Confronting the urban development paradigm


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THE modernist paradigm of urban development, though not officially discarded, has been superimposed by the culture and economics of globalization. New terms (such as BOT, DFI, world class cities, investment friendly infrastructure, it is not the business of the state to do business, privatization, structural adjustment) and the processes linked to them along with new actors in the form of international capital, are increasingly determining the shape and form of our cities, especially related to the housing and transport sector. The new paradigm is capital intensive and has little respect for environmental and social issues.

Based on a study by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), with which the author was involved, this paper explores the effect of the new paradigm on Asian cities. It then focuses on Karachi, specifically on the work of the Urban Resource Centre (URC) in trying to create a space for consensus building between various actors in the urban drama so that communities and weaker interest groups can regain ownership of the city. Much of URC’s work has been related to transport sector projects and processes.

The ACHR is an Asia-Pacific network of professionals, NGOs and community organisations headquartered in Bangkok. The decision to create the ACHR was taken in 1987 and formalised in 1989. Its founding members were professionals and NGO and community projects working on housing and urban issues related to poor communities. Since then, through an orientation and exchange programme between innovative projects and interested communities and professionals, the network has expanded throughout South, South-East and East Asia. Links have also been created with Central Asia and Africa through the savings, credit and housing programmes of the Shack Dwellers International.

Senior members of the ACHR have been conscious that conditions at the local and international level today are very different from what they were in 1989 when the ACHR was created. Also that these conditions are affecting the shape and form of our urban settlements and the living conditions of the poorer sections of society. As a result of this consciousness, the ACHR in 2003 decided to carry out a research on a number of Asian cities so as to identify the process of socio-economic, physical and institutional change that has taken place since the ACHR was founded; the actors involved in this change; and the effect of this change on disadvantaged communities and interest groups. Eight Asian cities along with researchers were identified for the purpose of this research.

The research has identified many differences between the eight cities. However, there are a number of strong similarities which are the result not only of how these cities have evolved historically but also of the major changes that have taken place in the world since the late eighties. It has been identified that these changes are the result of structural adjustment, the WTO regime and the dominance of the culture and institutions of globalization in development policies (or lack of them) at the national level.

The most important finding of the report is that ‘urban development in Asia is largely driven by the concentration of local, national and increasingly, international profit-seeking enterprises in and around particular urban centres’; and that ‘cities may concentrate wealth both in terms of new investment and of high-income residents but there is no automatic process by which this contributes to the costs of needed infrastructure and services.1


Many of the other findings of the report have a direct bearing on transport related and governance issues. A synopsis of these findings is given below.

Globalization has led to direct foreign investment in Asian cities along with the development of a more aggressive business sector at the national level. This has resulted in the establishment of corporate sector industries, increased tourism, building of elite townships with foreign investment, gentrification of the historic core of many cities and a rapid increase in the middle classes. As a result, poor communities are being evicted from land that they occupy in or near the city centres, often without compensation, or are being relocated formally or informally to land on the city fringes far away from their place of work, education, recreation and from better health facilities.2 This process has meant an increase in land prices due to which the lower middle income groups have been adversely affected and can no longer afford to purchase or rent a house in the formal land and housing market. They are relocating to the peri-urban areas.

Due to relocation, transport costs and travel time to and from work has increased considerably. This has resulted in economic stress and social disintegration as earning members have less time to interact with the family. Incomes have been adversely affected since women can no longer find work in the relocation areas and children can no longer go to school.3 Interviews by the author of commuters in Bangkok and by the URC in Karachi indicate that people living in locations far from their places of work (more and more do) can take up to six hours of travelling per day.

Due to an absence of alternatives for housing, old informal settlements have densified and as such living conditions have deteriorated in spite of the fact that many of them have acquired water supply and road paving and have better social indicators such as higher literacy and better infant mortality rates.4

Local governments in all the research cities have evolved an ‘image’ for their cities. This image is all about catering to the automobile, high-rise construction and gentrification of poor areas. For this they are seeking foreign investment for building automobile related infrastructure and elite townships. Much of this is being implemented through the build-operate-transfer (BOT) process which is two to three times more expensive than the normal local process of implementation. Foreign investment has also introduced foreign fast food outlets, stores for household provisions, mobile phone companies and expensive theme parks and golf courses. Much of this development has pushed small businesses out of elite and middle income areas and occupied public parks and natural assets of these cities for elite and middle class entertainment and recreation at the expense of poor and lower middle income communities.

An increase in the number of automobiles in Asian cities has created severe traffic problems and this in turn increases time taken in travel, stress and environment related diseases.5 Much of the financing of automobiles is being done by loans from banks and leasing companies.6 New transport systems (such as light rail and metros) that have been or are being implemented do not serve the vast majority of the commuting public and in most cases are far too expensive for the poor.7

The culture of globalization and structural adjustment has also meant the removal or curtailing of government subsidies for the social sectors. This has directly affected poor communities who have to pay more for education and health and this in turn adversely effects their mobility through public transport.8 In addition, the private sector in education, both at school and university levels, has expanded creating two systems of education, one for the rich and the other for the poor. This is a major change from the pre-1990s era and is fraught with serious political and social consequences as it is further fragmenting society into rich and poor sections.

As a result of the changes described above, there has been an enormous increase in real estate development. This has led to the strengthening of the nexus between politicians-bureaucrats and developers due to which building bye laws and zoning regulations have become easier to violate and due to which the natural and cultural heritage assets of Asian cities are in danger or in the process of being wiped out.

There are multiple agencies that are involved in the development, management and maintenance of Asian cities. In most cases, these agencies have no coordination between them. In addition, in most cities there are central government interests that often override local interests and considerations. This makes sustainable planning and its implementation, especially related to environmental and land use issues, problematic.

In all cities but two, governments that are already heavily in debt are seeking loans from International Financial Institutions (IFIs). Development through these loans is exorbitantly expensive, loan conditionalities are detrimental to the development of in-country technical and entrepreneurial expertise and to the evolution of effective municipal institutions.9

In most cases IFI and bilateral agencies funded projects seldom have any coordination between them and/or with national programmes resulting in duplication and a waste of resources.10

In all the case study cities, there has been a process of decentralization. This has opened up new opportunities for decision-making at the local level and for the involvement of local communities and interest groups in the decision-making process. In some cases, this has also meant a weakening of the community process in the face of formal institutions at the local level. In many cases the buffer of the bureaucracy between the elected representatives and the people has been removed giving a carte-blanche to the elected representatives to take decisions without consulting anyone. In this regard the synthesis paper asks two important questions: ‘Does decentralization give city governments more power and resources and thus capacity to act?’ and ‘If city government does get more capacity to act, does this actually bring benefits to urban poor groups?’


In the last few decades, the whole approach to planning has undergone a change in Karachi. The local government is obsessed by making Karachi ‘beautiful’ to visitors and investors. As a result, it has adopted the following thinking which the author has experienced in other cities such as Manila, Almaty, Phnom Penh, Hochiminh City, and in conversations with delegations from India.

* Karachi has to be a ‘world class city’. What this actually means has never been explained but it is one of the objectives of the Karachi Master Plan 2020.

* The city has to have ‘investment friendly infrastructure’. Again, what this means has not been clearly defined. However, it seems from the programmes of the local government that this means the following: Flyovers and elevated expressways as opposed to traffic management and planning; High-rise apartments (eight floors is considered to give a proper image for the city) as opposed to upgraded settlements; Malls as opposed to traditional markets (which are being removed); Removing poverty from the centre of the city to the periphery to improve the image of the city so as to promote direct foreign investment; Catering to tourism rather than supporting local commerce.

* Seeking support of the international corporate sector (developers, banks, suppliers of technologies and the IFIs) for the above.


The above agenda is an expensive one. For this, sizeable loans have been negotiated with the IFIs on a scale unthinkable before.11 Projects designed and funded through previous loans for Karachi have all been failures.12 Given this fact and the fact that local government institutions are much weaker in technical terms than they were in previous decades, it is unlikely that the new projects will be successful. Also, it is quite clear from the nature of projects being funded that they are not a part of a larger planning exercise.

In addition, there are projects that are being floated on a BOT process. They are also not a part of any plan. It is obvious that projects have replaced planning and that the shape of the city is being determined increasingly by local and foreign capital and its promoters and supporters. This agenda is anti-people and has resulted in increased evictions both of settlements and hawkers and the creation of conditions which make it difficult for working class people to access previously accessible public space. As a result, multi-class public space for entertainment and recreation is rapidly disappearing in Karachi.


Two civil society organisations in Karachi have been involved, along with a network of community organisations and NGOs, in dealing with the issues described above that adversely effect poor communities and society as a whole. The organisations are the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) and the URC, both in Karachi. This paper will not describe the work of the OPP in detail since it has been presented at many international forums and is well-known. However, a brief synopsis follows.

The OPP promotes the upgrading of informal settlements through community mobilisation, finance and management by providing technical advice and managerial guidance to communities.

It works in partnership with government agencies whereby they develop the off-site infrastructure and the communities finance, develop, manage and maintain the on-site infrastructure.

OPP runs an education programme which encourages educated young women and men to open informal schools in low income settlements which become formal schools through a process of teachers’ training and upgradation.

It operates a savings and credit programme for establishing rural and urban cooperatives.

The organization reaches out to over two million population at 248 locations in Pakistan in 11 Pakistan cities. This network supports the advocacy work of the URC.

The objectives of the OPP were not to propose alternatives to overall urban development planning but due to the adverse effects of the new paradigm on poor communities, OPP’s recent work has focused on trying to mitigate the effects of this paradigm and to support the URC’s advocacy work.


The first major initiative of the URC became a model of its research and advocacy work. This initiative was a questioning of the Karachi Mass Transit Project which was developed in 1994 with advice from World Bank consultants by the Karachi Development Authority’s mass transit cell. The project proposed six corridors of elevated light rail transitways. Corridor one (15.4 kilometres) was to be implemented in phase I at a cost of US$ 668 million.

After studying the proposal the URC raised the following objections. (i) The elevated transitways would be an environmental disaster in the inner city and would also adversely affect the built heritage of the inner city. (ii) Corridor one generated no commuters itself; they came from other locations. (iii) An abandoned circular rail corridor already existed. Its revival and extension would cost a fraction of the cost of corridor one and would serve a far larger area than the six corridors put together.

The city planners refused to accept the URC’s objections as valid. The URC then initiated the formation of the Citizen’s Forum on Mass Transit (CFMT) which consisted of professionals, NGOs, concerned citizens, media organizations and the OPP community networks. The URC also held meetings with communities along the corridor to explain the project to them. They were horrified and expressed their concerns to their elected representatives and through letters in the press. After a considerable opinion had been built in the media for and against the project, the CFMT held a citizens’ forum and presented its findings to them along with alternatives to the government plan. It was extensively reported in the media and a major debate ensued.

This resulted in major changes in the Karachi Mass Transit Project and the development of proposals for the revitalisation and extension of the abandoned circular railway. The most important part of this process was the creation of a large informal network consisting of NGOs, community organizations, media, concerned citizens, professionals, academic institutions and central government departments.


The above model of negotiations and consensus seeking was not followed by the URC in the case of the Lyari expressway. The project and the manner in which changes were sought in it are explained below.

The northern and southern bypasses were proposed by the Karachi Development Plan 1975-85. They were to be built from the port to the super highway and the national highway respectively, and as a result, all port related traffic would be able to bypass the city. The southern bypass could not be built because of opposition from the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) through which a part of its alignment passed. The DHA was concerned about the environmental pollution that the bypass would cause to some of its neighbourhoods. It was also sufficiently influential to get its point of view accepted. The northern bypass was not built either for a variety of political and resource reasons.


In 1986, a group of public-spirited citizens proposed the Lyari expressway as an alternative to the northern bypass. This Lyari expressway proposal consisted of building a road from the port along the Lyari river to the super highway, which is Karachi’s main link with the rest of Pakistan. A government study found the construction of the Lyari expressway unfeasible along the banks as over 100,000 people (at that time) living along the river would have to be evicted as a result of its construction.

The idea of the expressway, however, appealed to the politicians and planners and so in 1989 the Karachi Development Authority (KDA) involved the Canadian International Development Authority (CIDA) in the project. CIDA proposed an elevated corridor (on columns) in the middle of the river as the most feasible option as it would not displace any Lyari corridor communities. However, in 1993, rains flooded the lower lying Lyari corridor settlements. As a result, planners proposed the building of the expressway along both banks as a solution for flood protection and also for generating funds through a toll for cost recovery. The skyway project, however, remained unaffected.

The URC objected to both the proposals for reasons that are explained later in the article and expressed its point of view through a number of forums and newspaper articles. However, there was little or no response from politicians and government planners on the concerns raised by the URC.

The URC then held meetings with the communities. As a result, the Lyari Nadi Welfare Association (LNWA), consisting of forty-two community organisations was formed. Meanwhile, the URC also developed alternative plans for redirecting port traffic to the super highway and costed them. These plans, along with photographs, maps and estimates, were given to the LNWA and they in turn contacted their MNAs and MPAs and the chief minister of Sindh. As a result, the project was delayed. All this information and documentation was sent to CIDA and the Canadian Embassy. CIDA finally backed out and the skyway proposal was shelved.


In 1994, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) decided to build the expressway on either side of the river. Eight thousand shacks and small business enterprises at the lower end of the river were removed for its construction. However, the demolitions along the Lyari river led to opposition of the project by citizens, NGOs and the politically powerful Lyari communities. This opposition led to public hearings in 1996 which were arranged by the senior minister of the Sindh government. As a result of the public hearings, it was decided to build the northern bypass and abandon the building of the Lyari expressway. Work on the northern bypass was begun. However, in June 2001, the government decided to build both the northern bypass and the Lyari expressway in violation of the decisions taken as a result of the 1996 public hearings.

The government has justified the project claiming that it will ease traffic flow within the city and move people away from the flood zone to safer locations.


A number of NGOs and academics, together with the Lyari community organizations, drew up a list of concerns. These were sent to the president, the city Nazim and all other relevant agencies and government departments through the URC, but there was no response from any individual or agency. The major concerns are summarised below:

The expressway project is not a part of a larger city planning exercise. There are cheaper and easier methods of easing traffic flow in Karachi that have been repeatedly proposed by the KDA’s traffic engineering bureau, Karachi academics and professionals.

Should the expressway be used for heavy port related traffic, it will cause severe environmental pollution and hence further degradation along the already densely polluted Lyari corridor.

On the other hand, if the expressway is to be used only for intra-city traffic, a different sort of land use change will occur. In this case, there will be a sharp increase in land values, leading to the eviction of the remaining old settlements along the corridor. In either case the development along the corridor will eventually add approximately 100,000 vehicles per day on a corridor which passes through the centre of the city and is vehicle free today.

The building of the expressway will lead to the demolition of a lot of cultural heritage, 25,400 houses and about 8,000 commercial and manufacturing units. The education of 26,000 students will be effected and more than 40,000 wage-earners will loose their jobs.

The proposed resettlement plan was flawed since it would leave the affected families poorer than before, unemployed, without utilities and health and education facilities, all of which they enjoyed before.

Two important lessons have been learnt from the Lyari expressway experience: (i) The legal profession, bureaucrats and planners are not aware of the international covenant that the government has signed. Implementation of these covenants would lead to the development of a far more humane social and physical environment; and (ii) Politicians and government officials are very sympathetic to the needs of the environment and to the exclusion of low income communities from the city. However, planners have been trained to deliver a form of development that is anti-pedestrian, anti-street, anti-dissolved space and anti-mixed land use. The fault lies in their basic education which does not give them a structure of thinking that makes innovation possible and also because existing building bylaws and zoning regulations supports this form of planning.


The URC process has created an awareness in the public, media and government regarding the problems that official planning creates for communities and weaker interest groups. It has also generated sensitivity towards the negative aspects of foreign funded projects and the need to explore alternatives which rely primarily on local resources. The process has created a link between society, media and the government on urban planning issues.

The media and the government (even if it does not agree with the URC analyses) consults with the URC. This has generated discussion and debate on issues which were never discussed before in the media, in government planning institutions and in institutions where government bureaucrats are trained. Most of URC’s work is on transport and eviction related issues, the two being closely interrelated though seldom understood or catered to in official planning.

The URC is essentially trying to create a space of interaction between politicians, planners (government agencies, academic institutions) and people (communities and small formal and informal interest groups). This space has been created but it needs to be nurtured and subsequently institutionalised.


The URC is often seen by local government, consultants and contractors (both national and international) as being anti-development. The URC is aware that it cannot fight international capital and the forces that are determining the shape and form of our cities. Therefore, it has developed a four-point city planning agenda which it hopes to promote.

1. Planning should respect the ecology and the natural environment of the region in which Karachi is located.

2. Land use should be determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on land value or potential land value alone.

3. Planning should give priority to the needs of the majority population, which in the case of Karachi belongs to the lower income and lower middle income classes, the majority of whom are pedestrians, commuters, informal settlement dwellers and workers in the informal sector.

4. Planning should respect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Karachi and of the communities living in it.

The implementation of the above agenda depends on the support of a large network of civil society organisations, academics, professionals and community organizations. If implemented, it will bring about major changes in transport related planning.



1. David Satterthwaite, Understanding Asian Cities. ACHR, October 2005.

2. ACHR Monitoring of Evictions in seven Asian countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines) shows that evictions are increasing dramatically. Between January to June 2004, 334,593 people were evicted in the urban areas of these countries. In January to June 2005, 2,084,388 people were evicted. The major reason for these evictions was the beautification of the city. In a majority of cases, people did not receive any compensation for the losses they incurred and where resettlement did take place it was 25 to 60 kilometres from the city centre (Ken Fernandes, Some Trends in Evictions in Asia. ACHR, March 2006).

3. In Karachi, due to the relocation of over 14,000 households for the building of the Lyari expressway, the schooling of more than 26,000 children has been disrupted. (Lyari Expressway: Citizens’ Concerns and Community Opposition. Urban Resource Centre, Karachi, 2005). In the Philippines, they have decided that evictions will only be undertaken after the final exams have been held in schools.

4. In Pune (India), in the settlements surveyed for the report, densities in the last 25 years have increased by over 300% without any major improvement in infrastructure and housing, resulting in massive environmental degradation and deterioration in living conditions.

5. For instance, 81% of children under 5 in Karachi develop acute respiratory diseases mainly because of transport generated air pollution. Studies of policemen and school children working or studying in traffic congested areas have dangerously high blood lead levels (IUCN, Sindh State of Environment and Development, Karachi, 2004).

6. For example, 502 vehicles were added to Karachi roads every day during the last financial year. It is estimated that about 50% of these have been financed through loans from banks and leasing companies who have never had as much liquidity as they do today. This means that loans worth US$ 1.8 billion were issued for this investment which could easily has been utilised for improving public transport systems.

7. Cities such as Bangkok, Manila and Kolkata have made major investments in light rail and metro systems. Other Asian cities are following their example. However, these systems are far too expensive to be developed on a large enough scale to make a difference. Manila’s light rail caters to only 8% of trips and Bangkok’s sky train and metro to only 3% of trips and Kolkata’s metro to even less. The light rail and metro fares are 3 to 4 times more expensive than bus fares. As a result, the vast majority of commuters travel by run-down bus system (for details, see Geetam Tiwari, Urban Transport for Growing Cities. Macmillan India, 2002 and Arif Hasan, ‘Understanding Karachi’s Traffic Problems’, Daily Dawn, 29 January 2004).

8. Aquila Ismail, Transport: URC Karachi Series. City Press, Karachi, 2002.

9. According to research carried out by the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, the government develops infrastructure at 4 to 6 times the cost of labour and material involved. When loans are taken from IFIs the cost goes up by 30 to 50% due to foreign consultants and related purchase conditionalities. Where an international tender is also a condititionality, the cost can go up by an additional 200 to 300%. Thus something whose cost is US$ 1 in material and labour terms is delivered at a cost of US$ 20 to 30. According to a paper by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute titled ‘Technical Assistance and Capacity Development in an Aid-Dependent Economy, Working Paper 15, Year 2000’, in 1992, 19% of all aid money was spent on technical assistance. In 1998, it had increased to 57%.

10. For example, there are currently seven IFI funded studies being carried out for Karachi who have little or no interaction with each other. These studies will result in a proposal for IFI loans. According to a report ‘The Asian Development Bank: In Its Own Words: An Analysis of Project Audit Reports for Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, prepared by ADB Watch, July 2003’, over 70% of all projects funded by the ADB have been unsuccessful and/or unsustainable.

11. Between 1976 and 1993, the Sindh province in which Karachi is located borrowed US$ 799.64 million for urban development. Almost all of this was for Karachi. Recently, the government has arranged to borrow US$ 800 million for the Karachi Mega City Project. Of this, US$ 5.33 million is being spent on technical assistance being provided by foreign consultants.

12. ADB-793 PAK: Evaluation of KUDP and Peshawar Projects, 1996.