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The Negotiation of Colonial Legacies in the Planning of Islamabad, Pakistan

By Hafsah Siddiqui


Aerial photograph of Islamabad, depicting the grid-iron pattern in the city’s central sectors. Photo by Jessica Anderson.

The planning of Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, presents a fascinating case through which neocolonial power can be understood. The process first began in 1959 under the patronage of military leader and president Ayub Khan. Greek planner and architect Constantinos Doxiadis, funded by the United States’ Ford Foundation, was brought in as an external consultant to create a master plan for the city. The new city was intended to create a physical manifestation of national sovereignty and identity. It was a political project, shaped by various conflicts, power dynamics, and urban imaginings between Doxiadis, the Pakistani government, and the Ford Foundation. The interactions between these three neocolonial agents ultimately gave rise to the creation of an exclusive and unequal city. The spatial order of systematic socioeconomic exclusion in Islamabad suggests that colonialism did not end with independence in 1947 but continued at the hands of political forces both from within and outside the country. A closer look at the project not only sheds light on the politics of planning at this pivotal moment but also points to lessons that can be mobilized for challenging neocolonial planning today.


Before delving into a detailed exploration of the micro-politics surrounding the Islamabad project, it is worthwhile to consider the larger post-partition political context which also had profound consequences on the city. Firstly, the new nation-state sought to assert itself through a search for national identity. This identity was to be progressive and modern, yet also one connected to Islam as representing national unity. Religion was strategically alluded to for strengthening regime authority, but its flavour was more secular than spiritual; modernized Islam was envisaged to transform the nation’s future. Post-partition, the goal was to build a Muslim-majority nation, but the creation of an Islamic state was not as prioritized as one would expect, particularly in the materiality and spatiality of its new capital city. Secondly, after a coup d’état in 1958, Field Marshal Ayub Khan assumed the presidency of Pakistan, thus putting the army at the helm of political decision-making. Pakistan lacked sophisticated infrastructure, contained an ethnically heterogenous citizenry, shared contested borders with India, and faced economic stagnation and a politically unstable future. To attain stability and development, authoritarianism was considered a necessary strategy. Finally, during the Cold War era, a military alliance was forged between the United States and Pakistan which initiated the flow of foreign aid. This was often done through urban development projects such as the one in Islamabad. An exploration of the relations between the key actors of this project—Doxiadis, the local government, and the Ford Foundation—helps to understand the contestations and struggles involved with creating a city in which development, religion, modernity, and sovereignty could converge.


Doxiadis, the consultant, developed Ekistics, an interdisciplinary and systematic planning approach for understanding human settlements. Through Ekistics, human settlements were divided into five elements: nature, man, society, shells (or buildings), and networks (infrastructure). He believed that successful settlements were achieved through the synthesis of these five components. Ekistics was based on statistical studies and infused with a social and environmental agenda. Doxiadis’s dedication to solving urban social issues in a scientific way combined with his status as a foreign specialist posed a threat to the Pakistani state and the economic and political interests of postcolonial elites. This was because although Doxiadis followed the modernist model of urban planning (which is associated with social engineering, top-down control of residents, and inflexible urban layouts), his interpretation of modernism was rooted in a desire to include local traditions and values. In a country hoping to strengthen its progressive national identity, the revival of its traditional past was not welcomed, and this caused friction between Doxiadis and local elites.


From the very beginning of the Islamabad project, Doxiadis’s ideas were controlled by his patrons. Ultimately, it was the local government which possessed the power to determine how the city would materialize and for whom it was being built. For example, Doxiadis wanted to plan pedestrian zones and public squares, but there was fear that such spaces could facilitate revolution against the regime. Instead, he focused on designing the city’s administrative core, in line with the local government’s view of the capital as the ultimate marker of influence and control.


Islamabad would have to not only be local in character, but also evoke Western urban norms. The drive for a modern Muslim identity presented a problem for the “postcolonial” state and its relationship with Doxiadis. Doxiadis was conscious of the fact that he was working in a Muslim society, and this inspired him to plan with local culture and customs in mind. He wanted to create a sense of community that locals could experience at the micro-level in their residential and community spaces, but the government was more keen to make a political statement through the buildings in the administrative core (also known as the capital complex), which were to be a glorious spectacle of development and modernity.


Governmental dominance was reflected in the location and style of the capital complex, as well as the long boulevard in front of the nation’s most important administrative units. Political institutions in the capital complex were undoubtedly built to impress and intimidate. Administrative buildings were built higher than those in residential areas to make it clear where political authority was concentrated. In achieving maximum prominence, the capital complex ensured that it remained the symbolic representation of sovereignty and order.


Socio-spatial segregation was built into Islamabad’s very design. Doxiadis imagined Islamabad being home to people belonging to a wide variety of socio-economic groups. However, the city was ultimately divided by income levels and rank in the government bureaucracy, which would determine where residents lived and the type of accommodation they had access to. Different ranks of civil servants were formally allocated large plots of land in central Islamabad (usually at the discretion of bureaucratic officials) and poor households (ironically mostly made up of daily-wage labourers building the city) were relegated to the peripheries without formally-assigned plots. While the former group had access to multi-bedroom bungalows with a host of amenities and living arrangements for domestic staff, the latter were left to create makeshift informal settlements without basic services and infrastructure where houses were made of mud and bricks. Through this system, the government ensured that Islamabad would remain primarily for members of the bureaucracy, thus rendering it inaccessible to most others. Residential sectors closest to the capital complex were reserved for the urban elite, thus manifesting the city’s social order in its urban space.


The capital flow from the United States to Pakistan through this project also shaped the socio-economic spatiality of Islamabad. The Ford Foundation, a private institution, funded Doxiadis in Pakistan because of its mission to help develop the third world and to foster democracy. Doxiadis often moulded his plans to accommodate the views of the Foundation. For instance, he preferred pedestrian-friendly cities. Yet Islamabad, with its grid-iron pattern, was eventually designed to prioritise cars. Despite his original views, Doxiadis’s plan aligned with the Foundation’s espousal of capitalist urbanisation and vehicular dominance. The Ford Foundation also espoused small-scale interventions in the everyday lives of residents, but the political class in Pakistan had many opinions about how their national identity was to be represented in built space, preferring impressive, spectacular structures instead. To balance these two opposing wishes, Doxiadis emphasised Pakistani folk style and connected it to classical Greek architecture; he was therefore able to argue that his designs would be locally embedded enough to please his funders, but cosmopolitan enough to suit the needs of the Pakistani government.


The intersection of the three colonial ‘actors’ behind Islamabad’s planning formed the backdrop for the neocolonial nature of its urban layout. First, the city was to reflect the regime’s goals of achieving a progressive and modernistic state. Although the government hoped to negate colonial ties, it essentially replaced the colonial government with its authoritarianism. Second, Doxiadis’s own preferences were curtailed by the government. As such, the city came to be more reflective of the interests of the government rather than the consultant himself. Finally, the introduction of developmental aid inserted another powerful agent into the mix, the Ford Foundation, whose priorities were seeped in capitalist ideologies that impacted the built space of Islamabad.


This case, although more than half a century old, carries multiple lessons for contemporary urban planning. Firstly, neocolonialism in planning continues to be a dominant force, particularly in initiatives such as resettlement of informal communities, (social) housing development, and the ‘reconstruction’ of conflict zones. It can manifest itself through the ideologies of planners, the aspirations of local governments, and the top-down nature of interventions by international organisations. Importing and applying planning concepts and values from one context to another can be damaging. Also harmful is using planning for aspirational reasons rather than for the everyday needs of the people who occupy the city. Islamabad was consciously designed and created for a select few who had the means, connections, and lifestyles to be able to reside there, at the expense of those who spent years building its very foundations. Planners must be aware of their situatedness as well; just like all actors involved, they are never neutral agents and operate through their principles and paradigms, as Doxiadis did with Ekistics. This is especially crucial for planners working in settings that they have little prior familiarity with in order to avoid paternalistic approaches. Because planning can become rather undemocratic, higher levels of accountability and communication are needed among the various actors involved in planning projects, including local residents.


Secondly, participation and regular (re)evaluation in planning are imperatives. In Islamabad, the public were not consulted at any point, from conception to completion. Social, economic, political, and environmental contexts are different across various cities, so local feedback in planning projects is essential for a grounded approach. Planning is not a one-size-fits-all process; each decision must be tailored towards local requirements. Moreover, to avoid the proliferation of adverse impacts in large-scale projects, undertaking a consistent evaluation of the original plan and making any necessary revisions would be useful for urban development. Planners are technical experts, but locals are contextual experts. Genuine public engagement — particularly for those most marginalized — is therefore key to more democratic urban futures.



Hafsah Siddiqui is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. Her work lies at the intersection of urban and political geography and her research interests include class, citizenship, and social movements in the Global South.


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