How can city planning be made more inclusive?

Underpasses, flyovers and parking plazas are often presented as the epitome of development. But such expensive interventions usually fail to improve neighbourhoods because their very conceptualisation is flawed and does not take on board the real issues of people they are meant to be for. What can planning learn from the failures of the past?

Illustration by Samiah Bilal
Midas, the king of Phrygia, was renowned for his wealth. According to the Greeks, his fabulous riches were the result of the kindness he showed to Silenus, the old goat-like tutor of Dionysus, the god of wine, vegetation and ecstasy. So pleased was Dionysus with Midas’s behaviour that he granted the king one wish. Midas asked for everything he touched to be turned to gold. At first Midas was overjoyed with the gift, but once he realised that even his food and drink were transformed upon touching his lips, he was horrified. Out of pity, Dionysus told him how to wash away his golden touch, which he did in the river Pactolus, thereafter famous for the gold dust to be found on its bed.

As Midas learnt, everything turning to gold is not necessarily a dream scenario. Indeed, it can become a nightmare if it stands in the way of basic needs being met.

With bags full of money and access to power structures, institutional donors seem bent on reshaping the built environment of Karachi. These donors are able to make substantial inroads in the planning circuits of the metropolis. And they do this so-called ‘planning’ with obscene fanfare.

But not all that glitters is gold. Such projects and development interventions by money-lending agencies and the implementation bodies are, unfortunately, often unable to include and satisfy the diverse stakeholders of Karachi about the utility, timings, methods, objectives and impact of various projects. This exclusion of primary stakeholders from the development circuits results in their alienation, and brings to question the point of such development. As Khawaja Haider Ali Aatish once said:

[In vain is the elaboration of desires through strangers] Incoming investment is welcome, if the conditions are known and not a bane for the economy. The associated infrastructural development is worthy of being hailed, if it is based on the real needs of the stakeholders. Such development interventions would definitely be appreciated, if the entire process of development were participatory.

But these conditions are rarely ever met.

Why Karachi’s megaprojects fail

A dark and dingy, Dickensian, 12-storey Parking Plaza stands underutilised in Karachi. Located a few hundred metres from the Empress Market, on a signal-free corridor, it was constructed at the cost of about 650 million rupees, over a decade ago.

The plaza, built on a 35,654-square-foot plot, has the capacity to accommodate over 700 vehicles and 500 motorcycles, and houses 160 shops and 118 offices. The parking plaza was inaugurated 11 years ago and still remains underused. Why? Because it overlooked the travelling needs and habits of its catchment area.

The project’s ‘planners’ also did not think about pedestrians’ security, or about creating walking facilities between the parking plaza and the shopping areas. Any honest needs’ assessment demands trust between the initiators and the would-be beneficiaries of the project. One wonders if such an assessment was ever conducted.

Then there are the signal-free corridors that promote speeding, arrogant elitism and insensitivity towards pedestrians and the elderly. They have ruined the adjoining drainage system and even exacerbated urban flooding, which has uprooted a number of families from their well-settled homes. The corridors have also created a spatial divide of the city neighbourhoods.

These much trumpeted signal-free corridors were built on the premise of easing the traffic congestion in the city. But, in reality, they simply transfer the traffic congestion of point A to point B. Costing billions of rupees, there are around 50 flyovers and 17 underpasses in Karachi.

It can be argued that the entire circuit of transport infrastructure failed to achieve its objective. Why? Because the planning conveniently ignored the connection of the transport issue with the fast-changing social realities of the end-users. An example is how transport ‘planning’ fails to address the rising participation of women in the public sphere. Even as statistically more women are taking public transport, the system has not been updated to reflect this. Footpaths and bus stops, for example, have not been reimagined to cater to the changing needs of the users.

Five Star Chowrangi flyover | Fahim Siddiqui/White Star
Flyovers, that mainly benefit users travelling via cars, bikes and smaller private vehicles, are considered a sure sign of development. But in reality, this kind of planning lacks an in-depth analysis of the commuting patterns of the various segments and strata of Karachi city.

The proposed engineering solutions to the traffic woes of this city always seem divorced from the social realities of the masses.

Take the oft-revived Lines Area Redevelopment Project (Larp) that was notified in 1973. The Lines Area constituency was considered one of the worst slums in Karachi and Larp was introduced as the first-of-its-kind redesign project in Pakistan, complete with a development and relocation plan.

Larp was launched in 1981, but it could not deliver. The project proposed ‘one room houses’ for each family, ignoring the social needs of mostly extended families. As per press reports, in 2016, the number of Larp’s permanent employees stood at 138 and the monthly expenditure was over 8 million rupees, while Larp had liabilities of over 76 million rupees. This dream project clearly never met its stated objectives fully. Why? Because residents of the area perceived it to be a top-down development intervention by outsiders, conceived without taking into account their social realities.

Learning from the past
[I would not have minded death, if I had to die only once] — Mirza Ghalib

Karachi is a city that has died many deaths. It is a miracle it functions at all and is still standing. The above-mentioned are only a few examples out of many failed infrastructure projects in the city. The projects failed primarily because the modus operandi of conception and implementation both were not reflective of the collective needs of Karachi. Efforts are either not made or only half-hearted measures are taken to gauge the needs of the communities and of the neighbourhoods the projects are meant to serve.

It’s the level of people’s involvement in any development venture that determines whether it is a success story or a failed project. By the same token, to make effective use of the federal government’s recently initiated Karachi Transformation Plan, as well as the investments invited for infrastructure improvements in calamity-hit Karachi, lessons learned from past infrastructure projects must not be forgotten.

Some of these lessons may appear too obvious to veteran urban planners, but they are necessary to be documented for the laypersons residing in this glorious metropolis, so they too can become part of the development process.

First, the incoming investment can only be lucrative and will only be welcomed if the conditions of the investments and the detailed plan are shared with all the stakeholders. And this too needs to be done at the time of conceptualisation of the development intervention. Project Cycle-1, popularly referred to as PC-1, needs to be in the public domain. Inclusiveness is not only the best policy, it is practically the only policy in high stakes development ventures.

Second, infrastructure development initiatives must be based on the needs of the stakeholders, and the entire process of development needs to be participatory. We do not need the touch of Midas, where the imperative of beautification eclipses the real needs of services and utilities.

The Karachi Neighbourhood Improvement Project (KNIP), a project that supposedly aims to “transform Karachi into a liveable mega city,” is a case in point. On site observations of the neighbourhood and survey with the residents and shopkeepers of the area reveal that the prime needs of the area include potable water, the revamping of the sewerage system and the disposal of municipal waste. Yet, KNIP is mostly about transport and affiliated parking facilities, clearly focused on secondary stakeholders. An aura of glamour and felicitation was created for KNIP, positioning it as an island of happiness in the hustle and bustle of District South. But, in practice, it limits the use of an otherwise public space for specific users. Guards protecting cars and parking spaces have appeared in the area.

There was a time when one would see many kabootarwalay (pigeon keepers) near the DJ Science College in the area. The roundabout there was unofficially called Kabootar Chowk (pigeon roundabout). Now the chowk is gone, as are the kabootarwalay.

An elderly woman who would travel from Burnes Road to the area tells me, “Awaam ke liye raasta band hogaya hai [The public’s access has been closed].” She says with the closing of turnings and U-turns, people have to travel for longer durations to get to their destinations. “Now rickshaw drivers charge 50 rupees,” she says. “I would never have to pay more than 25 to 30 rupees previously.”

It is worth questioning who benefits from such improvement projects, and who pays the price.

The third lesson is that the strategy papers and diagnostics reports that set the context and the finances for any possible development interventions should go through careful contextual examination before any operationalisation. The neo-liberal economy has brought with it a vocabulary and terms such as ‘sustainability’, ‘inclusivity’ and ‘smart city’, are often thrown around. But these terms cannot simply be picked up from the West and applied here. There is a dire need of contextual scrutiny before diagnostic reports are accepted.

In many of these development projects, there is a clear disconnect between Karachi’s lived reality and the planners’ vision. As Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi beautifully put it:

[What the eyes see and what the mind sees differ, The garden is full of fragrance but I do not feel the coming of the spring] Stakeholders’ needs
Capitalism changes cities, and cities, in turn, play an important part in the development of capitalism. Midway through the 20th century, it was realised that traditional infrastructural development plans and their methods of implementation were not meeting the objective of reducing the miseries of the people. It was then established that to organise and reorganise a public space is a democratic action and needs to be performed by local representatives of the people.

The right to rearrange the public sphere lies with the communities and their representative regimes of local governance. This brings us to the fourth lesson: if a public space is to be rearranged for any change in land-use, it should be not planned as per the whims of external experts alone. The ultimate decision-making powers should lie with the local leadership, and appropriate methods should be adopted to make their active participation possible — if the holy grail of outside agencies must be used, contextual methodologies need to be adopted.

Fifth, the incorrect categorisation of stakeholders, omissions from the lists of stakeholders and the mere passive participation of the chosen ones, often results in incorrect identification of the needs of a community. Additional effort must be made to accurately identify those who have exhaustive, permanent or long-term stakes (primary stakeholders) in the project. Of course, secondary stakeholders (with limited, time-bound or transient stakes in the project) should also reap the benefits of any development intervention, but not at the cost of the primary stakeholders.

Sixth, the process of consultations with the stakeholders should be all-inclusive. The traditional practice adopted by funding and implementing bodies is to invite ‘safe’ and selected stakeholders for ‘consultations’ in five star hotels at the implementation phase. Adding insult to injury, recommendations of even these chosen few are often not accommodated in the project. The entire notion of participation is reduced to a mechanical ‘checklist participation’ of the stakeholders.

This becomes a double jeopardy: on the one hand it stunts the vision of the funding and the implementing agency and, on the other, it makes the projects contested, resulting in Manichean-styled brick-and-mortar expressions of power circles.

The seventh lesson from history is that external agents’ reluctance to accommodate participatory approaches emanates from various factors, including stiff procedural (read: bureaucratic) requirements. They also fear reprisal from the communities and pay less attention to participatory development.

Government and corporate bureaucrats are both not attuned to methods of participatory development. Sindh’s ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), has a history of popular and participatory politics, and can act as a mediator between iron-caged bureaucratic systems and the aspiration of the masses for pro-people infrastructure development in the city. But this ability has rarely ever been utilised.

As Faiz Sahib said:

[It was not like this, I merely wished it were] In the same vein, the involvement of civil society at the conceptual stage would make the system more people-sensitive and the outcomes more gender- and environment-friendly.

Taking a bottom-up approach

The eighth lesson to be learnt deals with the reality that every project results in the change of existing land-use. But despite knowing this fact, the deliberate avoidance of any impartial and technically sound land-use change study by the donors and implementing agency makes matters worse. It exacerbates the existing stratification of the society by making it an exclusive space for the richer segments of the society. It also deprives the neighbourhood from its traditional use.

Karachi’s has a long precedence of anti-poor projects such as the overheads and underpasses. But even projects aiming to help pedestrians miss the mark. On Shahrae Faisal, pedestrian bridges are about 600 metres to 1.2 kilometres far from one another. They have also been made with little attention to the diverse accessibility needs of the end users. One often sees men pushing pushcarts up the stairs and struggling to cross the bridge, while cars zoom past on the road, uninterrupted.

We live in a neo-liberal world where visuals are often more important than the content, and the packaging matters a whole lot. Development interventions, as steered by international money-lending apparatuses, create the illusion of ‘development for the people.’ Even though the top-down approach is often adopted by international donors and their local partners in bureaucracy, efforts are made to generate the impression of a bottom-up, inclusive, sustainable and needs-based projects. As a ninth lesson, this sophisticated thaggi [disingenuousness] needs to be replaced by realistic and accountable ventures in Karachi’s interest.

The duality of lending agencies can be aptly summarised by once again quoting Faiz Sahib:

[Thanks to our naive facilitation, Oh how mere idols have lorded over us] The international institutional donors consider huge infrastructural projects the Midas of the contemporary era. They dream that a mere touch will magically induce equity, inclusion and other such high-sounding notions across various social strata, and bring the gold of prosperity. But this is far from true.

The operational issues raised in this write-up are only the tip of the iceberg. If they are not recognised and addressed, they will result in upcoming huge investment projects becoming “yet another failed project” in the development history of Karachi.

To avoid development projects becoming our society’s Achilles’ heel, the conceptualisation and implementation of infrastructure projects must not be left to money-lending banks, avaricious consultants, real estate developers and myopic politicians. For better service delivery, Karachi needs long term realistic programmes, with the participation of the people of the city, instead of short term sporadic donor-steered projects.

If investments are planned along these lines with the above lessons in mind, Karachi could see a better tomorrow. Otherwise, repeat tragedy and repeat prescriptions will be the fate accompli of the city and its residents.

A South American proverb worth remembering goes, He who lives on illusions, dies of disillusion. Closer to home, Baqi Siddiqui imparted similar wisdom:

[My state of self-delusion, Finds enchantment closer than even distant illusions] The writer is a PhD scholar, and a board member at the Urban Resource Centre (URC), Karachi — a non-profit organisation focused on highlighting the problems of the city through action research, documentation and forums. He can be reached at

Publish in Dawn By Mansoor RazaUpdated 13 Dec, 2020

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