The facades and terrain which once defined Old Clifton have now fallen  under the unrelenting shadow of high-rises | All photos and maps courtesy of Marvi Mazhar and Associates (MMA)
The facades and terrain which once defined Old Clifton have now fallen under the unrelenting shadow of high-rises | All photos and maps courtesy of Marvi Mazhar and Associates (MMA)

Following a forced eviction from her home at the hands of Karachi’s infamous builder mafia, a resident of Old Clifton glumly states, “My children have played under the shade of the indigenous trees in our compound here for years, and I always felt they provided an element of protection. But now these new developers have displaced our memories, our inheritance.”

It is a sad reality that, in many ways, so much of Karachi’s architectural and natural heritage has already been sacrificed at the altar of ‘development’, due to which people have been displaced and lives have been irrevocably transformed in the process.

OUT WITH THE OLD

Karachi, listed as the world’s third most dense city, trailing only Dhaka and Mumbai, has a density of about 2,800 persons per hectare, and the city is grappling with the issue of urban growth management. In an attempt to tackle this ever-growing problem, the Sindh High Density Development Board Act (2010) promoted a single solution to this issue: vertical expansion.

The law would go on to have a crucial impact on various regions, notably, a significant section of Karachi’s Clifton area. It declared certain areas of the city ‘high density zones’, allowing developers to construct high-rise buildings in these areas.

The emergence of such buildings begs the question, what impact are these newly springing up high-rises having on the architectural and natural heritage of these localities? This article delves into the dynamic nature of Karachi’s old neighbourhoods, which are now being shaped by the politics and power at play that allow these real estate developers to implement their visions for the city.

It discusses the architectural, spatial, emotional and communal capacities of these spaces, and addresses the concerns arising from the city’s transformation into a concrete jungle. The issue of scale plays a critical role in a city such as Karachi, where most of the development takes place under the aegis of the builder mafia, without any environmental impact assessment (EIA) or structural research and development.

The dynamics of power and politics are transforming the historical neighbourhoods of Karachi. This growing hunger, exhibited by ‘development’ and construction groups, to mutate such localities into homogenised areas populated by high-rise buildings, is emblematic of a wider problem facing the city — one which will result in a great environmental and social cost

Ostensibly, bodies such as the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), the Karachi Development Authority (KDA), and the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) have legal authority over residential zones. But corruption and power dynamics often result in land use changes that favour developers and investors. This is a significant problem in Karachi, where the protection of residential zones is often overlooked, and changing landscapes and skylines further degrade the ecosystem of a low-scale environment.

In locales such as Old Clifton and Lalazar, which are close to the backwater or the coast, and home to numerous migratory birds, the development of high-rises obstructs migratory paths and infringes on wind and view rights.

Scale and proportion can be interpreted in various ways, but the primary focus of this article is on the invasive high-rises in low-density areas and the proportions of open spaces relative to built-up zones.

A current map of Old Clifton
A current map of Old Clifton

In The Name of Progress

The absence of holistic urban planning has led to an unregulated and expanding scale of Karachi’s urban landscape. Frequently, as observed in Karachi, the consequences of uncontrolled densification and lax urban planning manifest in the form of the development of high-rise buildings. However, single-family housing does not need to be replaced with another extreme — multi-family high-rise construction.

If a neighbourhood of single-family housing is converted into four- to six-storey apartments or an office block, it may be dense enough to contain sprawl, not overburden urban infrastructure, retain an important human scale to the city, and preserve the sense of community, all of which is impossible to achieve with soaring high-rises.

Karachi exhibits a dynamic character, not merely in its political and cultural aspects, but also in terms of its visual landscape. Owing to the increasing numbers of developers and builders, numerous neighbourhoods with rich histories and abundant heritage have been completely transformed, often at the cost of erasing histories and narratives that were once part of Karachi’s heritage.

Old neighbourhoods such as Old

Clifton, PIB Colony, PECHS, Lalazar, Oldtown Karachi, Garden East, Bahadurabad, Aisha Manzil, Ancholi, Nanak Para, Ghanchi Para, KDA, Tariq Road and Nazimabad No. 5, amongst others, are staring into an uncertain future.

These neighbourhoods, along with several others, have undergone a rigorous process of vertical population growth, as landscapes have morphed. They have not just witnessed changes in residential patterns but they also lament the loss of the tranquillity that once existed. The influx of commercial establishments has repercussions, evident in the form of traffic congestion, noise pollution and heat generation.

Intriguingly, the areas identified by the Sindh High Density Development Board for densification include a lot of katchi abadis [informal settlements], such as Shireen Jinnah Colony, Sultanabad, Machhar Colony, the Mauripur waterfront and Lyari, placing them at the risk of demolishment and large-scale real estate speculation.

Land prices have already created an economic impetus for densification, giving a new face to the scale of the city. It is now common practice for people with large residential plots to bifurcate them and sell one half. Vertical growth is aggressively changing the landscape of old neighbourhoods, by escalating land prices and changing land typology from residential to commercial.

Many high-rise concepts follow an introverted design ethos, prioritising an isolated position over a socio-spatial understanding of the context. This includes neglect of low-income households or low-density areas, leading to contested peripheries and geographic isolation, while also threatening the ecological rights pertaining to access to clean air and pleasant views. This transition also has environmental ramifications due to these high-rises blocking winds, in turn making Karachi extremely vulnerable to heat zones, which will potentially intensify in the coming years.

It is critical to discuss the land conversion from low- to mid-scale buildings to invasive high-rises, which fail to incorporate ‘gentleness’ and ‘care’ into urban planning, hence resulting in unfair displacement. Displacement is ubiquitous as it is found all over the world, invariably associated with economic development. It can lead to the disruption of production systems, the desecration of sacred ancestral zones (including graveyards), the disruption of kinship groups and social networks, and much more.

In South Asia, most development and displacements reflect the power of the various groups involved, especially the ability of politically, economically and socially powerful groups to impose harsh sacrifices on those who are less privileged.

In 2021, NHAK identified 60 banyan trees (represented in light green). MMA marked an additional 20 banyan trees in the Old Clifton extension area (represented in dark green)
In 2021, NHAK identified 60 banyan trees (represented in light green). MMA marked an additional 20 banyan trees in the Old Clifton extension area (represented in dark green)

What’s Happening Today?

Old Clifton has been transformed from a mangrove swamp and turned into a significant metropolitan area. Over the years, it became the location for many important architectural structures. However, in recent times, transformations in the surrounding terrain have been so drastic that if any of the original owners of the buildings were to be reincarnated, they would fail to locate these structures in the new landscape.

Among these structures, the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi has endured the most radical change. Following the construction of the Bahria Icon Tower next to the shrine, the developers deemed that the shrine’s appearance did not align with their envisioned landscape and decided to redesign the shrine entirely.

Developers, resolute in their mission to mould Karachi into a semblance of Dubai, are vigorously reshaping the landscape around their latest projects under the guise of urbanising Karachi. High-rises now overshadow the once dominant architecture of the shrine. The old architecture of Karachi has been largely neglected in the wake of the construction of high-rises.

At first glance, the neighbourhood of Old Clifton appears relatively untouched by the neoliberal ideologies that have infiltrated many parts of the city. However, a closer inspection reveals the subtle encroachment of these ideologies through unnoticed fissures.

The neighbourhood has been a stage for political manoeuvrings for some time now, exemplified by the protracted ownership dispute over the Bhopal House, which continues to this day. The current state of the Kazi House, an officially declared heritage site, shows that it is neglected, not only by its current owner but also by the government, despite the building being under heritage ‘protection’.

The prevailing socio-political situation of the country is in a state of perpetual flux, constantly changing the fabric of preservation and repair for heritage structures. For instance, the boundary wall of Khatija Manzil in Old Clifton exhibits cracks filled with cement of a contrasting colour, while the wall is marked by political graffiti. It is rather satirical to see the names of the groups who claim to be protectors of these spaces sprayed on these walls to cause vandalism. This contradiction, the government acting simultaneously as both the perpetrator and the protector of these spaces, is apparent in just the visual landscape of this area.

Vacant and under-construction plots in this area are used as a breeding ground for high-rises, such as the ongoing construction of the high-rise Skygarden. These buildings have already begun to pollute the landscape of the neighbourhood.  It is probable that these constructions will lead to the formation of another concrete jungle, which will invade and destroy the already existing infrastructure and the planning of the area. Developers are not concerned about the context and the surroundings which define these localities.

Most new developments do not take into account the surrounding environment, the residents and neighbouring structures in an area when forming development schemes. These individual projects are putting the consolidated ideology of the neighbourhood at stake.

This map shows the properties in Old Clifton where high-rises are now being built and also those plots that are currently vacant and facing an uncertain future
This map shows the properties in Old Clifton where high-rises are now being built and also those plots that are currently vacant and facing an uncertain future

Old Neighbourhoods Turned into Political Playgrounds

The tactics used to enforce such policies are just as garish as the structures which these construction groups eventually erect. For instance, the owner of a heritage house in Old Clifton recounts that a group of men, who introduced themselves as members of the ‘Heritage Inspection Group

of Old Clifton’, forcefully entered her property. In reality, these individuals were allegedly associated with the Omni Group, a known collective of developers. They imposed an ultimatum on the owner: either sell the heritage home immediately, or vacate it. After the owner received menacing threats, she felt compelled to accept their deal.

Without delay, the group dispatched a demolition machine to the site, accompanied by 12 police officers and their contractors. They declared the land to be their own and commenced their takeover, starting with the demolition of the house. Unfortunately, this sort of coercive behaviour and forced displacement is not an isolated incident, and many old architectural structures in Old Clifton have fallen prey to such schemes.

The Omni Group, previously identified as a corporation entangled in multiple allegations of corruption, has now added to its controversial record with this latest incident of heritage destruction.

In a similar vein, Orchid Builders and Developers have envisioned a 500 feet tall building that will dramatically dominate the skyline of the neighbourhood. Construction projects such as these reinforce the increasing trend among developers who are continually constructing buildings to erect edifices without any regard for the consequences and impact on their surroundings. As they invade more and more space, they pollute the landscape and disrupt the urban scale.

In contrast, Lalazar, an older neighbourhood, seems to exist in a state of unspoiled preservation, its authentic landscape left largely undisturbed. So far, it appears to have evaded the disruptive vision of developers. But how long can we expect this fortunate sanctuary to remain undisturbed?

Karachi needs serious bylaws and policies to safeguard low density and ecologically important zones such as the coastal edge, backwaters, nullahs and riverines. Similarly, historically important zones which hold valuable structures such as Art Deco buildings, pre-Partition households, stone craftsmanship, artisans’ woodwork and historically important material like lime mortar, also need to be protected from parasitic developers.

Such neighbourhoods also have a tremendous ecological and socio-cultural context which contributes so much to the genetic make-up of Karachi.

Protecting Our Natural Heritage

Karachi’s natural heritage consists of the coastal shoreline, historic gardens, parks, private lawns and, most importantly, historic indigenous trees around the city, such as the banyan, neem, and peepal trees, which are mostly located in old neighbourhoods.

These trees need to be preserved and maintained because they form a very crucial part of Karachi’s natural heritage. Preservation efforts have been made by the Natural Heritage Association of Karachi (NHAK), along with other activists, who lobbied for the designation of the centuries-old banyan trees as “protected heritage” by the local government. 

Over the years, the banyan trees have borne witness to significant moments of transformation and resilience, providing a habitat for a diverse array of birds. However, in recent times, these bird populations have diminished because of deteriorating air quality and the introduction of invasive, predatory bird species. It is vital to safeguard this natural heritage, as we observe an alarming trend of these trees being cut down or neglected to make way for new constructions. Rampant urban development is not only disrupting the habitats of migratory birds, but is also posing a severe threat to the heritage trees in the area.

An image of Formal Garden in 2020 (top) and an image of the same place taken in 2023 (above). These images show the concretisation and loss of vegetation in the garden
An image of Formal Garden in 2020 (top) and an image of the same place taken in 2023 (above). These images show the concretisation and loss of vegetation in the garden

The communal green spaces in Old Clifton have undergone considerable transformations over time. One such unique space is the Formal Garden in Old Clifton which, contrary to its name, consists more of hard concrete ground than soft, verdant areas. Although surrounded by a low-income neighbourhood, a school and a church, the garden lacks an inviting ambience and remains inaccessible to most. Its restrictive operating hours, from four-nine pm, and the fencing and boundary walls that segregate it from the katchi abadi behind it, have further exacerbated this issue, preventing people nearby from utilising this space.

A fleeting glimpse of the adjacent Stella Maris Catholic Church is all that can be seen from the garden. This space, managed by PVT Ltd, with most of its pavers sourced from Envicrete, is a stark example of a public area failing to establish a harmonious relationship with its surrounding context.

This kind of ill-planned development adds to the city’s heat and increases its carbon footprint. The garden and the areas surrounding it are now characterised by complete concreteness and what appears to be poor upkeep. The process of gentrification within this area is limiting social opportunities for the residents, leading to the compartmentalisation of the neighbourhood and resulting in the marginalisation of specific groups, such as those belonging to the katchi abadis.

High On High-Rises

Scale and proportion can be defined and understood in many ways, but here we will focus on two: invasive high-rises in low density areas and proportions of open spaces versus built-up zones.

The preservation of the existing environment requires a cohesive urban planning strategy which incorporates various factors such as social housing, neighbourhood parks, a town hall, existing structures, walkable zones and landmarks.

Within this zone, if development of new infrastructures takes place, it is critical to incorporate the existing context which comes through understanding and respecting scale, learning through research, and including the public through interval notifications and town hall hearings, where the people of the area are included in future development. Karachi lacks a zonal master plan, as a result of which the implementation of any new development feels aggressive and invasive.

Satellite images of a site before (left) and after (right) it was demolished by a builder in September 2022. All the plots around the site have been demolished for speculative development
Satellite images of a site before (left) and after (right) it was demolished by a builder in September 2022. All the plots around the site have been demolished for speculative development

Mixing high-rise-backed urban privatisation accords with a deepening urban neoliberalism leads to gentrification. Rather than safeguarding historically important neighbourhoods by converting them into quiet zones, real estate agents push for commercial infrastructures, for the sake of a shining skyline.

In growing cities like Karachi, where urban governance is a huge matter of concern, the vertical infrastructure has witnessed great decay, maintenance issues and faulty construction values. There have been design concerns, because of which Karachi’s high-rises are plagued with systemic build quality issues.

Although there is lack of research on vertical structures in Karachi, simple visual investigations reveal defects such as pipe leakages, cracks, poor workmanship and concerns about mediocre facade insulation.

Regulating agencies such as the SBCA and KDA (which are plagued with corrupt legal frameworks), and developers such as DHA and Bahria Town, private investors and many other stakeholders are armed only with this limited social knowledge: develop projects in isolation, by selling political economies and outcomes in the name of development.

The Only Way Forward

High-rise typology is quietly transforming cities, complicating governance and decaying urban residential zones. It impacts land value and displaces the ideology of community and neighbourhood values, where shared spaces such as lawns, parks and open grounds are all compromised.

If land use rules are applied with a ‘gentle’ increase in density by building townhouses, two to four family homes or by reintroducing small-scale apartment dwellings built with ethical materials, we could begin to take steps in the right direction.

Such measures could illustrate a scalable humanistic city, as opposed to a concrete-laden megalopolis with a large carbon footprint, riddled with urban heat islands. A heat island emerges when increased human activity leads to a change on the surface of the land, therefore trapping heat and reducing ventilation. As a result, with taller buildings blocking the wind, Karachi is expected to get hotter than it already is.

The rundown exterior of Khatija Manzil
The rundown exterior of Khatija Manzil

It is now critical to think of green real-estate, ethical land distribution, improving housing affordability and making our cities more livable and sustainable, by developing democratic neighbourhood associations and policies which embrace human and non-human coexistence ideologies.

Ethical zonal planning — which includes development infrastructure like well-connected transportation systems, solid waste management and aggressive preservation legislation to account for the complexities of overpopulated cities and to protect their natural terrain — is imperative.

Top-down governance, neglected social reforms and the privatisation of neighbourhoods is not the solution. Agencies have to demarcate and protect public spaces, residential zones, historical neighbourhoods and the natural habitat, and establish quiet zones so cities can repair and improve the physical and social environment.

Marvi Mazhar is the principal architect at Marvi Mazhar and Associates (MMA). She tweets @marvimazhar

Komal Rehman and Ayesha Jamal, research interns at MMA, are currently enrolled student researchers from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), Karachi, pursuing their Bachelor’s in Fine Arts

The maps used have been developed by Owais Zafar, a recent graduate with a Bachelor’s in Architecture from the Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Karachi, and Murk Shah, a recent graduate with a Bachelor’s in Architecture from the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 30th, 2023

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