Karachi’s densification

April 27, 2014


BAHRIA Town is a well-known real estate developer. It has planned and is executing at its own expense a major traffic-related engineering project in Clifton. The project is to help relieve congestion that will be caused in the area by the large number of vehicles that will be generated as a result of the Bahria Icon Tower becoming operative. The Tower contains 59 floors of offices.

Without going into the pros and cons of whether real estate developers should or should not determine the shape and form of a city, or whether the Icon Tower should have been built in the first place at the location where it is, it has to be admitted that a traffic engineering intervention is required to tackle the problems that the additional vehicles will pose. It is also to be appreciated that Bahria Town has undertaken to try and mitigate the problems that its real estate development is going to cause.

That said, the area in which the project is being carried out, contains three very important heritage sites. One is the temple of Mahadev. According to local tradition, the temple is mentioned in the Mahabharat and as such people have been praying here for more than 2,500 years. In addition, its links with the centuries-old pilgrimage to Hinglaj are alive and well-established. The other site is the over 1,200-year-old tomb of Ghazi Abdullah Shah, a descendant of Imam Hasan. He has become the patron saint of Karachi and his urs is an important event for the city and its inhabitants.

The third site is the Jahangir Kothari Parade, visited by millions of Karachiites and visitors to the city every year.

Changes in the neighbourhood of such important heritage sites are normally discouraged so as to keep a link with history; not to disrupt or bring about a change in activities determined by tradition; and prevent the site from physical damage. However, when such changes are required they are made by seeking public acceptance. This is done by making presentations of the project at its initial design stage to the citizens and relevant interest groups and modifying the designs on the feedback from the presentations.

Had such an exercise been carried out for the Clifton Project, it is possible that the issue could have been solved simply by rerouting traffic and through minor supporting traffic engineering interventions. Recent approaches in the West to traffic engineering problems have proved that they can be solved without major interventions involving underpasses and flyovers. However, it is true that in South and South-East Asia, these approaches have not been applied. This is because in the view of our politicians and planners iconic structures represent progress and development.

But, apart from what has been said above, there is a bigger issue that needs to be pointed out. In the entire KDA Scheme-5 of Clifton, large pockets have been marked for densification in which the floor to area ratio has been increased from 1:2 and 1:5 to 1:12. This means that there will be an overall increase of at least 300pc in the volume of vehicles serving this area. The Bahria intervention is a local initiative to solve a local problem created by the 59 office floors of the Icon Tower. It does not solve the problems that will be created by the increase in floor to area ratios in Clifton Scheme-5 as a whole.

Cities do densify with time and need. And they should. However, ad hoc densification creates enormous social and physical problems, often leading to unrest. We have experienced this in the old areas of Karachi and in cities such as Manila and Bangkok. To make densification humane and environmentally acceptable, an urban design exercise needs to be carried out. The objectives and processes for carrying out such an exercise are well-established. On the basis of this exercise, pockets of densification need to be identified and traffic management and mitigation plans developed which a restructured master plan department of the city government can easily carry out.

For the future, it is suggested that, apart from an Environment Impact Assessment, all large traffic engineering interventions, especially in heritage and ecologically sensitive areas, should be discussed publicly. The rules, regulations and procedures for such discussions need to be developed and the terms heritage and ecologically sensitive areas clearly defined. After all, Karachi today has an active and concerned society which has a sense of belonging to the city and love and affection for it. This entitles them to be involved in determining its physical form which has a symbiotic relationship with its culture and politics. n

The writer is an architect and planning consultant in private practice.