Globally, cities are considered ‘economic powerhouses’ while contributing almost 80% to world GDP. For being economically productive and competitive, a city must first be advantageous, vibrant, efficient, inclusive and livable. We frequently listen to the “Ease of Doing Business” mantra but hardly think of “Ease of Living” parameters for our cities since only a healthy, sound and happy society can be economically and socially productive. Do we have any of our cities on global livable/competitive cities rankings? There must be a plethora of reasons to justify the lag, but poor urban management and resultant sprawl surpass everything else. Sprawl is cursed for leaving cities resource-starved and unlivable on account of environmental adversities owning to outrageous car use. Besides, large tracts of arable land are being urbanized and left barren/unutilized for years while burying billions of rupees of poor man’s lifetime savings.
In our cities, sprawl can easily be characterized as having large chunks of 5 & 10 Marla ‘KOTHIs’ sited 20-30 km away from the city core, needlessly wider roads, impulse shops, no work-places, disconnected with any public-transit node and no space for worker’s housing. Every sprawl resident is coerced into wasting 4-5 productive hours for their daily commutes, inhale poisonous air and detach from active social life. Above all, a sprawl is where land developers can easily reap 500% profits within a couple of weeks’ time. This is done by acquiring raw land costing PKR 30K per marla and selling it for half a million rupees. Thanks to our pro-sprawl urban regulations.
Suburban sprawl is highly discredited globally for turning cities unsustainable due to its relentless land consumption, high GHG emissions owing to longer car-based commuting, and for many other ensuing social costs. Most of our large and intermediate cities present highly unsustainable spatial growth scenarios. Their spatial footprints are growing at far higher than their population growth rates. Lahore’s population growth rate was 3.03% per annum during the last decade whereas spatial footprint grew at a rate of 7.09% per annum. Gross density has also declined to 15k from 19k persons per sq. km over the same period. The city’s North to South stretch has extended to 46 km.
Lahore, once a city of gardens, now has less than 5% green footprint. Notably, 60% of Lahore’s current spatial footprint is sprawl (mostly housing schemes emerged over the past 25 years) with a density of fewer than 3,000 persons/sq. km., while housing only 1.5 million people. Remaining 9.5 million people have 40% of the land area, sharing it with Government complexes, huge fortified enclaves with colonial mansions for bureaucracy inter-alia, golf courses, elite colleges, polo grounds and lavish clubhouses, which are obviously not meant for common people.
Our all urban planning, management and development regimes have been designed to take care of cars and sprawl. Billions of rupees (mostly borrowed money) have been invested in Lahore’s roller coaster drives; mass transit systems, signal free corridors to take everyone to the heavenly sprawling suburbs. Two heavily subsidized mass transit systems were built to please blue collar voters and to earn political sublime. That was even fine if authorities had thought of the more productive and tax paying white collar fraction of society who are still forced to use cars to travel to work and back.
Lahore has experienced the worst PM2.5 levels in recent years (exceeding 500 μg/m3). Some naïve experts on social media blame neighboring countries and poor quality of gasoline fuel for this bleak situation. Behold folks: these are not them; these are us, who are harming our children while living in sprawl and using cars unreasonably. Each of us produces 1.3 tons of CO₂ every year through the unwise use of personal vehicles. And above all, somehow, we also do not raise a voice for the provision of walking infrastructure integrated with a holistic, decent and inclusive public transport system in our cities.
Bogotá, Curitiba, Medellín, and Barcelona are recent good examples of urban transformation within a couple of years, making these cities largely walk and cycle friendly. Dhaka has turned its downtown car free; San Francisco has banned personal cars on its busiest Market Street. The Mayor of Paris, while running for reelection, made a public promise to turn Paris into a place where everyone would be able to reach their work in a 15-minute bike ride. Such cities are only possible with denser, mixed-use development. Eminent economist Dr. Nadeem ul Haque and I have been pleading for the same for many years on social media, and in public sector and academic discussions.
Many thanks to the PM Imran Khan for making a Vision statement in 2019 aimed at turning our cities denser, walkable and mixed-use while going vertical. LDA recently revisited its building regulations to align them with this vision, but the revised version (notified in November 2019) still appears to have gaps such as putting many discretionary sanctions for plan approval and only selective lot sizes/precincts being allowed to go high.
Further, multiple parallel controls are put in place to deal with building heights and bulk instead of using FAR alone. Regulations seem framed without any City Vision and respect for citizen’s aspirations of how they would like to see their city in the future. No one even visualizes how the city will look like after 10 years down the future. Existing residential structures are still not allowed to add more rental floors. Regulations speak nothing on mixed land use class. TOD planning around mass transit corridors is also missing. Varying setbacks on the same road seem unrealistic and will eventually mar the overall urban form. Regulations need to have an urban design, urban regeneration, and architectural design standards as well.
Recently a consultative session arranged by PIDE under the chairmanship of Dr. Salman Shah (Advisor to the CM Punjab) to review the LDAs Building Regulations 2019. High-rises were opposed on the premise of interfering with citizen’s social privacy, lack of infrastructure (including road width and services) and car parking provisions. Come on, folks! Manhattan and Central London have roads no wider than Lahore, sewerage is the only service underneath roads, and telecom has gone wireless. For social & cultural facets, one must go and visit the walled city and its surroundings to understand how communities, households, and individuals can still respect each other’s privacy while living vertically in mixed-use buildings.
Let’s forget the cars and focus to build inclusive and sustainable mobility options. The real challenge for city authorities is to divert capital from profit enticed plot making to vertical construction, and how will LDA be able to do that when they themselves are developing the largest sprawl in Lahore. All in the bureaucracy and professional circles have their own distinctive ways of doing cities, but we need to understand that city planning and design is a very specialized domain. Let the relevant professionals lead the process and yes, obviously the approach should be inclusive and holistic.
Note: An earlier version of this piece was published in the Business Recorder on April 1, 2020. ( https://www.brecorder.com/2020/04/01/585574/our-poor-ease-of-living-indicators/ )