Value Extraction from Land and Real Estate in Karachi

Studies have also revealed that the old informal settlements have changed over time. One, they are no longer purely working class settlements. They have a younger and literate leadership as compared to the older generation leadership; they contain a sizeable number of white-collar workers, teachers and entrepreneurs; they have marriage halls and beauty parlours; and a fiercely upwardly mobile population (Hasan, 2003). The other phenomena is that regularised or to be regularised katchi abadis are building upwards. Through a understanding between house owners and developers (formal and informal) individual houses are being replaced by high-rise apartment blocks which contain very small apartments so as to make them affordable to low income households both for purchase and rentals. Families who own these houses have become wealthier since the agreement with the developer means substantial money for the sale of the plot and retaining two or more flats in the building which is being constructed. However, the environment of the katchi abadi becomes environmentally degraded as a result of such unplanned densification. The infrastructure is also over-taxed as a result (Hasan, 2010). What the future of these settlements will be has not yet been adequately studied.

The processes described above can be divided into two. One, those that degrade; and those that “gentrify” meaning improved social and physical conditions and/or a more affluent and politically more powerful class moving in. For instance, in case of the old city it is certainly not gentrification. Here, as a result of the expansion of warehousing, wholesaling and manufacturing, its better-off population abandons it leaving behind the lovely institutional buildings that served them. Yet, in economic terms, the old city booms and its land values become much higher than those of the elite areas of the city. Again, persons living in better located formal sector settlements illegally change them into mixed land-use settlements and reap enormous economic benefits. In most such cases, the result is environmental degradation with little hope for future gentrification. But where the nexus of developers, bureaucrats and politicians (including international corporate sector organisations) illegally acquire land marked for utilities and convert it for commercial and residential purposes and they also put pressure on local government to pass laws to change selected residential corridors into commercial ones with higher floor to area ratios, the case is different. In such areas where there is a potential for high and commercial usages, gentrification in the form of well-designed office buildings and apartments does take place. Again, where pastoralists are replaced by city dwellers and their economy is ruined, the case is different for they are replaced by better skilled communities who over time improve their status and extract value from the land and properties on which they live.

Much of the above cases can fall under the term of “development induced displacement”. However, some of this development does result in developing high end residential, retailing and commercial neighbourhoods. Can this be classified as “gentrification” under any of the existing gentrification theories? I feel that this is a subject that needs to be debated by academia.     

Towards Gentrification?

Interest in Karachi’s built-heritage in the inner city first appears in the mid-80’s in a series of articles that appeared in the Herald monthly magazine and proposals for pedestrianisation in certain parts of the colonial city (Hasan, 1986). These proposals were more about creating order out of chaos rather than “gentrification”. In the early 1990s, the Design Bureau of the KDA prepared measured drawings of important Karachi buildings and undertook limited “repair” work on some of them. In addition, old churches, schools and some “iconic” public use buildings were also repaired by their owners more out of necessity than out of love for their heritage value. This work was not done by trained conservationists or even by persons who had any experience of such work. However, in the decade of 90’s two other important things happened. First, the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act 1994 was enacted and a listing of heritage buildings was commenced. An Advisory and a Technical Committee were set-up under the Act to assist the Sindh Culture Department. An UK trained architect, Yasmin Lari, played an important role in pushing for this act. The second important thing was that another Yasmin, Prof. Yasmin Cheema, returned from Turkey after studying and teaching conservation. She became a teacher at the Department of Architecture and Planning at the Dawood College, Karachi, and commenced the first ever systematic documentation and analysis of Karachi’s built-heritage. This led to her defining a “historic district of Karachi” and the publication of her book “The Historical Quarters of Karachi”. During the 1990s, a number of students at the Dawood College undertook “adaptive reuse” projects related to old buildings in the inner city and a study of the quarters in which they were located. However, Dawood College had a strong populist tradition built around the concept of “socially responsive architecture” and as such these projects did not aim at displacing people who already lived in these quarters.

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