Surviving the “Instant City” of Karachi


“The instant city mixed the good with the bad, battering people with the impartiality of a typhoon.”

The quote above is one of my favorites from the book Instant City. It sums up the intensity of the narrative found in this superb book by National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep. His first book adroitly illustrates the chaos and charm found in the megacity metropolis of Karachi, Pakistan. To me, Instant City is easily the best urban planning book of the past year, though I will grant I have not read all of them.

Mr. Inskeep does a terrific job of describing Karachi’s historical attempts at urban planning, development policies and programs since the nation’s 1947 Independence, its untethered and explosive growth from its former confines into the surrounding hinterlands, the daily lives of its citizens amid the din and chaos, the nearly continuous political wrangling, the land-grabbing that takes place, as well as the city’s too-often descent into sectarian, ethnic, and political street violence. The descriptions of Karachi and its residents are so compelling, that it hard to put the book down. Instead of simply filling each page with lurid details of Karachi’s problems, Mr. Inskeep masterfully weaves in the hopes, dreams, and vitality found in Karachi, too.


Instant City is chock full of so many eye-opening and striking details about Karachi, that it nearly overwhelms the reader. But Mr. Inskeep finds a way to sort them out and present them in a very readable and thought-provoking manner. Comparisons and contrasts to other past and present instant cities like Chicago, Dubai, Mumbai, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, and Hong Kong are very informative and helpful to the reader.

Below are just a few of the tantalizing tidbits from this excellent book.  Though not a finalist, to me, Instant City was worthy of Pulitzer Prize consideration in non-fiction. Whether you are an urban planner, geographer, historian, architect, sociologist, politician, or just an average person, you will enjoy this fabulous book!

“What spread out before me was an instant city: a metropolis that has grown so rapidly that a returning visitor from a few decades ago would scarcely recognize it.  The instant city retains some of its original character and architecture, like Karachi’s city hall, but has expanded so much that the new overshadows the old.”

“This trend has produced the instant city, which I define as a metropolitan area that’s grown since 1945 at a substantially faster rate than the country to which is belongs.”

“Measured by their income, education, and health, Karachi residents are living better than people almost anywhere else in Pakistan.”

“Everything that makes this instant city vibrant can also make it violent.”

“Real estate was the heart of the instant city in the early twenty-first century. It was a swiftly growing city’s true faith, a source of passion, hope, mystery, and superstition.”

“Land has replaced gold…everything that was done for gold is now done for land.”

“In the age now beginning–which we can think of as the age of the instant city–Karachi was one of many urban areas that received people fleeing some political nightmare.”

“Cataclysmic events seemed to tilt the surface of the earth, raising the angle until human beings tumbled downhill into the city at the bottom of the slope.”

“The general was planning to solve one of the city’s enduring problems by building what Americans called a suburb.”

“Ayub embraced global trends in city planning. And although he could not have realized it, he was also embracing a global trend of frustrated dreams and unintended consequences.”

“Its hard not to like the planner who envisioned all of this. Doxiadis wanted to create communities where poor people could thrive.”

“For many people around the world, life in urban slums meant survival, But in the scramble for even the most basic resources, observance of the law became a luxury.”

“There are also divides between instant cities. Karachi residents know it, and feel it. It pains them. Mumbai has some of the same problems as Karachi, but it is seen as a city on the rise.”

“The city was portrayed in the global media as a place of inexplicable mayhem. It would be hard for the ‘Karachi Calling’ brochure to compete.”

“When a growing city maintained public services, then private interests had a chance to prosper. But when the public interest was neglected and the environment debased, then private interests, too, would be steadily and inexorably destroyed.”

“If you come to Karachi for a few days you will hate it, but if you come to Karachi for forty days, you will love it and never want to leave it.” [a quote from one of Mr. Inskeep’s interpreters]

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7 Responses to Surviving the “Instant City” of Karachi

  1. basil berchekas jr says:

    Have been to Kabul twice; it has become an “instant city”; the former beautiful boulevards are literally “jammed” with development totally out of keeping and scale for buolevards, etc.


  2. Bernadete says:

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