The Proposed Densification of Karachi

From press reports, a number of emails and visits from fellow architects, I gather that the government of Sindh has decided to get the KBCA to revise its building byelaws and zoning regulations to increase Floor Area Ratios (or FAR as they are called) all over Karachi in general and in the business and commercial districts in particular. A report in the press also mentions that the Chief Minister favours the construction of even 100 storey buildings in Karachi!

In layman’s language FAR lays down the area one can construct on a plot of land. For example, if FAR is 1:6 then on 1,000 square yards one can construct six times the plot area (or 6,000 square yards) and the building can be any number of storeys, unless under the byelaws, there is a height restriction.

The reason that is being given for increasing FAR is that its increase will make investment in building and real estate more attractive. It is hoped that this step will also lead to foreign investment and reverse the trend of a decline in the real estate and construction business. However, it has to be understood that the real reason for this decline has less to do with a low density FAR and more to do with political uncertainty, a looming economic crisis, lucrative opportunities in the UAE for real estate investments, and graft, corruption and complicated and time consuming procedures in getting building approvals.

Increasing FAR means the increasing of densities. It can be argued that Karachi is a low density sprawl as compared to other mega-cities, except for certain areas of Gulistan-e-Jauhar, Lyari Town and certain parts of Liaquatabad. The latter two have high densities in complete violation of building byelaws and zoning regulations. It is also true that large low density decentralised cities, especially large ones like Karachi, have comparatively expensive to operate and difficult to manage transport systems and utilities. Also, transport systems in such cities are less likely to be efficient as compared to high density centralised cities.

An increase in density means an increase in the number of persons living or working per unit of area (which in our case is calculated per acre). This increase requires a corresponding increase in infrastructure in terms of water, sewage and electricity. It can be argued that this can be augmented overtime as has been done in many other cities of the world. However, it is difficult to understand how we will manage this given the financial and managerial constraints faced by our planning and implementation agencies and the absence of political will and a consensus between the different actors in our urban drama to overcome these constraints.

However, the increase in density means an increase in vehicular and pedestrian traffic and it requires additional road space and improved transport systems. The question therefore is how much more traffic can the existing road network in the areas which the KBCA wishes to densify take (if at all), before clogging them up completely? Also, can the existing transport system take care of the additional number of people that will move in and out of the densified areas or will they remain stranded on the roads for hours? If available data is to be believed (and there is no reason why it should not be). Karachi’s central business district (CBD) at present requires transport systems that can cater to at least 20,000 passengers per hour. This can only be provided by segregated light rail, metro or through bus rapid transit systems. At present, Karachi’s transport system in the CBD caters to no more than 3,000 to 4,000 persons per hour and is under increasing pressure. Therefore, increasing FAR has to be accompanied by the building of high capacity mass transit systems in the transport sector and improved traffic management. The provision of appropriate transport systems to cater to high densities will require at least a decade to plan and complete after decisions regarding them are taken.

Normally, questions related to densification and the nature of linkages it requires with transport and utilities are determined by an urban design exercise which takes place as part of the structure or development plan for the city. Such an exercise is carried out separately for different area. For Karachi’s commercial districts, this would require at least a year of work (after TOR have been developed and consultants appointed) and another six months of analysis and stakeholder consultation before byelaws can be framed and may be another few months before they become law. From the looks of it this process will not be followed and ad-hoc decisions will be taken as they have been taken in the past. It is therefore suggested that the increase in FAR that the politicians are seeking should be determined (if an urban design exercise is not politically possible) on the number of vehicles that an area can accommodate and the existing transport facilities of that area. These two things are not difficult to calculate and the city government has very competent planners and technocrats who are capable of doing this and more.

Since byelaws are being revised for the business districts as well, it is essential that at least 30 per cent or even more of all built up area should be reserved for residential accommodation. This is because of two reasons. One, it will reduce the use of cars and public transport if persons working in the area also live there. And two, the area will not die at night as it does today and in the process expensive infrastructure and utilities are not fully utilised.

Cities that have grown without proper urban design exercises and hence or without rational FAR controls during their periods of economic growth and investments, like Bangkok and Manila in the 80’s and 90’s, have immense traffic and transport related problems which even mass transit systems, building of scores of kilometres of expensive expressways and signal-free roads have not been able to overcome. Karachi must not be allowed to suffer such a fate. We still have time.

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