Contradictory urbanisation

24 Aug 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

BY now, the vulnerability of Pakistan’s urban future in its current trajectory is abundantly apparent. Current policy and academic rhetoric appears to have taken some cognisance of this fact, though requisite actions are yet to follow. Sprawling major urban centres face considerable pressure on municipal infrastructure (roads, water supply, sanitation and solid waste management), while the free-for-all growth of smaller towns that house up to 200,000 residents without requisite infrastructure poses another stark challenge.

Over the past two years, the Punjab government has taken a handful of steps to address one source of vulnerability — the unmitigated urban sprawl. Its attention has focused on Lahore, where the problem of the city eating into fertile agricultural land is more advanced (though not qualitatively different) compared to other cities in the province. Interventions include changes to residential building by-laws, height restrictions, approval processes, and zoning regulations to encourage vertical construction. One notable step was the near-doubling of the floor area ratio that now allows for more square footage to be covered on the same plot and, in some cases, with the allowance of an extra floor.

The idea behind these changes — some more well-thought-out than others — is to curtail outward growth and increase residential unit supply in areas closer to the city. Instead of far-flung housing developments that require long commutes to places of work, home-buyers and renters will look for closer affordable options, thus reducing the need for expanding road networks, cutting down on commute times and garnering its associated environmental benefits. The downside is the greater strain density places on pre-existing infrastructure (roads, sanitation and water supply lines, electricity), which was originally designed for a lower load.

Citizen preferences must be understood not just from the lens of infrastructure planning but also from a cultural and social perspective.

The underlying theory with these steps is that planning and regulatory frameworks that encourage a particular type of built environment can have a significant impact on citizen preferences and behaviour. In other words, supply will perpetuate its own demand.

This may very well be true in the long run, but citizen preferences need to be understood not just from the technocratic lens of infrastructure planning but also from a cultural and social perspective. To put it more simply, we need to know what aspects influence people’s residential choice decisions, what are their constraints other than just spending power and, most importantly in my view, what are their aspirations. What is the idealised vision of their own residential life that they see?

Sociological research on consumption preferences identifies particular parts of society (cultural, political and economic elites) as carrying a greater say in shaping what most people desire. This is done not just through the direct demonstration of their own lives of privilege but also through intermediaries such as mass media and the advertising industry.

For just over a century, decision-makers in government and upper-income groups in general have both lived and celebrated one particular type of residential lifestyle — the sprawling single-unit dwelling. As documented by William Glover among others, housing development during the colonial era remains the high-water mark of this tradition with large residences being developed just outside what was considered the city centre at the time. It also marked a stark departure (as colonialism does in general) from what urban dwelling had organically grown as prior to colonialism in spaces such as the Walled City of Lahore.

Ascension to statehood in 1947 provided an opportunity to rethink urban development but, instead, decision-makers pushed through with more of the same. Apart from the occasional low-income scheme, the vast majority of the state’s resources on urban development were spent in line with colonial modes of development to create schemes like Gulberg, Shadman, Garden Town and Muslim Town in Lahore.

The same trend continues largely unhindered today with the growth of private and military-led housing development schemes. The model is the same, even if there is now some variation in terms of size and scale of plots on offer compared to the 20th century. Smaller schemes targeting middle-income buyers use the same language and visuals, feeding on and shaping the aspirations of upwardly mobile citizens. Adjectives such as ‘exclusive’, ‘spacious’, ‘world class’ and ‘luxurious’ remain the vernacular of real estate developers regardless of their clientele.

This is the preference baseline that the government now belatedly wants to transform by shifting a few by-laws. Yet the contradiction here is that while these new building regulations are expected to create a supply of affordable and accessible smaller units, the state continues to sell the old imagery of desirable sprawl through other ways. The first is the retention of prime centrally located real estate for housing elite officers and the provision of plots of land during service and upon retirement. And the second, newer and more glaring one is by launching projects such as the Ravi Riverfront Development scheme.

The rendered images from this new mega project encapsulate all the same adjectives listed above. Spread across three phases, the scheme if ever realised will eat up thousands of acres of agricultural land to create mostly single-unit dwellings. Even if it’s not realised, the political capital being expended by the provincial government in marketing it, and by the prime minister’s personal interest in showcasing it, will reinforce pre-existing preferences of what a desirable residential lifestyle should look like.

So it really does boil down to this contradiction and one that the government needs to resolve: A state elite that talks about vertical growth and reducing sprawl continues to patronise the exact opposite for itself and upper-income groups. Other than being a systematic mechanism that sustains inequality (blocking out lower-income groups from particular lifestyles), it is also one that will prevent the stated goal of sprawl reduction from being realised as the private sector continues with its current trajectory.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2020