Baku model

Published July 9, 2024
The writer works on cities, climate change, and local governments.
The writer works on cities, climate change, and local governments.

JUST over a year ago, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited the Azeri capital for two days. The prime minister was reportedly so impressed by the landscaping in Baku that, upon his return, he instructed his team to replicate it. This year, the premier’s dreams are finally being realised, as a delegation from Azerbaijan visited Islamabad recently to advise the Capital Development Authority (CDA) on how to landscape just like them.

The group toured the city and is set to submit a proposal for the beautification of Islamabad, including recommendations for a food street to be built in Lake View Park, as announced by the CDA last year. This has reportedly been envisioned along the lines of Nizami Street — a popular downtown pedestrian shopping centre in Baku.

The international collaboration, for one, is appreciable; we should accumulate diverse perspectives and learn from wherever we can. But let’s also dig just one layer deeper and question such knee-jerk urban design decisions. Do we want to merely copy the aesthetics of what we see elsewhere, or study the underlying foundations of what makes them appealing?

Do we know what it is about Nizami Street that makes us want to recreate it? Or why people love Istiklal in Istanbul (our national infatuation before Baku came along)? Has anyone wondered why so many people prefer to visit European cities, instead of North American ones (barring a few)? Of course, the answers are multifaceted, but there is one connecting theme between them all: you can walk there. For instance, besides a metro system and a bus network with full coverage, Baku is also a highly walkable city. Istanbul may have copious amounts of culture, but — like most of Europe — this is also vibrantly on display, accessible, and best experienced on foot.

Walking, as a way of life, changes one’s experience of a city.

Walking — not as an isolated activity, but as a way of life — changes one’s experience of a city. This is part of certain urban design principles that have been common sense in many parts of the world for decades. Places that follow these typically employ mixed-use zoning with a dense core, and vernacular architecture using natural and historical heritage. They are walkable, cyclable, have access to mass transit with last-mile connectivity, and contain ample public spaces.

The parts of these cities that we tend to love most are organically occurring, tightly packed, and brimming with visible life at eye level. They are not de-contextualised gimmicks chalked out of national parks and declared tourist spots that people can drive to. There is a reason why the Eiffel Tower in Bahria Town has not overshadowed the original.

Cars exist in abundance in all these places, but with a status either equal to, or inferior to, pedestrians. Few people want to visit a city if their experience of it is restricted to the interiors of vehicles and buildings. Nobody wants to hire a car, drive between destinations, find parking, and wade through a sea of traffic, smoke, heat, concrete and asphalt to experience tourist attractions.

The basic question underneath all of these is really quite simple: what do you consider to be the fundamental unit of mobility in your city? If your answer is a vehicle, then building infrastructure such as flyovers, highways and parking plazas for 10 per cent of the population is the right way to go. But if your answer is a person, it shifts the entire perspective on whom you’re catering to, and how.

Some welcome steps are being taken with the introduction of electric bu­­ses and construction of bicycle tra-cks in Islamabad. But mobility is a system, not a project. Walking, cycling, and public transp­ort go together. The city administration will have to start thinking beyond mega schemes, and pay attention to the micro level by actually listening to people and seeing how they experience the city. No top-down grand plans; just small interventions, adjusted and scaled accordingly.

The execution of this is far from straightforward. There are massive challenges, most important of which is how to facilitate walkability in our climate. But once the fundamentals are clear, we can stop trying to enumerate counterpoints and start finding solutions — of which there are many. We have access to proven case studies of cities in hot climates from Seville to Santiago, which have utilised trees, water, covered walkways, colonnades, narrower streets, and cooler pavement materials to counter the urban heat island effect produced by vehicles.

What these case studies do not include is the replication of landscaping aesthetics from other capitals. Baku is nice, but an Islamabad model may be better suited to Islamabad.

The writer works on cities, climate change, and local governments.

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2024

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