Urban retrofitting

The writer is an architect.
The writer is an architect.

KARACHI’S annual GDP is $164 billion. This huge economy, its infrastructure, and relationships are heavily dependent on institutions and facilities that function from encroachments.

Cargo handling and storage; warehousing; wholesale markets; inter- and intra-city bus terminals; workshops and depots; spillover of bazaars and mandis; and the city’s huge street economy are all on encroached land, and there are many markets and government buildings on nullahs and elite societies, like the DHA and the KPT Officers Housing Society, that encroach on the drainage outlets to the sea. Health and education facilities are located on residential plots and so are eating and entertainment facilities of the rich, middle-class, and the poor. There are also residential and commercial buildings built on amenity plots, fully or partly, such as the Icon Tower, which have been purchased by the rich and middle-class families who had little or no knowledge of their illegality.

The same situation, as the Supreme Court has pointed out, also exists in the city cantonments. And then there is the whole world of katchi abadis where 62 per cent of the city’s population lives and without the labour of its residents the city’s economy cannot possibly function. These abadis are also considered encroachments (as the chief justice has decided) despite the fact that many of them have been marked for regularisation and many homes in them have acquired a lease.

Given the scale of the encroachments there must be some criteria on the basis of which the Supreme Court decides on which buildings to demolish. It would be good if this could be known so that people would know the status of their properties and the fear and torment of having their properties demolished that grips them today could be reduced.

Karachi’s street economy should be encouraged.

However, one thing is definite — you cannot possibly remove all encroachments and illegal construction and even if it was possible the city would be a ruin. It would cease to function and its inhabitants would be homeless and jobless. So, if the city has to continue to function much of this encroachment and illegality has to be accommodated. But to what extent?

What makes sense is that no demolition of a building which serves a social purpose, or demolition that makes people homeless, jobless or increases poverty should be carried out. If such encroachments are responsible for ecological and environmental damage, they should be removed in phases and the cost of that removal and rehabilitation should be paid for, along with a very heavy fine, by those who have perpetuated it.

Infrastructure that is essential for the functioning of the city and which poses no social and environmental threat should be regularised and that which does should be shifted to an appropriate location over a period of time. In the same manner, amenity plots should be restored over a 10-year period and such restoration along with the rehabilitation elsewhere of their current functions should be financed by those who have encroached upon them.

Karachi’s booming street economy should be encouraged and space provided for it. It not only provides jobs but makes the transfer of money from the rich and middle classes to the poor possible. There are enough studies to show that the congestion and the difficulty in movement that it creates can be easily managed, along with car parking, through spatial reorganisation of the city and its economically important and congested neighbourhoods. Meanwhile the construction of our BRTs will not overcome our traffic problems unless a proper traffic management plan is develo­ped to respond to the changes in traffic-rel­a­t­­ed movement and culture which the BRTs will introduce.

To make all this possible three things are necessary: one, the creation of a land-use plan whose most im­­portant aspect wou­­ld be the iden­tification and pro­tec­tion of Karachi’s eco­logical assets. This, because of climate change pressures, is more important today than it was when the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 was conceived.

Second, it requires the preparation of a ‘Karachi Region Land-Use Plan’, a survey for which would also establish the scale and the environmental and social repercussions of the encroachments and identify a mitigation plan.

And three, it would require academic ins­ti­tutions to develop courses in improving hu­­m­an settlements in a manner whereby hom­e­lessness and poverty is not increased. For instance, this would mean the development of public spaces and access roads in informal settlements. Since it seems that bureaucrats will govern us for the foreseeable future, they should also be students of such courses and receive an acceptable qualification.

I believe that the processes I have defined in this article would in themselves improve livability in Karachi and they should be a part of any larger planning exercise of the city.

The writer is an architect.



Published in Dawn, By Arif Hasan July 11th, 2021

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