The Density Debate

AMONG professionals, a debate on post-corona-related planning, especially on density issues, has begun. They are out to create a new and more humane world. I would like to vulgarise this debate by injecting an element of reality by asking what happens to the existing city? Do we demolish and reconstruct it?

According to the Sindh Building Control Authority, settlements of 80 square yards are to have a density of not more than 500 persons per acre or 87 square feet per person; low-income apartments are to have a density of not more than 650 persons per acre or 67 square feet per person; high-income apartments are to have a density of not more than 325 persons per acre or 134 square feet per person, and 600 square yard plot settlements are to have a density of not more than 150 persons per acre or 290 square feet per person. These figures in themselves reflect the inequities of formal planning as enshrined in the SBCA by-laws. But what does this mean in reality?

Manzoor Ahmed lives on an 80 square yard plot in Karachi’s Ittehad Town. He has built three 12 by 10 feet rooms. One room is for his TV, himself, and his younger son. His elder son and his wife along with three children live in the second room. His mother and unmarried sister live in the third room. His third son sleeps in the courtyard. So there are 10 persons living on 720 square feet which works out to 72 square feet per person. The figures tell us that the house is overcrowded and so the women of the house are happy when the children are playing in the street and the men are away.

Meanwhile, Motilal lives in a flat of 360 square feet on the seventh floor on what was previously an 80 square yard plot. The flat consists of two rooms and a lounge. Motilal, his wife and two kids share the room. His mother and sister sleep in the other room and his father sleeps in the lounge. As such, there are seven people sharing 360 square feet which works out to 51 square feet per person. Since Motilal and his family live on the seventh floor, it is not possible to decongest the flat by sending the kids off. The family is afraid that if they go out unsupervised they will acquire ‘bad habits’. So, they can seldom get relief from overcrowding.

The figures reflect the inequities of formal planning as enshrined in the SBCA by-laws

Both Manzoor Ahmed’s and Motilal’s cases demonstrate uncomfortable densities, which in Manzoor Ahmed’s case are also supported by the SBCA regulations. Approximately eight million persons (1.2m households) in Karachi live in similar conditions.

If the history of Karachi settlements is anything to go by, then the densities in the settlements in which Manzoor’s and Motilal’s houses are located, will increase. Nawalane in Lyari had a density of 200 persons per acre in 1972; by 2010 it had increased to more than 1,250 persons per acre. Meanwhile, Labour Square apartments built by the Bhutto government in 1974 had a density of 5.5 persons per apartment; in 2010, this had increased to 12. So how do we deal with this?

As suggested many times before, we could create areas for receiving migrants from the rural areas before they could go and find a permanent place for themselves to live in. The cost of such an exercise, especially of capital, operations and maintenance would be exorbitant. Then, managing such an undertaking would require dealing with political, ethnic, and community pressures which are a near impossibility in the best of circumstances. In addition, research and news items suggest that unlike before, young migrants do not come and live with their elder relatives. They hire premises to live together. To cater to this demand, a number of ‘guesthouses’ for different income groups are cropping up all over the city. Many of them offer long-term lets. If the state can support this process by developing the necessary financial and legal instruments, it is possible that this rental market would expand not only to cater to the migrant population, but also to the natural growth of the city.

However, the biggest challenge is to provide ownership housing to young couples. I increasingly feel that if the ongoing informal conversion of katchi abadis into medium-rise apartments could be regulated, we would be able to provide 20,000 housing units per year and at almost no cost to the state. This is more than any government can even hope to achieve.

What we have to remember when thinking of the future is that the existing city is what matters more than any future developments, since it is and will remain much larger than anything that will be built in the next cash-starved 20 years post-coronavirus.

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2020

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