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Vertical cities

March 13, 2019

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THE sky is the limit, said Prime Minister Imran Khan at the launch of the State Bank’s finance policy for low-cost housing in Islamabad on Monday. He was speaking in reference to his government’s plans to encourage vertical as opposed to horizontal urban growth in order to conserve green spaces and prevent the pressure that overcrowding brings to bear on the environment. These stated objectives would be consistent with the importance that the PTI accords to environmental protection, illustrated in its flagship ‘billion-tree tsunami’ project to reclaim forest area in KP. The prime minister has also spoken about how multistorey buildings can be more affordable for the low-income segment of society. He alluded to this on Monday when he mentioned that his government wanted to incentivise private developers to construct apartment blocks in shantytowns.

The future of urban expansion in a land-scarce world certainly lies in a vertical direction. However, while looking at the sky, it is always prudent to keep an eye on the ground. The construction of high-rises, if undertaken without proper planning and strict implementation of building regulations, can have deleterious environmental and social effects. One of the main problems that arises in the context of Pakistan is the lack of truly independent planning agencies with the professional expertise to supervise the execution of their plans and ensure maximum public benefit from land use. Even the ostensibly autonomous Capital Development Authority in Islamabad, a city the prime minister has vowed to showcase as a model high-rise urban centre, functions under the federal government. Given the area’s seismic vulnerability — demonstrated tragically in the Margalla Towers collapse in the 2005 earthquake — structural engineering requirements must be strictly enforced in the construction of multistorey buildings. And that is only one consideration in a comprehensive urban design exercise which needs to be carried out; a construction frenzy may have dangerous consequences.

Conditions in Karachi illustrate what unchecked proliferation of high-rises can do to the citizens’ quality of life. The Sindh government’s centralised control over land and the involvement of several of its top political bosses in lucrative construction projects has placed tremendous pressure on the city’s already fragile civic infrastructure. To take but one example of this appalling violation of urban planning principles, 32 major roads in Pakistan’s biggest metropolis were commercialised within 2016 alone and NOCs granted for multiple high-rises to be constructed on them. This was done without any consideration as to the limitations of the existing civic infrastructure including water and sewage lines. The conversion of low-rise, low-density areas into high-rise, high-density areas without corresponding addition of public areas shrinks the footprint of green spaces, increases environmental pollution and introduces negative social consequences. Building high-rises, much like building dams, should not become yet another buzz phrase. Careful planning is a prerequisite.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2019