Urban management and urban planning have come of age. Across the world, city mayors are now recognised as the main actors in ensuring that our now globally urbanised society resides in livable and vibrant cities.
There isnt a single mayor outside of Pakistan who, when asked what his city's priorities are, won't answer: "the environment and transportation". Other issues are also a priority, like affordable housing, sanitation, employment opportunities, healthcare facilities and educational institutions. But the most fundamental concerns remain the environment and transport.
The concern for a clean and healthy environment encompasses issues such as clean drinking water - without which a city would become uninhabitable. It also recognises that urban areas are concentrations of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Across the world, urban planners are now mainstreaming climate change and energy concerns into the shape their cities will take.
Transportation and mobility are also recognised as fundamental for a city's economy. An urban economy depends on whether or not its citizens are mobile and have access to their city. Without mobility and without access, it is now understood, cities would atrophy; their citizens unable to find work or get to it.
Providing adequate housing underlines the issue of urban growth and the exclusion of the poor and working classes from the city. High property prices and rents in the city force the people who work there to move to peripheral areas. These peri-urban areas are characterised by their lack of urban facilities. Cities are increasingly becoming places where the rich live in well-secured enclaves and where the large majority of have-nots are excluded. Such exclusion works against the potential of a city and it is now recognised that urban planning must intervene to provide urban citizens with high quality and well-located housing and accommodation.
Most of the developments in urban planning around the world are apparently lost in Pakistan. Already the most urbanised country in South Asia, it is expected that more than half our population will live in urban areas by 2030. This means, in short, a doubling of city sizes. Cities like Lahore and Karachi may expect to see increases of population to 20 million or an unimaginable and ungovernable 30 million. Pakistan's secondary and tertiary cities are also expected to grow in size and, in all, this urban expansion will put (and is already putting) huge stress on available housing, sanitation infrastructure, existing employment opportunities, healthcare facilities, educational institutions, recreation spaces and transport facilities.
In Lahore, the present government has now exercised its control over urban management for the last four years. It's flagship projects, like the introduction of metered parking and the construction of a park and ride facility, have failed to live up to expectations. Its repeated claims of bringing hundreds of buses onto the city's streets remain, to date, hollow. The only project that has met with reasonable success is the Canal Road widening, and that too because of civil society and Supreme Court activism and intervention. Its current projects, like the construction of a BRT (bus rapid transit) network, are under a cloud of uncertainty. And while billions of Rupees of road infrastructure has been spent for Lahore's Ferozepur Road alone, the provinces other cities have received little or no attention. The condition in urban infrastructure is in shambles.
By way of comparison, Enrique Penalosa, the mayor of Bogota, introduced the Transmillenia BRT bus system, hundreds of kilometres of cycle lanes and thirteen public libraries in his three-year tenure.
The urbanisation of the Pakistani population means deep changes in Pakistani society. Both require the government to re-think its strategy of managing urban areas. It will no longer do to have centralised control over urban areas. Local government will have to be re-thought in light of the urbanization challenges people face. After all, the first duty of government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens. In such a re-think, it would arrogant of government to exclude the people and stakeholders from consultations. The city of Lahore has proved to have a strong and vibrant civil society. Maybe it is time for the Government of Punjab to lend them its ears.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 24th, 2012.
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