, commuters, hawkers and run small informal businesses. In many cities development has catered to transport and traffic problems but has failed to cater to the economic and social well-being of this majority. Such cities may have beautiful planned elite areas but they also have high crime rates and social conflict due to which the rich ghettoise themselves thus increasing disparity and exclusion. Such cities include San Paulo, Rio, Mexico City, and Johannesburg. Karachi is well on its way to becoming like them.

And four, the tangible and intangible cultural assets and heritage of the city have to be protected. Doing this establishes social and political continuity and gives the people of the city an identity and a pride in its history. It also helps in bridging ethnic and class differences which is a priority since most Third World cities are now multi-cultural.

In the planning of Karachi and in the formulation of its development projects, none of the above principles have ever been considered and as a result environmental, social and economic conditions have deteriorated and continue to do so. It must be mentioned, however, that Karachi’s master plans and the Karachi Development Plan 2000 did take some of these principles into consideration but then these plans were never implemented and nor did their provisions become law. We have ignored the ecology of the region in which Karachi is located. Due to this the regions subsoil aquifers have been depleted because of excessive use. Recharging them is difficult, if not impossible, since we have lifted sand and gravel for construction purposes from the river beds and streams due to which storm water run-off cannot be controlled. This has resulted in the desertification of the Karachi region and the natural green areas that were a part of the metropolitan area of the city. We have also reclaimed mangroves and drainage channels for building elite townships due to which Karachi floods with the minimum of rains and due to which our natural flora and fauna have all but disappeared. Sewage is discharged into the natural water bodies destroying and/or polluting marine life and promoting environmental diseases.

Landuse in Karachi is entirely determined by land value. As a result, wholesale markets, cargo terminals, storage and warehousing are in locations that add to traffic congestion and pollution. Space required for these facilities is now available only in katchi abadis which further adds to congestion, pollution and environmental degradation of already degraded settlements. In KDA Scheme – 33 alone, over 800 acres of amenities have been commercialised. In addition, about 30,000 houses in katchi abadis have been bulldozed since 2000 to make way for commercial development. Due to this a population of 270,000 has been rendered homeless or has shifted to areas outside the city. This relocation has caused a major deterioration in their socio-economic conditions, which is the last thing a government wishing to promote equity could wish for.

Previous and recent development projects in no way cater to the needs of the majority. There is no social housing programme for the city due to which katchi abadis are the only housing option available to the lower and lower middle income groups. Karachi’s Mass Transit Programme has been in a limbo since 1977 and the most recent proposals for it are questionable in economic and also in environmental terms. Hawkers are evicted from their locations rather than being rehabilitated in an organised manner. They are removed from parks and recreation areas due to which the poorer sections of the population (to whom they cater) no longer visit these areas. The needs of pedestrians and commuters have never been and are still not a priority. Unemployment is one of the major issues for the majority of younger Karachiites. They do not possess the skills for the jobs that the market economy and globalisation is creating. The institutions to provide these skills do not exist or are in a terrible state. There are no plans to upgrade them or establish new institutions.

The cultural heritage of the city is being systematically destroyed and can only be salvaged if its preservation is linked to a larger city development plan which takes into consideration the three planning principles mentioned above and removes lacunas in the present laws and regulations. These lacunas are well known to the authorities yet no action is taken to address them. Some of the mass transit solutions which are being proposed consist of building elevated transitways through the heritage zones which will destroy the little heritage that is left of Karachi’s unique colonial architecture. That such transitways will be a disaster for Karachi’s built-heritage has been well established, yet the proposals persist.

The new projects being developed along Clifton Beach, the non-transparent sale of Bandal and Buddo islands for development purposes to a private company, the continued encroachment on the mangroves and the proposed expressway from Jinnah Bridge to Quaidabad are all in violation of all the four principles discussed above. However, the donkey-cart race patronised by the Sindh Governor recently was a step in the right direction. One hopes that it was not a one off affair and will be institutionalised. Similarly, the protection of the part of Clifton Beach in the city government possession from commercial construction is a welcome step. One hopes that more such steps will be taken to protect Karachi’s natural environment and promote a more citizen friendly physical environment.

A new Karachi master plan is under preparation. It is recommended that the four principles mentioned in this piece should be enshrined in the plan and the rules, regulations, procedures and institutions required to implement them should be developed. A city is much more than an “engine of growth” and making it “investment friendly” cannot be achieved simply by “improved investment-related-infrastructure” and security systems but by seeking to remove the causes of poverty, exclusion and social conflict. Sensitive physical planning can help in achieving this objective.