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Shrinking Space – Karachi’s Struggles With Urban Growth

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    Karachi, over the years, has seen wayward population growth. With its unbridled population growth, the city’s physical infrastructure has also come under immense pressure – dilapidated roads, crumbling housing structures and traffic jams. All these urban irritants have become a common sight for people living in the city.

    According to Pakistan’s 2017 population census, Karachi inhabits more than 16.5 million people – a figure contested by many political parties. On the other hand, many independent analysts estimate it to be standing at over 25 million people – or even more. From 1998 (when the last census was conducted) till 2017, Karachi has seen a staggering population growth of about 60 percent. Karachi is spread over 3,780 square kilometers. As such, that makes it one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

    This exponential population growth makes sense when we consider Karachi’s status as the economic engine of Pakistan. The city continues to house the largest industrial base in the country, making it a viable option for people looking for better economic prospects.

    Just as the population in the city has grown, so has the demand for housing. However, with a weak regulatory framework and rising housing costs, the city has also witnessed an unchecked number of informal settlements springing up.

    Arif Hasan, a prominent urban planner, in his report titled “Pakistan’s Urban Issues,” notes that more than half of Karachi’s population lives in either katchi abadis or other informal settlements. These numbers pretty much highlight the scale of Karachi’s housing problem.

    The report also notes that the demand for housing in Karachi far exceeds the current supply. While the demand stands at roughly around 120,000 units per years, the formal sector supplies (or is able to build) only 42,000 units followed by 32,000 houses by the informal sector.

    As per the data available on the website of the Sindh Katchi Abadis Authority, there were a total of 575 katchi abadis in Karachi – both notified and de-notified ones included. However, this does not reflect the true numbers of such settlements in Karachi. They are estimated to be many more, according to independent observers.

    Apart from forming informal settlements, the rising population has also forced people to live in densities that make life very uncomfortable. More and more people now live in a single housing unit than ever before.

    In many Karachi localities, 10-12 people are now living in dwellings of no more than 60 square yards. In katchi abadis, this could even be worse. While traditionally people living in low-income areas would extend their housing units vertically to accommodate more members, this has now become unsustainable because there is only so far that one can go vertically.

    As per the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA), 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.

    Even though the SBCA by-laws are not in alignment with international standards, even those are not met due to obvious reasons. Less space for individuals living in close proximity also gives rise to many other challenges – poor sanitation and ventilation.

    Owing to poor ventilation and insufficient bedding facilities for individuals, some family members are even compelled to find sleeping spaces on streets, parks and road pavements. This trend is becoming increasingly apparent in families living in extremely congested spaces. Many of them are not without homes per se, but their dwellings are simply not spacious enough to accommodate all members at once.

    Not only are people increasingly living in uncomfortable densities, there is a rising number of people who have no shelter at all. The number of shelter-less people in the city is rising rapidly – which is not hard to observe while you move around the city.

    Despite widespread homelessness in Karachi, there seems to be no structured administrative response to the problem. The federal government made a meagre effort to address the plight of these people by setting up shelter facilities or Panah Gahs in the city. However, they are inadequate keeping in mind the massive number of people requiring shelter in the metropolis. Also, it goes without saying, such measures do not address the underlying issues driving homelessness in the city.

    In order to effectively solve the problem, the government should come up with a robust policy mechanism. Many urban planners, architects and town planners have already been proposing solutions. These need to be adopted and streamlined at an official level – with the help of all stakeholders.

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