Urban Management: Thinking Beyond Master Plans

by Mr. Nadeem Khurshid

Yesteryear, Prime Ministers’ public vision statement for having ‘Denser and Vertical Cities’ stirred a new wave of debate and activity amongst dormant urban institutions. All in the public and donor sectors started prophesizing ‘Master Planning’ as a silver bullet to resolve all urban issues overnight. Urban heavyweights in Punjab, such as Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad constituted steering committees, mostly headed by bureaucrats, to frame TOR to hire consultants to revise their master plans, and of course without having any Inclusive City Vision. Forlornly, these committees mostly had builders, developers and a couple of professionals as members (without women inclusion), most of them are with negligible or zero master planning experience. All of us are for master plans; that is fine but is there any in urban institutions or planning research schools, in a position, to enlighten the taxpayers on a fundamental question that how many of these master plans have been implemented in past five decades in Pakistan (yet hundreds have been made), and how virtuous those were in turning our cities livable? Factually, sprawl has seized the potential of cities, public health threats are looming around, housing is even not affordable for upper middle-class, public space aesthetics remain appalling, no walkability, cars are the only available mode of mobility, governance is largely frictional, green spaces have shrunk, land prices and rentals have gone sky high- and lets not expect different results from same failed relic urban planning practices.

A previous attempt was made to generate a discourse through a piece “No more master plans needed” and obviously to look into the fate, failures, and achievements of the master plans made for our cities. Nevertheless, comprehensive master plans can only be made and implemented successfully in cities where a single institution commands the entire city (such as a supra city council) under a unified urban planning act while fixing clear responsibilities, mandates, domains and financial autonomy for revenue generation. In each city, there must be around two dozens of departments working in friction while each having independent overlapping ambits and laws, and even reporting directly to the provincial government. Exclusionary master plans in Pakistan are mostly made in bureaucratic silos without public inclusion, and are more static, based on assumptions while overlooking city’s morphological dynamics led by the market (both land and capital) and somehow designed to exercise a ‘command urbanism’ over a long range of time (such as 20 years). Split institutional mandates and lack of custodianship sternly constrain the implementation of cross-sector comprehensive master plans.

The discourse further needs to find answers to; 1) what else if not the master plans? 2) How the larger urban issues like water, sanitation, and environmental management will be dealt with? 3) Every urban law specifically asks the relevant institution to make a master plan, how to resolve this legal scuffle? The answer is to substitute the restrictive comprehensive plans with an over-arching inclusive and bottom up city’s economic, spatial and development foresight in the form of a City Vision while dovetailing national policies, global sustainability agendas, and sub-national political manifestos based on project development and local citizen’s aspirations. This umbrella spatial and economic development vision is further translated into simplistic and more localized, sectoral mono-syllabic strategic planning, guidelines, and regulations. Such succinct sectoral strategic level action plans must be aligned with the political terms of governments (both sub-national and provincial) since politicians are always interested in seeing projects happening within their political terms whereas clumsy “Granth” type master plans only yield sketchy directives and un-accomplishable tall promises.

For instance, in the case of Lahore, the LDA should only have a Land use Strategy (pertaining to its original spatial domain) while perfecting its already notified peri-urban zoning and downwards regulations to transform Lahore’s urban-scape as per PM’s vision within shortest possible time. WASA, WMC, and EPD can have their own strategic plans to guide water, sanitation, waste, drainage and environmental management. Lahore already has a transport plan so TEPA, LEPARK and LTC can align their planning and development accordingly. Doing succinct strategic sector interventions is far easier, quicker, time and cost-saving and easy to implement as compared with an un-implementable daunting master plan which often takes 10 years for its making. The term ‘master plan’ has been used generically, institutions may interpret and practice it in a global contemporary context of urban planning. Institutions clearly need a focus shift from seizing comprehensive planning towards a bottom up strategic level planning with an enhanced inter-departmental symbiotic integration rather than working in friction.

Despite having 100s of master plans, our cities starkly lack a sense of place, urban form, and livability within the primary urban cores. Master plans generally address the urban growth and management issues through zoning and allied regulations. Urban design elements for green spaces, commuting corridors, business and leisure districts, residential neighborhoods, cycle tracks, walkways, street furniture, facades, heritage and many others have always been missed out. For example, plans do address the provision of commuting infrastructure by stating locations, stretches and ROWs but nothing describes the form, shape, geometry and three dimensional designs of individual components. City authorities certainly failed to achieve a consistent, integrated and harmonious urban built form despite spending billions on public infrastructure, thus leaving cityscape muddled. Contemporary urban design based concepts such as shared streets, super blocks, walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, transit oriented development, form based codes, building urban resilience, water sensitive urban design and living with water can easily be indigenized, adopted and practiced at local levels without having a master plan.


An earlier version of this blog appeared in The Daily Times on March 26, 2020 ( https://dailytimes.com.pk/582762/urban-management-thinking-beyond-master-plans/ ).

One comment

  1. We need to get maximum benefit from our urban land, better through urban regeneration projects on already utilized urban lands and focusing on mass transit to reduce cars and road infrastructures. The green spaces can be enhanced rather decreased by these practices. A compact city with less energy consumption for transport n lighting but parallel we need better municipal services like latest garbage disposal, treatments n 3Rs concept. Green energy, rain water harvesting, sewage n water treatment also storm control mechanisms.
    Master plan should not be changed as present population needs can be met through urban regeneration. Rather the territorial plans to be made for new cities n towns while securing more green n agricultural lands.

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