Transforming the downtown of the capital

The downtown area is generally the most happening place in any city, that is not the case in Islamabad

Naveed Iftikhar November 18, 2017
The writer is a public policy adviser and researcher having interest in competitive cities, entrepreneurship and governance. He tweets @navift

The downtown area is generally the most happening place in any city. That is not the case in Islamabad! The Blue Area, the so-called downtown of the capital, is the most nonfunctional, dull and unplanned part of the city.

City centres play an important role in driving the economic and social activities in a city. They provide a space for interaction between people from various professions, economic and social backgrounds, age groups and even different nationalities. They also contribute significantly to the quality of life in any city. The purpose of this piece is to highlight what is wrong with the Blue Area, and to focus on areas where the citizens and city administration can channel efforts to transform it into a functional, lively and innovative space.

Let me share 10 reasons why I call it a nonfunctional downtown. The readers may add further to this list. First, after sunset, the Blue Area turns into a deserted place except for a few shops and eateries that remain open. Mostly, the service lanes are poorly lit and look haunted. Second, the exterior and interior of the plazas and buildings manifest poor architecture and maintenance. It is obvious that most buildings are not planned and designed properly. The access pathways to most buildings are too narrow for a commercial space, and illegal encroachment into corridors by business entities aggravate the problem. The electric wiring is poor and often lead to fire incidents from short circuiting. The absence of a fire exit often leads to heavy financial losses and harm to precious lives. Not only are these buildings an eye sore but also dangerous for its occupants since the building codes and safety standards are being violated. Third, it is no less than a treasure hunt to locate a building or office one intends to visit, even if one takes help from the Google maps. There are no clear building names or number sign postings in place. Also, it is difficult to figure out which entry and exit point one needs to take from the main road to reach the destination.

Fourth, parking space is insufficient and during peak hours it takes a lot of time to find an empty space. The buildings do not utilise their basements to create designated parking space. Fifth, the Blue Area is not pedestrian-friendly. Walking space is constrained as there are no designated walking paths and cars are not barred from any part of the service lanes at any point of time. Sixth, there are no outdoor spaces like squares, kids play area or parks where people can mingle and relax. Hence, it is least innovative and people-friendly in its urban design. Seventh, the area is least green in a city that is known for its greenery. Eight, land-use regulations restrict the efficient and mixed use of this space that has a potential to add vibrancy to a place. Ninth, the limit on high-rise buildings is sheer underutilisation of the most expensive space in Islamabad. Tenth, the Blue Area does not provide any cultural, educational and recreational experience.

The next step is how to address the challenges mentioned above. But before that we must determine who can take action to revamp the Blue Area. We can continue to expect all action from the city administration and other relevant authorities without much progress. The civil society and inhabitants and owners of buildings in the area will need to take the initiative. First step would be to sensitise all relevant parties, including the community and the authorities, on issues that need to be addressed. At this point it is difficult to point to a forum that can look at these issues. Where are the city-based coalitions to address the problems? Why don’t civil society organisations, business community, academics, architects, artists and urban planners come forward to contribute a due share in this regard? I would suggest establishing an inclusive coalition to revitalise Islamabad’s downtown. This would pool resources from the government, business community, civil society and any volunteers to plan and invest in the renovation of the Blue Area.

I would like to mention a few interventions which are needed to begin with. First, all plazas should be numbered for easier identification. Further at the entrance of each plaza, a list of offices in that building should be clearly listed. Second, after office hours, cars should not be allowed to enter the service roads of Jinnah Avenue and Fazl-e-Haq Road. Create walking paths and outdoor activity areas for different age groups to revive the area into a place where people come to spend leisure time and relax. Architects and artists may be consulted to transform space available for this purpose and also for improving the outlook and structure of buildings. Professionals who work on augmented reality may also contribute with innovative ideas to transform and utilise space in the Blue Area. The city government may raise resources from the government and the private sector to develop a public library there. To add to greenery, the rooftops of buildings can be converted into sky gardens. This will not only add to the greenery but also help clean the air in the busy commercial area that experiences heavy traffic flow. Other patches of greenery may be added on the ground. There is a need to utilise building basements for parking and create more vertical commercial parking spaces.

Professionals, academia, students, civil society organisations and social activists should collaborate with the city administrators to transform the Blue Area into a functional, vibrant and innovative downtown which Islamabad and Pakistan can be proud of. We can all work together and through collective efforts can create a success story in a city that we call home.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2017.

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