From Islamabad, we are hearing the drums of change heralding a Naya Pakistan. A Pakistan of tall buildings and low-income housing juxtaposed with spurring economic growth through the real estate sector.
We see our Prime Minister defining a vision, “for our future cities to have buildings to rise vertically and allow for more green spaces.” He evidently lays the precepts of an urban policy advocating higher density as against urban sprawl. In this humdrum of a construction boom we see little to make us understand the road maps being laid to transform our nation. We have not seen the greater master plans nor the governance structures required for such urban transformation.
While there is no denying that the Prime Minister and his finance team are genuinely interested in using construction as an engine for economic growth, the concerns are that the policies being put forward now are not too different from those proposed by previous governments which were short sighted and unsustainable. There is no view towards greater social development and urban infrastructure creation.
Put simply, improving the overall quality of living in our existing cities has never been on the agenda. While delivering a lecture on mass transportation in Karachi the ex-Mayor of Bogota (Columbia) made a profound and simple statement: “An advanced modern city is not where the poor use cars but where the rich use public transportation. A symbol of democracy is to see pedestrians walking on sidewalks and not to see cars being parked on them.”
This quote articulates the disconnect between some of the government’s urban development efforts in the context of our cities. One cannot help but wonder what the Ravi riverfront project, Bandal Island development and the Lahore downtown project can do to help secure the promise of improved urban living aspired by millions of Pakistani urbanites. One speculates why a government led by a Prime Minister who is so sensitive to ecology, environmental degradation and urban sprawl, advocates projects that are in complete contradiction to these significant concerns and considerations.
Today we see that something has gone horrifically wrong with our towns and cities. We have Karachi, devoid of its lights, trams, classical architecture, town squares and market places and spaces for parades and serenades. No longer is it a city by the sea but more one by a cesspool. We still have Lahore, lacking its regal lustre, the mighty Ravi, romanticised gardens and its neighbourhoods of banter and poetry. There is our Peshawar, without qisas in its bazaars, chowks to congregate, streets to walk on.
City-making is by its nature a collective and collaborative process of achieving results through a shared vision; it must be based on realism, sensitive to the greater cultural and socio-economic needs of our people
While our cities have grown into metropolises and our towns into cities filled with millions at growth rates unheard of in human history, it is clear that these cities have been ebbed of their culture and spirit. They exist as soulless entities devoid of any sense of pride and place. It is no wonder that our cities are ranked as some of the least liveable cities in the world.
We hear alarm bells ringing by our superior courts towards the state of our urban degradation. We have read countless columns from our champions of urbanity, such as the late Ardeshir Cowasjee, Arif Hassan and Dr Noman Ahmed who claim we are on the edge of urban disaster, we have imploded, exploded... but there seems to be no reaction from our people and our governments to correct the wrongs of the last 73 years of complete urban mismanagement.
Do our cities teeming with millions have independent and autonomous planning and development authorities in place that can manage and guide political and administrative government organs towards proper urban planning and policy making? The answer is a simple NO.
No one said city-making is an easy task. It requires stakeholders and communities represented through a conscientious leadership to come together with dialogue and discussion to arrive at a consensual vision for their city. This is then transformed into a master plan through which policy making guidelines steer a generation of city makers towards creating neighbourhoods and communities in consonance with one another, allowing a greater vision to be materialised within decades.
“There is no view towards greater social development and urban infrastructure creation. Put simply, improving the overall quality of living in our existing cities has never been on the agenda.
The vital instrument in the process of city-making, urban planning and master plan management is the creation of institutional planning and development authorities which are autonomous and made up of some of the brightest minds available. This cadre of planning executives must be chosen through a meritorious system and be allowed to work independently without political interference. These stewards of urban transformation can then make a positive difference to the fate of our cities. Throughout China, Dubai, Singapore and Vietnam we have seen a consistency in planned development led by their planning authorities at staggering double digit growth rates.
City-making is by its nature a collective and collaborative process of achieving results through a shared vision. Our vision and understanding of our cities must be based on realism, sensitive to the greater cultural and socio-economic needs of our people.
We must realise that the decisions we do or do not take today will affect millions and have an impact on our present and many subsequent generations. If the government wants to make a difference and improve the quality of living in our cities and towns, while also spurring economic development, they will need to revisit the 73 years of historic wrongs that have occurred in our past. We will need to start with a clean slate and initiate a process of dialogue and discussion amongst all stakeholders, with phased goals and clear policy guidelines. Once the conversation evolves, only then will our cities evolve.
The key to the development of sustainable and successful construction and urban planning strategies will be to develop national, regional and local guidelines sensitive to the sustainability needs of each city while still enduring relevance to its geography and history.
All stakeholders such as The Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners, Institute of Architects, Pakistan, Pakistan Engineering Council, economists, urban planning and design professionals and members of the civil society will need to be engaged to develop the following:
1. Develop governance structures for our planning and development authorities so they are completely revamped and allowed institutional independence.
2. Review urban planning at a national, regional and local level.
3. Develop 20 to 25-year master plans for all our cities and towns with populations greater than one million.
4. Incentivise construction which is relevant to the greater society.
We see through the government’s policies a ray of hope for our cities; we hope this optimism can soon materialise into a sustainable reality, changing the urban scape of our wonderful motherland.
Yawar Jilani (FIAP) is a practising architect and a partner at Arcop.