Designing Density in Karachi

Alternatives to Apartment Blocks

Karachi contains 10 per cent of the total population of Pakistan and 25 per cent of its urban population, and yet it generates 15 per cent of national GDP and 62 per cent of income tax. In spite of being the major industrial city of Pakistan, in 1990 a total of 75 per cent of Karachi’s working population worked in the informal sector, primarily in garment, leather, textile, carpet and light engineering sectors. These sectors, and therefore the majority of the working population, tend to be based in low-income settlements.
Land in Karachi is very unevenly distributed between the formal and informal sectors. A total of 62 per cent of Karachi’s population lives on the 8.1 per cent of land that has been informally developed. And, while 80 per cent of Karachiites live in houses on plots of 120 square yards or less, plots of between 400 and 2,000 square yards occupy about 20 per cent of Karachi’s residential area, despite accounting for only 2 per cent of the total housing stock.
The city government of Karachi has marked 72 per cent of informal settlements established before 1997 for regularisation, which involves the grant of a 99-year lease to residents and provision of physical and social infrastructure, while minimising the displacement caused. However, there is considerable pressure from a broad range of interest groups, including developers, bureaucrats, professional institutions and politicians, to initiate a process of replacing those settlements established before 1997 that are on prime land as well as all those established after 1997 with commercial developments, apartment blocks and shopping plazas. Added to this, there is considerable pressure from the same groups that new formal sector developments for low- and lower middle-income groups should follow the same principles.
Many of these new informal and formal low-income settlements are far away from employment zones, which makes it very difficult for residents, especially women, to work. Surveys show that people living in these settlements spend three to four hours per day travelling from home to work and back, at a cost of Rs 56 to 100 per day. In addition, social costs include a reduction in the time that workers, usually men, are able to give to their families, and increased tiredness and ill-health due to the time spent commuting in environmentally degraded and uncomfortable conditions.
Although land for housing is available in informal and semi-formal settlements, expanding families cannot access it easily as they did in previous decades, due to a massive increase in the cost of land. One square metre of land in a newly developed katchi abadi (neighbourhood) cost 1.7 times the average daily wage for an unskilled labourer in 1992, compared to 40 times today. As a result, the only affordable and secure option for an increasing number of families is to build upwards, densifying their settlements. Nawalane in Lyari, for example, had a density of 620 people per hectare in 1992, compared to over 3,250 people per hectare today. Similar conditions are emerging in most of the older informal settlements and in many formal settlements as well. Apartment complexes, which had an average of five or six people per apartment living in them a decade ago, now often have 12 to 15 people. Although high densities have numerous advantages for city and infrastructure planning, the abnormally high and unplanned densities emerging in the older settlements of Karachi are leading to significant social and physical problems. Overcrowded quarters can lead to family quarrels, tension among children and adolescents, promiscuity , inconvenience for married couples, breakdown of community cohesion, problems in use of toilets and kitchens, which increasingly have to be shared, and an increasing gap between water demand and supply.
Density is thus a critical issue in relation to sustainable urban planning, and so we conducted a series of four case studies in low- to lower middle-income housing sites in Karachi. The research, in collaboration with the Urban Research and Development Cell of the Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University Karachi and supported by the International Institute for Environment and Development (UK) investigated three settlements of small plots and one apartment complex and included a hypothetical re-design exercise to explore how high density settlements could be constructed on these sites according to peoples’ preferences, without compromising their living conditions.
The four case studies yielded a number of conclusions that could inform the planning of liveable high density housing in low- to lower middle-income areas. First of all, the vast majority of respondents and interviewees in the four settlements wanted to own a house and not an apartment. They pointed out that it was essential that they carry out some income generating activity in their homes, something that was not possible in an apartment complex, apart from activities such as giving tuition to school children. In addition, they preferred homes that could grow incrementally to house some of their married children, since finding separate accommodation was not an affordable option. Again, this was not felt to be possible in apartment buildings. There was a general consensus among those living in plot settlements that when they first built their homes, they did not consider the additions that they would make incrementally as their needs increased. As a result, their houses were badly planned and ventilated, and the settlements environmentally degraded. They agreed that if they had had access to design and technical advice when they first built their homes, they would not have suffered these problems to the same extent.
For the hypothetical re-modelling process we provided plots of 47 square metres. We were able to achieve much higher densities – up to 3,157 persons per hectare – than the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) prescribed maximum of 1,275 persons per hectare for apartment blocks. This was true even in the case of the newly developed plot settlement: by remodelling it, we were able to increase the number of plots from 1,237 to 1,910. We made each plot narrower, reducing infrastructure costs and increasing density from 501 persons per hectare to 1,755 persons per hectare. In addition, the unit cost of a plot was reduced by 41 per cent.
There is, however, a limit to the density that can be reached without compromising on the quality of the physical and social environment. Houses higher than ground plus three floors on small lots are uncomfortable, and their living spaces on lower floors lack light and ventilation. Decreasing space for amenities and social facilities also adversely affects social and environmental conditions. In our re-planning exercise, we avoided increasing house heights above ground plus three floors or cutting back on amenities and social facilities. We also always kept a courtyard in the centre of each plot in order to provide light, air and an open family get together space Under these conditions, we found that it was not possible to achieve densities of more than 3,500 people per hectare..
Apartment complexes are more lucrative for developers than small-plot settlements because there is more housing for sale immediately after construction. Developers are therefore key agents in shaping the urban form of new and upgraded settlements. We therefore chose one case study that was the site of an existing apartment complex. Following discussions with developers, our re-design managed to achieve the same densities (around 2,800 people per hectare) as the existing apartment blocks, and the developers were satisfied with the profits that they could make under this proposal.
Our study has been widely circulated and discussed, and has also been used as teaching material at the Department of Architecture and Planning at the NED University in Karachi. Furthermore, a housing project in Lahore has asked us to design a settlement of eight hectares on the principles we have developed as a result of the study.
Plot settlements meet the requirements of low- and lower middle-income groups better than apartment blocks. They are physically and socially friendlier and are more affordable since they can grow incrementally as and when the need arises. Our study shows that they can achieve more than the densities prescribed by the Karachi authorities and can provide acceptable models for developers. People’s preferences in low- income settlements in other cities of Asia are not dissimilar to those we have documented in Karachi. It is necessary to develop appropriate bylaws and zoning regulations to promote high-density individually owned houses. The existence of an advisory cell or organisation that gives advice on incremental development would help such settlements to grow in a more organised manner.


Arif Hasan is an Architect and Planner with a private practice in Karachi. He has been a Member of the Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture as well as a Founding Member of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR).