The Future of Karachi’s CBD

Karachi’s Central Business District (CBD) is normally considered to lie between Lea Market to the north, Maulvi Tamizzuddin Road to the south and between the Quaid’s Mazar to the east and Merewether Tower to the west. However, over time this has expanded to the Lyari River on the north and Shahrah-e-Faisal on the south.

This area houses Karachi’s financial institutions; major wholesale markets and their warehouses and workshops; solid waste recycling units; multi-storey retail bazaars (over 65 in Saddar alone); the birth place of the Quaid; and 19th century buildings that house the offices of community trusts; and thousands of hawkers that occupy roads and pavements.

In addition, the majority of Karachi’s built-heritage is located in this area. This heritage consists of the city’s oldest schools and colleges (including the two that the Quaid attended); and its most important cultural and administrative institutions and earliest civic amenities. It also contains the majority of the 73 Hindu temples in the city, the oldest one being Punjmukh Hanuman Mandir, said to have been established in the 7th century. 48 of the 200 plus Muslim shrines are also located here including the 10th century shrine of Hazrat Meer Hasan Shah Ghazi in Joria Bazaar in whose neighbourhood Karachi’s oldest bookshop, which was established in 1910, still functions. And then, there is the Walled City itself which houses Karachi’s oldest early 19th century Imambargah and where Karachi began as a town in 1729.

All roads of Karachi’s post-independence development lead to this expanded CBD and through them thousands of vehicles including hundreds of thousands of motorcycles make their way every day. Meanwhile, in the narrow lanes, “coolies” carry cargo on push-carts and on their backs to the beautiful old buildings which have now been turned into warehouses. Meanwhile, on Sunday, children play cricket on the empty streets and road side markets emerge which cater to the needs of Karachi’s low income communities. On religious and national holidays, the neighbourhoods turn into spaces of recreation, especially in Ramzan and Devali, or of mourning in Muharram.

This entire area is chaotic. It has massive traffic jams that last for hours. It has serious problems of parking, especially for motorbikes, which occupy almost all pavement space. Heavy transport vehicles, carrying cargo move through broken roads causing unbearable air and noise pollution. The low income settlements in this area, which were one or two storeys high a decade ago, have transformed themselves informally into high-rises of five to ten floors, with unplanned densities of up-to 3,000 persons per hectare, creating immense social stress for the residents. Meanwhile, thanks to the enactment of the Sindh High Density Board Act 2014, buildings of between 20 and 40 floors are under construction or their plans are with the SBCA for approval. Many of these are of questionable architectural quality and are further degrading the physical environment. No one has so far calculated the economic loss of this chaos but it probably runs into billions of Rupees per month.

As if these conditions were not serious enough, three bus rapid transit corridors are going to arrive at Guru Mandir and one at Preedy Street. At-least two of them are going to make their journey through M A Jinnah Road to Merewether Tower. This will have a major impact on subsequent land-use and will require complete changes in traffic movement if an increase in chaos is to be contained. In addition, there is the World Bank Neighbourhood Improvement Project and the Pakistan Chowk Initiative which are also located in this area. Many more projects are likely to be introduced as a result of the repercussions of the proposed and un-coordinated projects being built.

Karachi’s CBD, desperately requires a master plan, along with an institution which has teeth and political support, to develop and monitor it. All projects should be subservient to such a master plan whose major ingredients should be traffic re-routing and management; development of pedestrian and commuter friendly byelaws and zoning regulations; conservation of built heritage, an aesthetic committee to scrutinise building plans so that they are in keeping with a vision for this area; effective communication with all the other departments involved in infrastructure development and management; and the preservation of the hundreds of thousands of jobs that the formal and informal economy of the area generates. Such a plan cannot be successful without the involvement of the numerous Bazaar and community organisations who are constantly pushing their claims and guarding their gains. It is my view, based on years of observation and documentation, that much of this chaos can be overcome simply through the reorganisation of space and traffic management. However it has to be understood that the problems of the CBD cannot be overcome by micro level projects unless they are a part of a larger plan.

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