New study sets out vision for urban planning

A new vision of urban planning that will positively transform the way cities grow across the developing world in the 21st Century was presented in a study issued today.

The vision involves a flexible building design that would allow residents to expand their homes upwards by up to three floors – as and when their families grow – and create socially and economically successful communities that are as dense as, or even denser, than buildings that are up to six floors high.

The new design, which promises a brighter future for millions of the world’s poorest urban citizens, is detailed in a study and multimedia collection funded by the International Institute for Environment and Development and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

Its launch today coincides with the opening of the United Nations Fifth World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, where thousands of delegates from governments, academia and nongovernmental organisations will discuss solutions to the challenges of urbanization.

Among those challenges is the question of how best to increase urban population densities as populations grow and land prices rise, especially when large informal settlements of the urban poor occupy prime centrally located land.

In many cities in Asia and elsewhere, governments are keen to force these poor communities into high-rise apartments so that the land they currently occupy can be developed into condominiums and iconic buildings to attract foreign investment.

“In promoting such a vision of a modern world-class city, international financial institutions and city planners are failing the poorest communities and ensuring that those who are meant to gain the most are instead the biggest losers,“ says architect Arif Hasan, a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development and lead author of the new study.

Mr. Hasan’s bold alternative to either unplanned informal settlements or relocation brings the benefits of high density in a way that communities control and prefer.

“Most members of poor communities are used to living and working centrally and close to the streets,” says Mr. Hasan. “When they are relocated to high-rise apartments, they are immediately beset by social and practical problems. They rarely want to move but don’t have a say in the matter.”

Experience also shows that population density in apartment blocks continues to grow — leading to uncomfortable crowding — as families grow but have no extra space to occupy. And as former communities are divided and restructured, other social problems, such as drug use and debt emerge.

“A motor mechanic cannot run a business from a fifth floor apartment, nor can a fishmonger,” says Mr. Hasan. “If that is where their skills and experience are, their livelihood is suddenly no longer viable.”

Mr. Hasan’s research shows that when poor urban communities are left to their own devices, they tend to grow their dwellings incrementally according to their household needs and abilities to pay.

“These are friendly neighbourhoods, where people have a better lifestyle and social life. They can use their homes for income generation and they can build them upwards as and when they need to.”

But without proper planning and support, this growth in not as efficient as it could be, as it could lead to congestion and a lack of space for future expansion.

Mr. Hasan studied four communities in Karachi, Pakistan, and hypothetically redesigned them to see what densities could be achieved if the necessary planning and support were in place.

He showed that if incremental growth was planned and managed aesthetically and sustainably, instead of being an ad hoc process, then the result would be not only the necessary high densities but also better social and physical environments.

“For this to happen, houses need decent foundations that can withstand future building of additional floors, but these only increase the initial cost by 15 per cent,” says Mr. Hasan. “Communities need support, including design advice and the financial and technical means to plan for upwards expansion as their families grow.”

“This is not a Karachi story, but a Karachi example. The same model of supported, self-organizing communities living in low-rise friendly neighbourhoods instead of high-rise apartments is applicable across Asia and in many other settings too.”

For the full report and multimedia collection visit:

The material includes: a short film on the Karachi settlements and the study’s conclusions, a two-page opinion paper by Arif Hasan, the full report and an IIED working paper that presents the results in summary form, and image galleries that include photos of the current settlements, satellite images and density maps, and 3D re-modelling images to show how density can be achieved with improved housing designs.

Contacts for interviews

Arif Hasan* - – in Karachi - +92214388944

Gordon McGranahan, Head, Human Settlements Group (IIED) – – 00 44 207 388 2117

Omar Gharzeddine, UNFPA, +001 212 297 5028,

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