Property prices on Lahore’s M M Alam Road are among the highest in Pakistan. Last year, the market price for land there was Rs80 million per kanal. With these prices, the only type of activity feasible on property there is some form of high-end or high-rise commercial. And that’s what you see. M M Alam Road is synonymous with Lahore’s high-end restaurants, cafes and consumer retail outlets. Muhammad Mahmood Alam is a retired Air Commodore of the Pakistan Air Force. He is a hero of the 1965 Indo-Pak War (the “five Indian Hunter aircraft in less than a minute” is still a record) and a recipient of the Sitara-e-Jurat plus bar.
One has never really understood the reasons behind the Government of Punjab’s decision to convert the park on M M Alam road – the Doongi Ground, as it was known, and which doubled as a rainwater catchment for the area – into a cinema and commercial space. My suspicion is that it may have had something to do with the profit the then government saw itself earning by cashing in on the post-9/11 property boom. It doesn’t really matter, as the citizens of the area as well as the NGO Shehri-CBE challenged the poorly thought out enterprise before the Lahore High Court. This was in 2006, the “halcyon” days before everyone figured out just how politicised our judiciary was and when, every now and then, sunlight made its way through the clouds. The petitioners actually got a stay against a Government of Punjab project from Mr Justice Saeed Akhtar of the Lahore High Court (no mean feat during the tenure of the then chief justice of the court) and since then the work on the controversial IMAX centre has remained at a standstill. The trajectory of this public-interest litigation has become tangled, but the case remains pending.
What has happened is that the area has lost a natural rainwater catchment. As a result, when it rains the most expensive property in Lahore floods. It’s amusing to see Lahore’s automobile elite try and navigate the knee-high water near the Doongi Ground on the one end of M M Alam Road and then near Hussain Chowk, the other end of the road. The flooding on the Hussain Chowk end has nothing to do with the IMAX project. It’s because the various road “remodelling” projects and extensive commercial use of property have replaced large gardens with cement and concrete and eliminated whatever natural drainage existed.
The Sharif government has inherited this problem and is trying to find a way out. There is simply too much money to be made along M M Alam Road for it to be the embarrassment it is. The stay order has meant that the financial projections of the original project are now unworkable. Too much money has been spent to knock the skeleton structure down and it would cost too much to return the site to its original condition – as a park used primarily by the middle- and lower-middle-class families and children living along Gulberg’s Guru Mangat Road.
A committee has been constituted – the sop for when blame for a decision needs to be directed to someone else – to conjure up a way out of the Doongi Ground dilemma. So far, their thinking is something like this: With slight modification, the underground floors – some of which have already been constructed – can be converted into parking space. This is badly needed, as none of the businesses along M M Alam Road provide enough parking for their type of land-use. The roof of this three- or four-floor parking behemoth will be greened and used as a park. This, it is argued, will restore some sort of status quo ante and be a placatory negotiation stance for the public-interest litigation. The one block of the existing structure that sticks its head over ground is to be used for some public purpose, although one fears this vague phrase may turn out to be the original IMAX cinema, albeit in greatly modified form.
Whatever this committee conjures up will still have to pass before the courts. At the very least, it will have to pass the approval of the Bench. Even then, there is every prospect the petitioners will continue to agitate the matter legally. There is simply no guarantee that the committee’s proposal will be workable.
Given the opposed and fairly rigid stance of the parties involved, there may be room for another alternative. A plan C.
Whatever the reasons behind and whatever one’s opinions of the commercialisation of Gulberg, the fact is that this once leafy residential district is fast becoming the primary commercial hub of the city. From what we have witnessed of the gradual commercialisation of Lahore’s previous prize residential areas (the Walled City, originally and The Mall (once Donald Town), Samnabad and Davis Road later), this commercialisation leaves no space for the public. This is because the demand for new commercial space far outweighs the regulatory power of local government and the imperatives of basic human decency. There is no longer a park in Royal Park, for example. There is hardly any space for safe pedestrian movement along Davis Road. The development agenda was hijacked by the automobile and the pedestrian – the common man – was excluded.
We cannot let this happen to Gulberg. We cannot let this happen to Lahore. If anyone’s noticed, all the available land on the outskirts of the city has been picked up by private developers and plotted into tight housing schemes with merely an excuse for public open spaces. And it appears the land inside the city has become too expensive for it to be enjoyed by anyone who can’t drive to a cinema, go to a club or enjoy their farm house.
The Government of Punjab must make a bold statement that it is committed to democratic development; that when it spends money, it makes no distinction between a man on a Rs3,000 bicycle or on a Rs7,500,000 SUV. It must not spend more money on roads (the CM has announced last week that he approved the expenditure of Rs257 million for the feasibility study for a four-lane overhead expressway to “save” the city from traffic problems).
Where does this leave Doongi Ground? Nowhere. But the best option for the future of this city would be to develop the site as a parking lot as intended, but augment it by greening the entire length of M M Alam Road. This would mean unearthing the entire road as it lies and replacing it with a park and trees transplanted by the PHA. The area should be dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists entirely.
Sceptics should pause and consider: All of M M Alam Road is fed by a network of streets that connect it to Main Bulevard on the west and Guru Mangat Road on the east, so access to M M Alam Road would not be impeded. In fact, no location along the main road is more than a three-minute walk from any one of the side roads. The greened road can also boast a public tram system so that people alighting from the parking lot at Doongi Ground can be transported to their locations this way as well. This can also be the way students at the school located on the road can be accommodated (in any case, a greened road would be safe for them to walk on). Arrangements can be made for the occupants of homes that have no access but from the M M Alam Road to come and go as they wish. The heat that most automobile Lahori’s are so afraid of (why? You live in Pakistan, for God’s sake) can be obviated by the shade of trees planted and, when it rains, there are always umbrellas. The dreary weather in London has never bothered those Pakistanis who have shopped along Carnaby Street. Anyway, a green open space would also be a natural drain for rainwater. M M Alam Road would never flood again.
The government should pause and consider: A similar project to green the overhead expressway over the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul cost $900 million but netted a $2.5 billion return. In Bogota, Colombia, the “ciclorutas” or dedicated pedestrian walkways and bicycle lanes through the city have resulted in remarkable changes in the areas where people replace cars. CO2 and SO2 emissions in these areas are half as much as can be found in areas where there is traffic congestion. As are traffic accidents. Property prices along these areas have increased (some as much as 20 percent) when residents realise the worth of the calm and clean atmosphere. The current residents of M M Alam Road should think about the benefits of padestrianising their road.
There is far more to the Doongi Ground dilemma that the Government of Punjab has to contend with. In fact, this shouldn’t even be an issue on their agenda. The Sharif government has more important things to do. But it can make a lasting impression on the future of this city by taking this radical step.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 11/8/2008