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  • A man searches for supplies in Ishkashim‘s bustling market. Large regional infrastructure investments are planned throughout the region, connecting a trade corridor from China to Pakistan.
Aga Khan Agency for Habitat
Virtual design studio for planning in Afghanistan

AKAH and Harvard team up for participatory planning that improves quality of life

According to the United Nations, nearly half of the world’s urban population lives in cities and towns with fewer than 500,000 people. Many of these small settlements are growing rapidly. Successfully managing this “small town” urban growth is becoming increasingly critical to the quality of life of much of the world’s population and to achieving sustainable development.

However, all too often smaller towns and marginalised communities are overlooked and lack the resources or capacity for effective urban and rural planning. Planning is a key tool to achieving this mission – critical to understanding a community’s needs, aspirations and risks and helping them prepare and build for a better future. To address this gap, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) developed a Habitat Planning Framework, which uses participatory urban and rural planning approaches to provide long-term design solutions to improve quality of life in the communities it serves – from a neighbourhood through to the village and district scale. Building on this Framework, AKAH, together with Harvard University’s Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute and Graduate School of Design is testing an innovative virtual design studio approach to remote planning in Ishkashim, Afghanistan.


Ishkashim is a small mountain town in Badakhshan, Afghanistan along the border with Tajikistan. The town and surrounding settlements have strong potential for growth but a high degree of exposure to natural hazards.

Ishkashim is a small mountain town in Badakhshan, Afghanistan along the border with Tajikistan with a bustling market and unique tourism potential as the gateway to the Wakhan. With large regional infrastructure investments planned through Ishkashim, connecting a trade corridor from China to Pakistan, the potential for growth is strong. It is also an area with a high degree of exposure to natural hazards, including landslides, avalanches, earthquakes and floods. Inclusive, intelligent and sustainable planning is required to harness these prospects while mitigating the risks and improve the quality of life of all its residents. 

The virtual design studio, taught at the Harvard GSD and called “Extreme Urbanism VII: Imagining an Urban Future for Ishkashim”, engages Harvard graduate students to work with AKAH and other local partners to understand and define an urban vision for Ishkashim that is responsive to its context and the climatic, social, political and economic risks and opportunities it faces. The goal of the partnership is to test and develop approaches for virtual planning building on AKAH’s Habitat Planning Framework. In this way, AKAH will expand not only access to planning expertise but also its toolbox of Habitat Planning that addresses marginalised communities and settlement types which go beyond the traditional contexts of urban planning. Through such initiatives, AKAH aspires to make planning methods and knowledge available to the varied communities it serves in order to improve physical environments and quality of life.


Boys on their way to school in Ishkashim. “We need a comprehensive town plan which can meet the educational requirements of the region and support growing opportunities in Ishkashim,” said Ishkashim’s District Education Head, Abdul Khabir Zarir.

Talking about the project and his aspirations for Ishkashim, the mayor of Ishkashim, Mohammad Asif Amiri, said, “We expect the Harvard and AKAH team to evaluate and explore the role of Ishkashim in every aspect and propose a design based on its strategic role and potential in terms of culture, business, tourism, etc. We want to have a city that addresses the needs of the entire community of Ishkashim and the region. Planning is important because it creates investment opportunities and a comprehensive plan ensures balanced growth and responsible use of natural resources such as water and land.”

This project is part of AKAH’s wider collaboration with leading academic institutions and architectural firms to apply and adapt its urban and rural habitat planning practices to a range of settlement scales in developing countries. Previous studios in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focused on sites in India (Chitrawad, Gujarat), assessing village development planning, and Tajikistan (Basid, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast; in collaboration with Kennedy & Violich Architecture Ltd. and selected for the 2021 Venice Biennale), assessing relocation planning with 3D mapping, and drone imagery. While previous studios involved intensive fieldwork, the global pandemic demanded a virtual approach for this year’s studio which created an opportunity to focus on a particularly challenging site and test a remote approach to Habitat Planning.

Through collaboration with the Ministry of Urban Planning of Afghanistan, the studio brings national and international urban planning best practices and perspectives to a remote but dynamic region of Afghanistan and promotes intellectual exchange to build the body of knowledge of urban planning, particularly for smaller settlements. The studio incorporates government aspirations for critical infrastructure such as student housing, shared sports facilities and an airport, as well as solutions to address ecological extremes, interconnectivity between villages and sustainable access to water.

The studio blends international and local practices to develop a context appropriate, virtual approach to planning. Students researched model cities and resilient systems and are undertaking a range of analyses from spatial ethnographies to mapping critical corridors, transit networks and water basins. AKAH in Afghanistan is providing access to stakeholders and data on the ground as well as technical expertise on resilient construction, local materials, habitat planning and local building practices. To provide additional local context and promote knowledge sharing, Harvard students are paired with architecture and urban planning students from the University of Kabul. Ahmad Irshan Qiam, an architecture student from Kabul University, paired with a GSD student doing an ethnographic study of Ishkashim, said that the “buddy system has been beneficial for both sides, it helped to broaden my horizons and transformed difficulty into opportunity”. Other local partners include: the Ministry of Urban Development and Land, the Directorate of Urban Development and Land of Badakhshan, the Municipality of Ishkashim, and the District Governor of Ishkashim.

Charlotte Malterre-Barthes, Assistant Professor of Urban Design at Harvard GSD and co-instructor of the studio, says: “the course is embedded into appreciation for resilient architecture and planning practices in the region, such as Nuristani housing which is resistant to earthquakes, nomad lifestyles that are responsive to resources exhaustion, or even enclosed orchards as climatically intelligent solutions. Without romanticising harsh existing conditions, these best practices shed light on Afghanistan in a way that forces us to discuss what 'development' actually means, for who and by whom narratives of progress are conducted, and our role as designers in these processes.”


Local workers building a drainage system for the road. Inclusive, intelligent and sustainable planning is required to improve the quality of life for all its residents.

For more information about AKAH’s Habitat Planning activities see:

For more information about the studio and an interview with co-instructor Professor Rahul Mehrotra please read: