The informal capital

April 21, 2024

Marginalised communities often gain access to urban spaces by building informally

The informal capital


apital cities, or federal or national capitals, are the seats of power for national governments in modern nation-states. In the post-colonial period, many of these states established new cities as their capitals to erase colonial legacies and embark on a new national journey.

These efforts involved forming new institutions and cultivating citizens’ aspirations for a national identity, with individuals and institutions actively participating in progress, development and modernisation.

During this period, countries such as Pakistan, India and Brazil built new capitals—Islamabad, Chandigarh and Brasília, respectively. Urban planners, architects, urbanists and historians often draw parallels between these modernist capital cities.

In the 1960s, Pakistan established its new capital in a new geographic location at the foothills of the Margalla Hills in the Pothwar region, reflecting the Islamic spirit of the newly formed state and naming it Islamabad.

A story about MA Jinnah’s stay at Malpur (a village in present-day Islamabad) on his way to Kashmir and his prophecy that this place would one day become the capital of a new state – though lacking historical evidence – provide an insight into how the birth of the new capital city is imagined and articulated.

Master Plans and Encroachments: The Architecture of Informality in Islamabad is the first book by FaizaMoatasim, an assistant professor of architecture in urbanism and urban design at the University of Southern CaliforniaSchool of Architecture.

The University of Pennsylvania Press has published it. Professor Moatasimspecialises in the history and theory of architecture and urban design, modern colonial and post-colonial architecture and urbanism, low-income housing and urban informality.

This publication is a modification of her PhD research at the University of Michigan, which explored informal and formal understandings of Islamabad as a highly planned yet unequal city.

Professor Moatasim’s research goes deep into how the agency of individuals and communities in shaping their built environments is integral to our understanding of planning, functioning and everyday lived experiences of cities.

The two central arguments of the book are: a) informality in Islamabad represents an orientation to law rather than an absence of law; b) the history of encroachment and informal spaces is deeply intertwined with formal bureaucratic procedures in Islamabad.

The concept of urban informality gained popularity in the 1970s when it was typically attributed to the urban poor in cities of the Global South and economists and urban planners began researching it.

Informality encompasses multiple dimensions, not limited to housing. It also includes economic and governance aspects. In cities, unregulated economic activities, like those of hawkers and street vendors, are in contrast with government-regulated and monitored formal sectors, yet both contribute to the economy.

The informal sector also includes illegal housing, such as katchiabadisor squatter settlements and land markets that serve both the middle-class and poor populations.

In the functionality of cities, spaces labelled as illegal infringements are, in fact, usually built with official permissions.

The initial perception of the informal economy and housing recognised that street hawking and squatting provided essential survival opportunities for the urban poor but also highlighted the need for urban measures and regulations to integrate formal and informal sectors.

Over time, as the informal sector was viewed as opposed to the formal sector in terms of housing and economy; it presented a challenge in understanding the social and economic processes these binaries obscure.

Regarding municipal administration, encroachments and other informal spaces are considered violations of official city plans and regulations. However, cities often develop through spatial processes that are not entirely legal.

Professor Moatasim believes that focusing on the ongoing mediation between encroachments and official plans can give us deeper insights into how people build, rebuild, live and work. Her work addresses this mediation by showing how people create encroachments oriented towards official plans to fulfil unmet functions in Islamabad.

Encroachments, often viewed as spatial irregularities opposed to official plans, are portrayed in Professor Moatasim’s work in a different light. She debunks negative assumptions associated with the violation of planning rules, showing that marginalised communities often gain access to urban spaces by building informally.

In the functionality of cities, spaces labelled as illegal infringements are, in fact, usually built with official permissions.

Covering the development history of Islamabad as a high modernist city, Professor Moatasim presents conditions that lead to informality through detailed case studies, illustrating the integration of informal settlements and commercial encroachments into the urban fabric of Islamabad with maps and photos.

She examines the multi-layered nature of informality in Islamabad, noting how it varies across the social ladder and initially attracts features like khokhas(roadside tea stalls-cum-restaurants) and katchiabadis, which are the most visible sites of informality.

She highlights how informal settlements and practices often emerge in response to the gaps and opportunities presented by official urban policies and master plans, a phenomenon she calls “strategic conformity.”

For example, she discusses France Colony, which emerged due to planning oversights in Islamabad, where housing for low-income groups was initially overlooked but later regularised.

This low-income Christian colony, based on economic and religious discrimination, is one of many such colonies for sanitary workers and garbage collectors located along ravines in Islamabad. These are informal colonies where such communities have limited options for housing.

It was often said that on one corner of Islamabad lies Bari Imam’s shrine, and on the other, Mehar Ali Shah’s shrine – markers that were used to gauge the city’s expansion, which has been growing exponentially over the last three decades.

High housing rents, limited mobility for women, land acquisition from indigenous people, demolition of katchiabadis and khokhas, a housing crisis for students, an influx of migrants from war-torn areas and the construction of roads and highways that neglect environmental laws all contribute to making Islamabad less accessible and livable for marginalised communities and more exclusive to the elite.

Master Plans and Encroachments

The Architecture of Informality in Islamabad

Author: Faiza Moatasim

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia (USA), 2023

Pages: 248

The reviewer is a historian, travel writer and translator

The informal capital