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Weeds or well-tended plants?

February 26, 2012

THE recent crash of a two-seater aircraft in a Lahore residential area comes, amongst other matters, as a reminder of how constantly challenging a task city planning is.

Many argue that cities are organic, animate entities whose character evolves as constantly as their needs shift. Others conceptualise cities — particularly those that are poorly planned — as vast parasites, gobbling up more and more land around them, transforming green fields into tarmac filled with smoke and noise.

Either way, planning cities is a matter of not just problem-solving at the immediate level, but of long-term planning and projections. Lahore’s Walton Airport, from where the ill-fated plane that crashed in Model Town took off, provides a representative example.

When the airstrip was established over 80 years ago, Lahore comprised mainly the areas around the walled city; the city as we know it today didn’t exist.

The area that was to become Model Town society had been plotted by 1947 (the plots were owned mainly by people of faiths other than Islam who migrated to India after Partition, leading to the area being declared evacuee property).

The rest of the area around Walton Airport, now densely commercial, industrial and residential, was developed decades later.

Now, the city holds the airstrip at its very heart.

For many years, the provincial government has been mildly pursuing the project of reclaiming the land from the Civil Aviation Authority, fuelled by the idea that it constitutes prime real estate. While I cannot support this — for the likelihood is too great that this large tract of open space will simply end up being parcelled and commercialised or industrialised — the problem remains: is it advisable to have trainee pilots flying routinely over heavily populated zones?

(Although relocating the airstrip for this particular reason might not prove an easy task; wherever it may go, it would have heavily populated areas in its environs. Lahore is squeezed on one side by the border with India and for the rest, as Patras Bokhari famously pointed out, outside of Lahore is more Lahore.)

The problem of installations that are inadvisably located in the heart of the city is not, of course, limited to Walton Airport.

Across the city, we have military installations and cantonment areas that were once on the outskirts of urban areas but that now find themselves at the heart of things.

In Rawalpindi, the fact that the military’s Ojhri camp is located in a dense area meant that when the armament stored there blew up in the 1988 disaster, damage and casualties were much higher than would otherwise have been the case. Lahore and Karachi too have a number of military facilities located in areas that are now dense.

Should they be relocated? In the current Pakistani landscape, where installations of the military and law-enforcement departments are in particular the target of terrorist and militant attacks, the question acquires greater seriousness.

It is possible to argue that these facilities represent added risk for the civilian public. (But that leads us to a road with no end:

what about constructions such as mosques or police stations, which are also targeted?)

Security of the population is just one point over which city planners must ponder. Another, perhaps much more pressing concern, is that of citizens’ access to amenities and infrastructure.

In Lahore, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, barring a few pockets, a police station is usually located within easy reach of most localities. Hospitals, however, are another matter altogether, particularly medico-legal ones.

Many of the newer areas in these three cities are served mainly by private-sector medical centres. Well-established public-sector government hospitals, which are often the ones with medico-legal status, tend to be in the older areas of the city.

The problem is that any medical emergency that could lead to legal ramifications or constitute a crime — accidents or a suicide or murder attempt, say — have to be taken to a facility with medico-legal status where an appointed medico-legal officer is present and the matter can be registered.

This means that if one is unfortunate enough to be injured in an accident or be shot in Lahore’s Defence, for example, it may take you at least 40 minutes to reach a medico-legal facility where emergency care can be provided.

While some non-MLO facilities have been known on occasion to tend to medico-legal cases, there are far more instances where a critically injured person finds the doors barred. The solution is, for concerned city planners, quite simple. An eye needs to be kept on city expansion and more medical centres must accordingly be given medico-legal status after a review of their facilities.

Poor city planning is similarly evident in many residential areas in Karachi that were established in areas where key city infrastructure had not been developed. To take just one example, a group of buildings near Bilawal House — an upmarket area with high real estate value — outside the city government’s underground water-pipe network. Their water is brought by tankers.

To be sure, such problems in any urban area are associated with political interests and manoeuvring, and city planning is a challenge anywhere in the world. Yet many of the issues recounted above are easily avoided through judicious future projection, or solved through careful planning.

City development authorities must keep in mind that in addition to all the tasks they fulfil, this too is part of their mandate — and it’s a much tougher task than deciding that the next housing authority or scheme will go here.

That decision has to be buttressed by effort being expended in terms of the water, sewage, gas and electricity infrastructure, the network of access roads, and medical, law-enforcement, educational, commercial and recreational facilities. Without that, our cities will merely grow like weeds, not develop as well-tended plants.

The writer is a member of staff.