Wake up to the new urban reality

Ahmad Rafay AlamAround the world, cities are adapting to the difficulties they face. In the US, the credit crunch and high oil prices are challenging settled notions of urbanism, what a city should be and how it should cater to its residents. In Europe, similar concerns and a growing awareness of the environment are also changing how cities are designed and put together. These responses are important. Unlike any other time in the history of human civilisation, today’s world is an urban world. More than half the people on earth live in cities. How they are designed is crucial to how they impact the majority of the population of the planet. We are no exception, and should stop pretending we are.

In the US, the credit crunch is taking a toll on cities. Moreno Valley, which lies about 100 miles east of Santa Monica, was a few years ago the fastest growing city in America. The city was part of what is called the Inland Empire, a two-county region that is the “warehouse” of the United States, sorting and assembling imported goods for distribution across the country. Moreno Valley’s great misfortune is that it was developed on cheap credit. The sluggish US economy and rising oil prices meant less businesses invested in expansion and fewer people in long automobile commutes. Now, the region suffers from foreclosures and the city’s commerce centre boasts empty buildings. The new suburban housing developments are in doldrums.

Last week’s Economist observes that the misfortune of Moreno Valley is being taken as a validation of the Congress of New Urbanism’s oft-repeated refrain that suburban sprawl is ultimately unviable. One of the basic presumptions of urban planning in the 20th century was that of mechanised transport. We trusted the automobile would take us anywhere we wanted to go more conveniently than anything else and built our cities on a correspondingly large scale. But the houses on the outskirts of US megacities are, for the reasons given above, becoming increasingly difficult to sell. Or, as an environmentalist writing in The Washington Post gloatingly put it: “The frontier of endless mobility that we’ve known our entire lives is closing.” These New Urbanists predict that America will soon trade their SUV’s for life near a city centre.

On the east coast of the US, property dealers are facing crashing property prices in their suburban portfolios as well. Dramatic drops in property values have forced dealers and developers to improvise. Some have taken to investing in rundown areas close to suburban residential neighbourhoods. On the outskirts of Philadelphia one developer discovered a rundown steel mill and is converting it into a new town centre. He hopes business will be attracted to areas close to employee homes and is designing an area where residences will be above office space, roads will have wide sidewalks and restaurants more outdoor dining so that “You’ll be able to live, work and play” in the same urban space. It’s quite remarkable that even response stemming from a market-based response has removed the automobile – the lynchpin of 20th Century urbanism – entirely from the urban development model.

In Europe, several cities have done or are doing something similar, although for different reasons. In Amsterdam, 40 percent of all traffic movement is bicycle. Thirty-two percent of the residents of Copenhagen go to work on a cycle, as do a great proportion of Berliners and Barcelona-wallahs. Of course, one can argue, quite rightly, that the weather in these places makes bike riding a year-round possibility. However, the interesting thing about these cities is not just that their residents are bicycle enthusiasts, but that, as cities in the developed world, they do not relate the automobile to the pinnacle of development. These cities recognise that automobile-dependant urban planning is not the way forward. As a result, the fascinating thing about bicycle-friendly European cities is how they’ve completely changed the way they spend money on road infrastructure. You don’t see overhead expressways in the cities of Europe, you see pedestrian bridges. The wonders of Amsterdam and Berlin include automated bicycle parking sheds in the middle of city centres.

The incredible changes Enrique Penalosa’s three-year tenure as mayor of Bogota, Colombia, have startled the world. This city of seven million in a developing country refused a massive JICA loan (incidentally to build an overhead/underground rapid mass transit system, just like the one planned for Lahore), and instead invested in developing people- and pedestrian-friendly spaces. Property prices shot up, crime rates dropped, school enrolment soared to record highs and JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) was left scratching its head wondering where it had got it all wrong. Most importantly, Penalosa’s tenure is an example of how development funds, if directed to other, softer, forms of infrastructure, can give better value than the millions spent on roads used by a minority automobile elite. Now, cities in South America, Africa, India and Indonesia have begun to follow in Bogota’s footsteps and are investing in bus rapid-transit systems instead of expensive and sprawl-sustaining rapid mass-transit systems.

Developed megacities are also borrowing from these precedents. New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg announced four car-free days along Park Avenue this August as part of an experiment to gauge public reaction. Paris has just introduced a Rent-a-Bike system designed to persuade commuters to turn to the cycle, as an attempt to curb pollution. Not just that, the green mayor and traffic chief have reduced space on the city’s streets for cars, have added bus lanes and widened pavements, in a bid to encourage more people to use public transport.

It’s clear that, around the world, the concept of a metropolis solely dependent on mechanised transport has passed its expiry date. Suburbs are no longer viable. People want to live closer to work and for streets to be safe for their children. And city fathers are responding accordingly.

The global trend appears to have bypassed Pakistan entirely. In a country where at least 35 percent of the population lives in urban areas, where over-half of this urban population lives in slums, where sanitation and clean drinking water isn’t available for millions, where men, women and children continue to lose their lives to traffic accidents, we continue to spend billions of rupees investing in infrastructure that will spread our cities further apart and which will be used by the automobile elite, only a fraction of the population. Take Islamabad, for example, where the CDA recently boasted a Rs2-billion allocation for “mega projects,” including Zero Point Interchange, rehabilitation and expansion of Kashmir Highway, expansion of Garden Avenue and expansion and rehabilitation of Lehtrar Road. Another Rs100 million has been set aside for the proposed 10th and 11th Avenues, which are set to denude the city’s most beautiful roads of its natural heritage. In Pakistan, an urban development project is a euphemism for road construction.

In Lahore, over 80 percent of the population lives within a radius of only seven kilometres. In its 1997 Integrated Master Plan for Lahore (and the last thorough study of the city’s infrastructure, now sadly out-of-date), NESPAK estimated 60 percent of all trips were non-motorised and, at 50 percent, mainly pedestrian. Yet the chief minister has allocated a quarter of a billion rupees for the feasibility study of—surprise, surprise—an overhead automobile expressway that will only fuel more sprawl.

A single page of one of last week’s newspapers bore the following news: Our import bill is now at $1.287 billion, 87 percent higher than the same month last year. Of this amount, oil imports accounted for $752.618 million, a 135-percent increase from this time last year. In Karachi, the transportation of export shipments has come to a complete halt as transporters demanded reduction in diesel prices and related taxes. Meanwhile, Indus Motors posted sales revenues of Rs2.3 billion for 2007-2008 and Pak Suzuki posted earnings of Rs598.76 million for the half-year that ended in June.

The developed world has figured out that mechanised transport is economically, environmentally and socially unviable in today’s days and age. When will the light bulb switch on for us? It took our politicians, working 24/7, a year and a half to determine that a president may not sack a chief justice without giving him notice, and, if he does so, he must resign or be impeached. Not rocket science, really. But it’s worrying when our cities are bursting at the seams and not much thought is spared about how to deal with their problems.

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: ralam@nexlinx .net.pk




Source: The News, 25/8/2008


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