The World Class City Concept and its Repercussions on Urban Planning for Cities in the Asia Pacific Region


(The contents of this paper are drawn from my personal experiences of working or being associated with programmes and projects in a number of Asian cities over the last two and a half decades and with their planners, academics, students, politicians and NGO and CBO representatives. Many of these programmes and projects were supported by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) and bilateral development agencies and most of the references in the paper are from authors known personally by me.)


Urban Planning for Cities in the Asia Pacific Region [1]


The welfare state model in Europe was born out of an uneasy reconciliation between capitalism and its opponents. Its principles were adopted by most of the newly independent countries (who did not belong to the Soviet block) in the post-Second World War period. The ethos of the model survived because of the division of the world into socialist and capitalist entities and because of the presence of a revolutionary China and a militarily powerful Soviet Union in the Security Council of the United Nations (UN). In these circumstances a global market economy was simply not possible. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the repercussions of the failure of the Cultural Revolution in China changed all this and in political terms, capitalism came to dominate the world.

As a result, we are governed today by three global institutions. They determine global politics, culture, finance and development and as such most national development policies and concepts as well. These institutions are all undemocratic in nature and hence their decisions and policies cannot be changed through existing rules, regulations and procedures that determine their functioning. These institutions are: 1) the UN, which is controlled by five country-members of the Security Council who are considered to be the winners of the Second World War and who can individually veto any decision of the UN General Assembly; 2) the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, which function on the basis of one dollar, one vote; and 3) the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which was born out of the G-7 green room negotiations that led to the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and is controlled by the G-8 group of nations.

Collectively these organisations have promoted what has come to be known as the “free market” economy, the most important aspect of which is the freedom of capital to move across national borders and seek investment wherever it can multiply. The structural adjustment process, which many poorer countries had to undergo in the decade of the 1990s, facilitated the growth of the free-market economy and helped in this process. Structural adjustment demanded from national governments the regulating of their balance of payment and returning loans taken from the IFIs. To make this possible countries undergoing structural adjustment agreed to remove subsidies on health, education and housing; increase taxation on utilities; sell their industrial and real assets to the private, national or international corporate sector; and remove restrictions on imports and exports. The resulting national economic crunch meant that the poorer countries could not invest in, and in many cases even subsidise, infrastructure projects which had to be built by the international or national corporate sector through international tendering. As a result, there has been a big boom of international companies bidding for these projects. The Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and the Build-Operate-Own (BOO) processes were invented to make infrastructure development possible through this system. Both systems produce infrastructure at more than twice the cost of government-produced infrastructure and in addition national governments have to give sovereign guarantees for the investment made by the investors.

Entirely new terminology and concepts have been developed to support the market economy. Concepts such as “it is not the business of the state to do business,” “cities are the engines of growth,” and the linking of economic wellbeing with GDP growth have all had a major impact on the national policies of Asian countries. In search of growth and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), they have invested in a big way in the creation of industrial zones (instead of in their people) and accepted the concept of “corporate” farming. India is one of the emerging economic giants that have followed these policies since the mid- 1990s. As a result, its economic growth in the last decade has varied between 7% and 9%. However, it is estimated that as a result of the creation of 500 Special Economic Zones for attracting FDI and corporate farming — both promoted by the World Bank for GDP growth — about 400 million people would willingly or unwillingly be forced to move from rural to urban areas by 2015[2]. This is twice the population of the United Kingdom, France and Germany put together. This process is also being promoted in other Asian counties and is in many cases being resisted by the farmers[3]. It is replacing food crops with cash crops and in the process increasing the cost and shortage of food, thereby creating agricultural refugees and making the state vulnerable to corporate sector pressures and interests


To promote FDI, the UN, IMF and WTO have also promoted the decentralisation of governance systems, giving considerable power to local level institutions. Increasingly this power is being used for accessing FDI and identifying projects independently of the provincial or central governments. IFI-influenced political reforms and deregulations have also had a major impact on property markets and have reshaped the politics of land development. Trading across borders in gold and contraband goods is no longer lucrative. As a result, the gangs and mafias involved in these underworld activities have become involved in the real estate business and linked up with their underworld partners abroad for this purpose. This has skewed the land market and promoted massive speculation[5].The process has been further facilitated by regional conflicts, increasingly porous borders (both for capital and individuals) and the narcotics trade. All this has introduced an element of violence, targeted killings and kidnappings of opponents, rivals and social activists in the land and real estate sector[6].

The state in almost all cases has responded to these market pressures and made land available for development through land-use conversions, new development schemes and the bulldozing of informal settlements[7]. Apart from their own internal organisational weaknesses and culture, NGOs and CBOs who have challenged this process have faced two constraints: an unsympathetic international media and an absence of laws to prevent environmentally and socially inappropriate land conversions. Even where such laws do exist, rules, regulations, procedures, and institutions to implement them are often missing. As a result, courts often deliver  judgements that promote inequity, poverty and social fragmentation[8].

Poverty has increased in the countries that did not have the means to respond positively to the free market, and the rich-poor divide has increased in all cases. To rectify this increasing divide, IFIs have promoted the concept of safety nets for the poor for which loans are being provided and the role of NGOs in these programmes is being encouraged. Safety nets are serving a very small percentage of the affected population and NGO involvement with big funds available to them is adversely affecting NGO culture and its relationship with development policies and poor communities[9]. Loans for infrastructure projects have also increased, especially for road projects. There is an increasing questioning of these loans and of aid programmes and the projects promoted by civil society organisations in the South[10]. There is evidence that shows that most of the projects are unsustainable and expensive, and that much (in some cases most) of the loans are re-invested back in the north in the form of technical assistance, overheads, and contractors’ profits promoted by the concept of international tenders[11].

What has been elaborated above has had a profound effect on the shape and politics of our cities. The shapes that our cities are taking and the reasons behind them are the results of a powerful nexus of developers and investors (many of dubious origins); and corrupted government institutions, bureaucrats and politicians seeking global capital for shaping their cities in the image of the “West” — an image that is promoted (implicitly or explicitly) by the UN, IMF and WTO. To promote this paradigm, which I call the neoliberal urban development paradigm, the concept of the world class or global city has also been promoted. It is a powerful concept and has almost universally been accepted by national government policy makers, the newly emerging middle classes, and academia, especially in the West.

The World Class City Concept and its Repercussions

Karachi, Bombay, Hochiminh City, Seoul, and Delhi all aspire to become World Class cities. Some wish to become like Shanghai and others like Dubai[12]. The World Class city has been defined beautifully (also sympathetically) in a brilliant paper written by Mehbubur Rahman as well as in other literature[13]. According to the World Class city agenda, the city should have iconic architecture by which it should be recognised, such as the highest building or fountain in the world. It should be equipped to host an international mega event like the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup. It should have high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements and low-rise neighbourhoods. It should cater to tourism (which is often at the expense of local commerce). It should have malls as opposed to traditional markets. For solving its increasing traffic problem (the result of bank loans for the purchase of cars) it should build flyovers, underpasses and expressways rather than restrict the production and purchase of automobiles and manage traffic more efficiently. Accomplishing all of these conditions would require a very large budget for which a city would have to seek FDI and the support of IFIs. To access FDI, investment-friendly infrastructure and the image of the World Class city must be developed. To establish this image, poor populations are pushed out of the city to the periphery and already anti-poor bylaws (which are anti-street, anti-pedestrian, anti-mixed land use and anti-dissolved space) are made even more unfriendly by permitting environmentally and socially adverse land-use conversions. The most important repercussion of this agenda is that global capital increasingly determines the physical and social form of the city. In the process, projects have replaced planning and land use is now determined on the basis of land value alone and not on the basis of any social or environmental considerations. Land has unashamedly become a commodity.

The agenda for opting for high-rise redevelopment rather than the upgrading of settlements, relocating old informal settlements to the periphery of the city, and making room for mega projects and mega events has resulted in a massive increase in evictions all over Asia in the last five years. More than 500,000 people have been evicted in Delhi for the preparation of the 2010 Commonwealth Games alone[14] [15]. All studies show that those evicted were not consulted prior to eviction, were subjected to subtle coercion and often brute force, and became poorer or incurred new debt in the eviction and/or relocation process[16]. Other effects produced by these evictions include the disruption of children’s education, the loss of jobs, and increased travel time to and from work to over five or six hours in many cases, thus affecting family and social life, health, recreation, and entertainment activities[17]. The results of the above policies, along with an absence of adequate subsidises for land development and social housing, have produced a phenomenal increase in informal settlements.

Politicians and government planners justify the high-rise redevelopment approach by insisting that a modern city be composed of high-rise buildings with open areas in between. They also insist that high population densities, needed for a well-functioning city, cannot be achieved by upgrading existing structures and adding more people to existing neighbourhoods. The image of a city is governed by the perception of what it should be. However, a recent study of Karachi settlements and apartment complexes has conclusively established that the same densities as prescribed by the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) can be achieved by building row houses of a ground floor level plus two stories (along with the required infrastructure) without damaging the environment or adversely affecting social life[18] [19].

The study of a resettlement and upgrading project in Hochiminh City (considered to be one of the better ones) illustrates the problems with the high-rise option as opposed to upgrading[20]. The average compensation given to apartment dwellers by the state in the project is about US$5,400 which does not include the loan required to bridge the gap between the compensation and the actual price of the housing unit. It does not include the cost of external infrastructure either. The apartment option, given Vietnam’s economy, is not sustainable except through massive IFI loans. The upgrading option on the other hand works out to US$325 per household and is manageable. Communities also prefer upgrading to apartments for they cannot perform economic activities in apartment blocks. Out of 72 households who had moved to apartments in the project, 50 were in debt as a result of moving, whereas previously none were in debt.

The World Class city has no place for informal businesses or hawkers except as organised tourist attractions. The link of these hawkers and businesses with low income people (for whom they make life affordable) and with commuters is not recognised and as such large scale evictions of informal businesses and hawkers have taken place without any compensation in all the major cities in the Asia-Pacific region. This has impoverished millions of families[21].

Several billion dollars of bank loans have increased the number of cars in many Asian mega and secondary cities in the last decade by over 80% to 100%. In Karachi alone, banks and leasing companies gave the equivalent of US$1.8 billion for the purchase of an average of 506 vehicles per day in the financial year 2006-2007[22]. Needless to say, traffic in the larger cities of the Asia-Pacific region has become a nightmare. To solve this problem, city planners have initiated a massive programme for the construction of signal-free roads, flyovers, underpasses and expressways which have aggravated the situation and in addition made life difficult for pedestrians and commuters. In addition to these traffic-related projects, non-motorised means of transport used mostly by the poor (such as cyclos, rickshaws, animal-drawn carts, etc.) have been banned in many cities or restricted to the periphery or in low income sectors[23]. Meanwhile, mass transit light rail projects have failed to provide an adequate or affordable alternative to the poor since they are essentially isolated projects and not part of a larger comprehensive transport plan.

As a result of the above and related processes, many Asian cities have become anti-poor, both for migrants (mainly agricultural refugees) and for communities who have lived in them for decades, if not for centuries. The costs of land, construction, and rent have increased in value well beyond any increases in the daily wages of unskilled labourers.

The Struggle Against the Negative Aspects of the World Class City

I do not know of any city or country in the Asia-Pacific region where the neoliberal urban development paradigm has been challenged or where an alternative vision for the city has been promoted. However, projects promoted under this paradigm have been successfully challenged in countries where there exists a populist political culture and strong civil society organisations and networks.

As stated earlier, global capital has desperately been looking for a home. Real estate development for the new rich and for tourism offers the best opportunities for investment especially in countries where regulatory frameworks are weak. Tourist resorts and condominiums along the beaches of Asian cities are prime locations for this development. Inner city informal settlements offer lucrative returns for commercial plazas, as long as inhabitants are evicted. National and newly empowered city governments have clandestinely sold or arranged to sell these assets to national and/or international companies without the knowledge of the residents of these settlements and without developing any procedures for resettlement of the evicted population. According to various reports, almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign investors between 2006 and 2008 — including seven islands off the coast and a large number of beaches — and the homes of residents bulldozed[24]. As a result, there was an increase of FDI of over 1500% in 2007 over the preceding four years. This investment has further impoverished the poor and made them jobless and homeless. It has benefited investors, their local partners and politicians[25]. Cambodia is a poor country, still recovering from years of devastation, genocide and war. As such, there is an almost non-existent civil society movement, making this clandestine sale possible with little or no organised resistance.

Pakistan is also a poor country but it has a comparatively strong civil society, nascent environmental laws and tribunals and a populist political culture born out of repeated struggles for the restoration of democracy. In 2007, the prime minister agreed to sell two islands off the Karachi coast to a Dubai-based company with an investment of US$43 billion. In addition, he agreed to provide about 33,000 hectares of coastal land to Limitless, another Dubai-based company, for a US$500 billion project with an initial investment of US$150 billion. In agreeing to sell the land and beaches, the prime minister bypassed existing laws and procedures. In addition, the projects (which were exclusively for upmarket condominiums, five-star hotels and marinas) were expected to adversely affect the livelihood of 200,000 fishermen, evict about 36 villages and prevent lower and lower-middle income groups’ access to the beach. Beach development projects have also tried to force lower income groups off the beach by preventing informal eating places and activities on the beach and replacing them with expensive formal food stalls[26].

Civil society organisations in Karachi formed a network to oppose the beach development and island sale projects. The network included fishermen’s organisations, community organisations from low income settlements, schools, NGOs, academia, prominent citizens (including ex-judges of the Supreme Court) and the print media. As a result, the sale of the islands has been put on hold, the Limitless project cancelled. Earlier, through the same process, networks backed by organisations that work with low-income groups had objected to the 1994 Karachi mass transit project as a result of which modifications were made to it[27]. A US$100 million Asian Development Bank (ADB) loan was also cancelled for a waste water management project when an NGO, working with communities in informal settlements presented and lobbied through a network for a US$20 million alternative[28]. Professional bodies representing architects and planners were conspicuously absent throughout these processes although a number of architects did take part individually in the movements.

A similar process to that in Karachi has been followed in Bombay. The Maharastra state government, of which Bombay is the capital, put out an advertisement for an “expression of interest” for the redevelopment of Dharavi, an inner city informal settlement. The developer was to survey the settlement, carry out the urban design exercise and relocate and/or provide housing for the displaced population. Dharavi holds a population of over half a million people and its informal businesses and industry serve the formal market and generate the equivalent of well over US$500 million a year. In spite of this, the advertisement called Dharavi a goldmine and the developer asked the investor whether the prospect “turns you on.”[29]Inhabitants and businesses in Dharavi were neither consulted or notified regarding this advertisement. Also, for such a huge undertaking, an Environmental Impact Assessment was required under Indian law yet was not carried out. What made the issue even more serious was that the developer was being asked to carry out the survey of the settlement when there were already major differences between government and NGO surveys of Dharavi[30].

A network consisting of the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), a national level organisation of 500,000 households; NGOs, working with low income groups such as the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC); and concerned citizens and organisations formed to oppose the government plan. International academics, artists, researchers and NGOs also expressed their concern. Meanwhile, the president of the NSDF offered a partnership with the state government for the development of Dharavi and also threatened agitation if the government plan went through. As a result of this movement, negotiations took place and an NGO, Mashal, has won the bid for carrying out a survey of Dharavi with the support of NSDF and SPARC[31].

All successful movements against insensitive projects have a number of things in common:1) the existence of a large network or organisation of poor communities; 2) the existence of organisations that support these communities with information and managerial and technical guidance but do not control or direct them; 3) research on social, technical and planning issues that question the project in an informal manner and present alternatives; 4) support from concerned and prominent citizens, professional bodies, academia and media; and 5) no one group owns the network or its successes. Another aspect that has emerged from a number of case studies is that violence, or the threat of it, is unfortunately the only form of dissent that is acknowledged and accommodated by officialdom[32].

The bleak picture above has to be supplemented with hope. An example may be taken from the Baan Mankong Collective Housing Program, a nationwide slum-upgrading project launched by the Thai government in 2003 and implemented by the Community Organisations Development Institute (CODI). Under the project, communities organised through a process of savings and credit programs identify and acquire land for the building or upgrading of housing using government subsidies and loans. To prevent speculation, the strategy of collective rather than individual ownership has been adopted. Local governments, professionals, universities and NGOs are involved with poor communities in the CODI program. Between January 2003 and March 2008, more than 53,976 households in 226 Thai cities had benefited from the programme[33].

An Alternative to the World Class City Concept?

What is the alternative to the World Class city concept? Is it an inclusive, pedestrian- and commuter-friendly city based on the principles of justice and equality? By what process do you develop a vision for such an alternative and how can it be promoted? Could this alternative be born out of the processes that challenge (successfully and unsuccessfully) projects promoted by the neoliberal urban development paradigm? Maybe we need to discuss this but in the meantime, what should one do?

In the case of Karachi, I see projects replacing planning for the foreseeable future. I have tried to promote some principles on the basis of which projects should be judged and/or modified. Projects should not damage the ecology of the region in which the city is located, and as a priority, they should seek to serve the interests of the majority of inhabitants, who are, in the case of our cities, lower and lower-middle income groups. Projects should decide land use on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land values alone. Finally, projects should protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of communities. However without affection and respect for the natural environment and for the people who form the majority of inhabitants in cities, these principles cannot be effectively followed.

The question remains whether the megalomania and opportunism of politicians and planners will accept a new and more humane paradigm that curtails their profits and decommoditises land. This is doubtful unless they are pressured by city-wide networks armed with alternative research and an alternative vision. The key to bringing about change lies in the nature of professional education. I often think that it might help if graduating architects, planners and engineers take an oath similar to those of doctors and if they do not follow the terms of the oath, their names should be removed from the list of practising professionals. In 1983, after evaluating the environmental damage that some of my work had done, I promised in an article that,

I will not do projects that will irreparably damage the ecology and environment of the area in which they are located; I will not do projects that increase poverty, dislocate people and destroy the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of communities that live in the city; I will not do projects that destroy multi-class public space and violate building bylaws and zoning regulations; and I will always object to insensitive projects that do all this, provided I can offer viable alternatives[34].

I have tried to keep that promise and I think I have succeeded.

[1] Paper prepared for the International Association for People-Environment Studies – Culture and Space in the Built Environment Network (IAPS-CSBE) symposium on Culture, Space and Revitalization, Istanbul, Turkey, 12 – 16 October 2009.

[2] Sharma Devinder; “Displacing Farmers: India Will have 400 Million Agricultural Refugees”

[3] For details see, Ahmed Rafay Alam, “Leasing Out Land And Food Security”; The Daily News,Karachi, September 04, 2009

[4] Sharma Devinder “Displacing Farmers: India Will have 400 Million Agricultural Refugees”;

[5] Liza Weinstein; Mumbai’s Development Mafias: Globalization, Organized Crime and Land Development; International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 32.1, March 2008

[6] Ibid. Also, planners in different Asian cities have voiced similar concerns to the author.

[7] Hasan Arif, “Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future”, City Press, Karachi 2000

[8] Lahiri, Tripti, “A Nightmare Grows on Ruins of India’s Housing Shortage”, Daily Dawn, Karachi,May 14, 2008

[9] Hasan, Arif, Discussion Document for UN University Event on “Sustainable Urban Future in an Era of Globalisation and Environmental Change”; New York, July 09-10, 2007

[10] These include the Independent People’s Tribunal on the World Bank Group in India; People’s Voice in Karachi; and Cambodia Development Resource Institute in Cambodia.

[11] See Stephanie Gorson Fried and Shannom Lawrence with Regina Gregory: The Asian Development Bank: In its own Worlds; “An Analysis of Project Audit Reports for Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; ADB Watch, July 2003. Also, Arif Hasan; The Neo Urban Development Paradigm and the Changing Landscape of Asian Cities; International Society of City and Regional Planners ReviewNo. 3, The Hague, 04 June 2007.

[12] See City District Government Karachi: Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020; October 2008 and State of Maharashtra; Transforming Mumbai into a World Class City; Chief Minister’s Task Force;2004.

[13] Rahman, Mahbubur, “Global City – Asian Aspirations; paper read at the DAP, NED University Karachi seminar on Planning in a Globalising World, Karachi, May 30, 2009

[14] Lahiri, Tripti, “A Nightmare Grows on Ruins of India’s Housing Shortage”; Daily Dawn, Karachi,May 14, 2008

[15] Publishers’ note: ref. to the massive increase in evictions due to sportive mega-events is also presented in the same publication “2008 Beijing Olympics: Modernization and beautification pushes some residents to Beijing’s outskirts, while others resist and claim their right to the city”, María Cristina Harris.

[16] For details see Tripti Lahiri; “A Nightmare Grows on Ruins of India’s Housing Shortage”; Daily Dawn, Karachi, May 14, 2008 and Han Verschure, Arif Hasan and Somsook Boonyabancha; “Evaluation & Recommendations for Infrastructure & Resettlement Pilot Project Tan Hoa-Lo Gom Canal”; Ho Chi Minh City, 28 April 2006

[17] Hasan, Arif, “Livelihood Substitution: The Case of the Lyari Expressway”; Ushba InternationalPublishing, Karachi, 2006.

[18] Study conducted by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and supported by the Urban Research and Design Cell at the Department of Architecture and Planning (DAP), NED University, Karachi.

[19] Hasan, Arif, Asiya Sadiq, Suneela Ahmed; Density Study of Low and Lower Middle Income Settlements in Karachi; unpublished study prepared for the IIED, UK, 22 June 2009

[20] Han Verschure, Arif Hasan and Somsook Boonyabancha; “Evaluation & Recommendations for Infrastructure & Resettlement Pilot Project Tan Hoa-Lo Gom Canal”; Ho Chi Minh City, 28 April 2006

[21] For details see Arif Hasan, Asiya Sadiq Polak, Christophe Polak; The Hawkers of Saddar Bazaar; Ushba International Publishing, Karachi, 2008 and Bhowmik, S.; Social Security for Street Vendors: A Symposium on Extending Social Security to Unprotected Workers; Volume 568, December 2006 (quoted in Liza Weinstein; Mumbai’s Development Mafias: Globalization, Organized Crime and Land Development; International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 32.1, March 2008)

[22] Hasan, Arif, “The Neo Urban Development Paradigm and the Changing Landscape of Asian Cities”, International Society of City and Regional Planners Review No. 3, The Hague, 04 June 2007

[23] Gurung Madhu, “Delhi’s Graveyard of Rickshaws”; InfoChange News & Features, September 2006.

[24] Ardian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark; “Country for Sale”; The Guardian, April 26, 2008

[25] Cambodia Development Resource Institute Technical Assistance and Capacity Development in an Aid-Dependent Economy; Working Paper 15, Year 2000; Tom Coghlan; Consultants Reap Wealth from Afghan Chaos; Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2008

[26] See “The Partitioning of Clifton Beach” in Arif Hasan; Planning and Development Options for Karachi; Sheher Saaz, Islamabad, 2009. See also, website of Fisherfolk Forum

[27] Urban Resource Centre website:

[28] Orangi Pilot Project website:

[29] Society Promotion for Area Resource Centres (SPARC) website:

[30] Sheela Patel and Jockin Arputham; “Plans for Dharavi: Negotiating a Reconciliation Between a State-Driven Market Redevelopment and Residents’ Aspiration”; Environment & Urbanization,Volume 20(1), 2008


[31] Ibid

[32] This has been observed by the author in at least three cases in Karachi and the struggle of the tenant farmers in the Punjab. This has also been mentioned to the author by Sheela Patel of SPARC for Bombay and by Prof. Yves Cabannes for cases in Latin America.

[33] See CODI website:

[34] Hasan, Arif, “No to Socially and Environmentally Development Projects”, The Review 1983,


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