The Case of Islamabad: Building for the builders? | Invisible Cities

Aug 2015

Invisible Cities | BLOG

(source: Awami Workers Party Islamabad Facebook page.)

One month ago today, 1700 homes were brutally demolished and approximately 20,000 residents were forcefully evicted from the I-11 Katchi Abadi in Islamabad, and it only establishes that we have learnt absolutely nothing from history. This was not the first time that the Capital Development Authority (CDA) carried out forced evictions in the Capital’s katchi abadis. One would imagine that after multiple failed attempts at demolishing such abadis in the city, there would be consensus that a different approach is needed. However, this has not been the case. Instead the poor have been pushed to the streets, blamed for being poor, and mocked for not being ‘legal’ occupants of the land that they lived on. There have been very few questions raised on the land market and types of housing options available for the poor in Islamabad, the biases inherent in the city’s master plan, and the reasons why katchi abadis exist in the first place.

While there are numerous structural reasons that explain why our cities continuously fail the poor, I am interested in asking how ‘planning’ specifically has failed the poor in Islamabad. Is Islamabad – as it is commonly perceived – an example of effective planning or is it an example of an exclusionary planning that has contributed to the housing crisis that we see today?

Planning Islamabad – The Early Years

In 1959, Greek modernist architect-planner, Constantinos Doxiadis was assigned the task of designing a master plan for Islamabad. Doxiadis believed that a new capital was necessary because it would represent the diversity of the people of the country:

“A capital city exercises great influence on the entire country. Thus its inhabitants should not belong only to one social group (economic, political, ethnic etc), but should belong to as many groups as possible – in ratios corresponding as closely as is feasible to the national ratios – so that its population is the best possible representation of the nation as a whole, and not of any specific group,” (Doxiadis 1965, The Creation of a New Capital).

In line with his theory of Ekistics – the science of human settlements – Doxiadis believed that a geometric grid would allow the city to grow in a rational manner. He divided the grid into sectors and the sectors into squares of various dimensions. He designed the smallest squares to incentivize people to easily walk to nearby destinations, while he designed the larger squares to connect people through mechanical transport and facilitate accessibility across the city.

Doxiadis divided each sector into a five levels. The whole sector was designed as a class V community of 30,000-40,000 people and would contain a post office, a large mosque, fire and police stations, and clothing and food markets. This class V community was divided into four quadrants which constituted class IV communities of 10,000 people each. Each class IV community was further divided intofour class III communities of roughly 2,500 people with a primary school, teahouse, shops, and a small mosque. Likewise, each class III community was divided into many class II communities consisting of close to 100 people each, which comprised of several class I communities comprising of a single family of two or more people.

While the geometric grid gave the illusion of a uniform city, equally accessible to all, in reality it segregated its inhabitants by income and rank in government bureaucracy. Bureaucrats were allotted houses in the capital, and an officer’s grade in the government determined the design, size and location of his/her house in the capital. By and large, higher-ranking officers were provided larger plots in the northern and eastern part of the city, close to the administrative sector. This would save them the long commute to work and cut down congestion. Conversely low ranking officers were allocated a limited number of plots at a considerable distance from the administrative area, translating into longer commutes and high transport costs. High ranked officers – belonging to Grade 21-22 – were allotted houses that covered 2,800 – 3,200 square feet, while grade 1-4 officers were allotted a limited number of plots that covered 350-550 square feet. To further imbed spatial inequality into the city’s built fabric, land was allocated according to a desirable income mix. In other words, people from starkly different income groups were completely separated and it was decided that they would only be able to live next to each other over time in order to “help lower income people mature and to assure comfort to the higher income classes,” (Doxiadis 1964, Islamabad, The New Capital of Pakistan). For this reason, class IV communities in different sector contained income groups not drastically different from one another; officers from either grades 1-6, 7-18, or 19-22.[1]

Source: Doxiadis Associates 1961, House Types, CDA (from Mathew Hull, Government of Paper, 2012)

Source: Doxiadis Associates 1961, House Types, CDA (from Mathew Hull, Government of Paper, 2012)

In order to implement the master plan effectively, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) was set up in 1960. The CDA was the sole authority responsible for Islamabad’s planning and development, and was made directly answerable to the federal government and not to the city’s residents. Doxiadis stressed on the importance of giving the CDA complete control over the city’s development. According to anthropologist Frank Charles Spaulding[2], this would, in reality, give the CDA ‘complete control’ over Islamabad’s residents – particularly residents belonging to low-income groups.

Similar to the development of other new capital cities, such as Brasilia in Brazil, where the plan did not take into account the housing needs of construction workers of the city[3], Doxiadis also deliberately excluded permanent housing options for Islamabad’s builders. [4] At the time of the capital’s initial development, builders who came for the capital’s construction were primarily housed in temporary labor camps near Bari Imam in Noorpur Shahan and in G-8/3. Their camps were constructed with materials that would not last long so that they would leave upon the completion of construction and others would not build additional structures. In fact, Doxiadis expressed a great distaste for the existence of the camps and stressed on the importance of keeping them hidden from the rest of the city in order to maintain its beautiful and orderly appearance. Yet, partly due to increased demand for construction in the city and partly due to the absence of affordable housing, these camps expanded to become the city’s first informal settlements. It was only after Doxiadis left Pakistan that he realized that it was important to first settle low-income groups who would build the city:

“If this is overlooked, the result is a composite settlement consisting of a central monumental part and several other non- coordinated areas, including slums. There is only one way to avoid this danger, and that is to follow the natural process of first building for the builders, who will then build the city…” (Doxiadis 1965, The Creation of a New Capital).

Yet, housing for the city’s builders was not incorporated into the plan, and camps continued to expand. Meanwhile living conditions for the workers continued to deteriorate. The first revision of the master plan in 1978 gave 4 sectors: E-8, E-9, E-10 and D-10 – the last two of which were city parks – to the military, sending a strong message that the planning authorities prioritized the interests of powerful and socially entrenched groups over marginalized and weak citizens who were building the city brick by brick.

Development, Evictions and Recognition of Katchi Abadis

More than a decade after the development of labour camps, the government began to evict residents from the G-8/3 labour camp for the construction of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS). The eviction translated into a clash due to which 3 labourers died. As a result, the CDA gradually adopted a different approach and offered to settle labourers on land close to their construction sites. Often this land was in close proximity to the city’s sewerage/drainage system. While some families were given housing, others were given temporary land in other sectors of the city. The area around both resulted in the establishment of new squatter settlements. With continued construction work, the absence of any affordable housing schemes, as well as entry of refugees, squatter settlements continued to grow.

In the 1980s, in an effort to curb ‘illegal’ developments that tarnished Islamabad’s beauty and orderliness, the CDA largely followed a policy of evictions and demolished a number of squatter settlements. Such was its insistence to reject these settlements that in 1986 when the Prime Minister of Pakistan issued a directive which gave ownership rights to people living in squatter settlements all over the country, CDA applied for an exemption to continue carrying out planned development. It was only in 1995 that the Prime Minster of Pakistan gave approval for allocating 575 plots in one of the squatter settlements. Subsequently, after a 1997 Cabinet decision, only 18 years ago, CDA agreed to recognize squatter settlements that existed up to 31 December 1995 for ownership rights and rehabilitation. After a socio-economic survey CDA recognized 11 squatter settlements. At this time (1998), a Katchi Abadi Cell was also established as part of CDA’s attempt to provide services for the 11 katchi abadis. It was decided that six of these settlements would be selected for upgradation and the remaining five would be demolished and relocated as they were located on land that needed to be used for other purposes.[5]

The upgradation and ownership rights process has remained slow, non-existent, bureaucratic and has also involved a lot of underhand dealings. Relocation has also been extremely problematic because the sites selected for relocation have been far from the city center – increasing transports costs for families –and have lacked basic amenities such as electricity, sewerage, gas. As a result, many families have sold their plots and moved back to the squatter settlements. These experiences have instilled amongst the residents of squatter settlements a massive distrust of the authorities.

Islamabad Today

It has been 18 years now since the initial 11 settlements were recognized. Since then, land prices have skyrocketed in Islamabad, pricing out even middle-income families who cannot afford to purchase land and construct housing in the city. As the CDA has not built any affordable housing schemes, thousands of low-income families have been unable to even dream of purchasing a house in the formal market. As a direct consequence, some families have found residence in the servant quarters of higher-income homes – an option provided by Doxiadis’s plans as well. Other families have been forced to shift to Rawalpindi. Many have simply begun to sleep at their work places. And the rest, have found homes in dense squatter settlements across the city. There are 42 such settlements now. Instead of building affordable housing in the city, or upgrading/recognizing additional settlements – a policy that has been adopted by all other provinces – the CDA has been keen to demolish and forcefully evict residents of such settlements. As mentioned, just last month, it bulldozed and set fire to homes in the I-11 katchi abadi on the pretext of the abadi residents being ‘terrorists’ who had ‘illegally’ occupied the area.

Yet the laws do not apply to all. The CDA appears to be unwilling to take similar action against high-middle income housing schemes – 109 to be particular – that have developed in the capital without formal approval. Similarly it has expressed tacit approval for the development of farmhouses for the wealthy on land that is reserved for a ‘National Park’ under the master plan.

At its end, the CDA has prioritized the development of elite housing schemes in the city. In 2011, it inaugurated ‘Park Enclave,’ a housing scheme for high-income groups, where 150 feet wide boulevards, and natural landscaping covering 60% of the total land area is promised to future residents (housing bylaws in Punjab recommend 60 feet boulevards and 7% green areas – meaning that prices of the plots have automatically increased exponentially due to inefficient use of space).

Interestingly, the CDA has also been unable to effectively collect taxes from Islamabad’s wealthy residents who are well-provided for. While the per capita cost of urban development is one of the highest in the capital, local taxation is one of the lowest in the country.[6] CDA subsidized service delivery during the initial stages of Islamabad’s development to incentivize people to move there, and has found it politically difficult to increase taxes – it has only introduced a small portion of the charges it has the power to levy. This is ironic as Islamabad has a high concentration of affluent residents who do not require subsidies of this kind and can afford to pay additional taxes for the municipal services they receive.

It is however no surprise though that the CDA – an institution staffed by propertied bureaucrats with entrenched class biases – has failed to provide adequate housing for low-income families, treated them with contempt and blamed them for its own failure to provide them with shelter. Yet, it must learn once and for all that the housing crisis will only worsen if it does not provide all of Islamabad’s residents their right to shelter.


If the capital city of Islamabad was meant to be home to different social groups, classes and ethnicities in Pakistan, it has utterly failed to achieve this vision. Instead it has provided segregated space for the powerful, wealthy and aspiring social classes – upper-middle to high-income groups, bureaucrats, and the military. The modernist city of Islamabad is seen by many as the perfect example of effective planning, but it is perfect only if one belongs to the privileged sections of society. The city’s master plan and development schemes have ensured that the well-off lead comfortable lives in the capital – one of the reasons why we find it easy to settle-in and appreciate the clean, green streets and public spaces in the city. However, it has deliberately and systematically excluded the poor from truly making it their home. These are the same men and women who have built the city and help keep it clean and green.

There is an urgent need for the CDA Katchi Abadi Cell to carry out additional surveys to officially ‘recognize’ squatter settlements other than the original 11. It is also imperative for the CDA to resettle families evicted from the I-11 katchi abadi to prevent increasing homelessness and vulnerability. However, it must learn from previous resettlement failures and carefully address them. An un-serviced plot of land far away from the city center will not solve the problem. Alongside, CDA should exert its energy on building more affordable housing in Islamabad and not on building housing schemes where 60% of the area is reserved for natural landscaping. There are multiple successful examples that it can draw on from the just the South Asian context if it so wishes.

The Supreme Court’s recent order to stop demolitions of katchi abadis is a welcome one, and one hopes that it will lead to a more equitable and livable capital where the state is held accountable for its failure to provide housing for the city’s poor.



[1] See Matthew S. Hull, 2012, “Government of Paper: The Materiality of Bureaucracy in Urban Pakistan,” for additional details on Islamabad’s masters planning process.

[2] Frank Spaulding, 1994, “The Gujars of Islamabad: A Study in the Social Construction of Local Ethnic Identities.” Phd Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Ohio State University.

[3] See James Holston, 1989, “The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia,’ for more details on the development of Brasilia.

[4] See Annie Harper, 2010, “The Idea of Islamabad: Unity, Purity and Civility in Pakistan’s Capital City,” Phd Dissertation, Department of Philosophy, Yale University, for details on Islamabad’s master plan, the development of labour camps, and the unavailability of housing options for the poor.

[5] See “Shelter for the Poor: Legislation and Enforcement: A Case Study of Islamabad,” by the Akhtar Hameed Khan Resource Center, and “Katchi Abadis and Some Viable Alternatives – A Case Study and Operational Guidelines based at the Capital Development Authority, Islamabad’s Approach, 1998-2000,” by UNDP (2002) for additional details on the development of katchi abadis in the capital.

[6] See Tabassum Zaidi, 2000, ‘Proposal for Development of Islamabad Municipal Conservation Strategy,’ Sustainable Development Policy Institute, for more details on taxation and service provision in Islamabad.


Fizzah Sajjad is a City Planner based in Lahore. She is currently working at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan where she is designing public transport options that can facilitate women’s mobility.  

Invisible Cities is a Tanqeed blog that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact, and 

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