Debate: Where does Karachi need more high-rise buildings?

The experts ask who should decide where density goes.


Karachi needs more vertical expansion, declared former president Asif Zardari in 2012. He wanted it to be easier for builders to get permission to construct high-rises in Karachi and across the province. The reasoning was that high-rises would jumpstart economies.

He wanted more work done based on a new law, the Sindh High Density Development Board Act, passed in 2010. The new law declared a major part of Clifton a high-density zone up to the Mauripur waterfront. Before the law was passed, the Sindh government asked many urban planning experts to give their recommendations. Few, if any, were incorporated.

Just to give you an idea of the government’s intentions look at the people who sit on the High Density Development Board: the governor, the chief minister, the local government minister, the chief secretary, secretary for local government, the nazim and EDO concerned for the area in question, and the director-general of the Sindh Building Control Authority. Not a single town planner or urban planner is on the board. The late Ardeshir Cowasjee wrote about this extensively in an article titled, ‘Castles of Dung Heaps’, in 2011.

Is it enough to have a new density law? What about the Karachi Building and Town Planning Regulations of 2002? Shouldn’t the Sindh Building Control Authority be deciding Karachi’s policy on vertical growth? Is density the only concern when planning ahead for our cities?

After experts Roland deSouza of NGO Shehri and architect Arif Belgaumi gave a public presentation critiquing the new law, which The Express Tribune published on July 8, a debate was started by Lahore-based urbanist Ahmad Rafay Alam. In the second installment of this five-part series, we bring him together with two urban experts to ask whether Karachi needs more high-rise buildings or density and if so, how and where.


Q: Rafay Alam

Lawyer, environmentalist and activist

The [Sindh High Density Development Board Act, 2010] does appear to give far too much importance to this one factor—density—which appears to be one of the problems with the law. Cities are concerned with other things too. Not just density. There should be setbacks (the distance which a building  is set back from the street, scales, utility services, pedestrianisation, retail and so on. Density on its own is no way to plan a city.

But what if density was made one of several considerations in granting planning approval? What if the regulation of the law was given to a more representative authority? Would the law be better then, or is just bad?

A: Arif Hasan

Architect & planner, activist, teacher, social researcher & writer

It depends on what constitutes a more representative authority. The local government experience of Karachi has not been a good one. Would the law be better then, or is just bad? You can make whatever law you want but unless you can make land available at appropriate places for low-income residents of the city, the disturbing unequal densities between high- and low-income settlements will remain and increase.

At the same time, you will have to raise densities for high-income areas. This can be done by a land ceiling act but the market mantra does not permit it. In many countries neoliberal politics have done away with such laws. Such a law existed in India, it never really worked. They have also done away with it.

A: Arif Belgaumi

Practising architect and teaches architectural design at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture

It is highly unusual, perhaps unheard of, to draft a law addressing a single aspect of urban development as an end in itself. The law reads that, “It is expedient to provide for creation of a High Density Development Board...” Perhaps the word expedient is the most appropriate word to use here. Laws are usually created to address a need or a problem and all possible solutions to that problem are allowed to remain available for consideration.

This is a highly unusual law that is written to promote a singular solution to urban development. The issue of density needs to be seen in the context of the overall vision for the city. What kind of city do we want to live in? That question should be the constant quest for a representative expert authority. That authority can define the need for density and the extent to which it needs to be pursued. The issue of density is not within the purview of a building regulatory authority but rather the responsibility of a central master-planning and zoning authority. Currently, in Sindh, every municipal jurisdiction is implementing its own zoning and building regulations.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2014.


Khi2Khy! | 7 years ago | Reply

Despite all the Traffic Jams, over burdened Water, Sewer, Gutter and Power lines its still just a massive eyesore to behold in concrete towers... some cleaner than others, few leaking sewer and neglected, rising thru a beautiful horizon... trampling the "could be" beautiful landscape under its feet. We should be thinking instead of how to expand the city not how to jam the city more closely, paralyzing the day to day life even further. I suggest: These lofty & idealist decision makers should be given a ride around high rises during early morning and afternoon business hours or even holidays or emergencies to see how citizens are at the mercy of time, that takes three to five hours to wait for the traffic to clear and they reach home to their families and rest for another day in this jungle. The traffic jams are the main reason of gas consumption, smoke and related health issues in the city. A well rested and emotionally contented healthy worker can contribute more to the economy than a breathing difficulty patient. That's how economy should be made not by increasing number of bridges or plazas. I bet its the greedy giant developers who are pushing these decision makers for their shortcut to wealth in the city of trade & commerce. Also, when economy is low, which happen to all cities, these concrete towers will just rub it on our nose how big a looser we are.

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