Commercialisation, urban planning and the environment- by Ahmad Rafay Alam

The acting director-general of the Punjab Environmental Protection Agency last week pointed to the commercialisation of Lahore’s roads as a major factor responsible for the city’s worsening traffic congestion and terrible air pollution. This is an important observation. The dots this thinking connects allow for public debate on an issue that is often obfuscated by other competing urban and municipal concerns.

Usually, traffic congestion is linked with arguments for more road-infrastructure development. The old chestnut of “road widening will resolve traffic problems.” The well-known link between increased road facilities and increased road traffic use never comes up. It’s as if the traffic jams on the roads widened only a decade ago have no connection with one another. (Parenthetically, a similar disconnect often occurs when people fail to link load-shedding with the effects of global climate change.) Similarly, air pollution is usually associated with traffic which, as I said, is linked to arguments for more road infrastructure. And so the logic goes round and round, like a dog chasing its tail. Meanwhile, the city’s budget and the provincial government’s grants are spent constructing more and more roads instead of catering to real urban issues like sanitation, public transport, employment, education, health and recreation facilities.One passage in the newspaper article which quoted the Acting DG particularly caught my attention: “According to the EPD officials, there is no segregation of markets and roads; instead, all roads are market places and there has been no planning on the part of CDGL and TEPA for smooth flow of traffic” (emphasis added). All roads are market places! The Acting DG has touched upon one of the more important – and equally ignored – aspects of urban development.

First, some historical context: The Partition destroyed large tracts of the city and in its rebuilding, commercial interests were allowed to dominate. The interests of the city’s remaining inhabitants, the new mohajirs and other displaced persons, particularly their housing and accommodation interests, were kept secondary. New residential housing developments grew, piecemeal, at the outskirts of the city. This has remained the trend.

Because of the single-use nature of these new developments – they were primarily catering to demand for residential units – the city’s main commercial areas remained static and in the same kilometre-or-so radius from the High Court. But this boundary eventually broke. This may have been due to two reasons. First, lack of available commercial space and a paucity of new commercial space. Remember, when Lahore was being rebuilt, an enormous amount of available land in and around the Walled City that was once residential was commandeered and put to use by the industrial and trading community.

Second, the planning of the new residential schemes misunderstood the demographics they were catering to. It may look sound, for instance, to allocate one plot every 300 plots to a school every time a new housing scheme is dreamt up. But this allocation means nothing when, a generation or two down the line, a complex set of circumstances means the schools originally permitted fail to provide for an unexpectedly large population. Since schools are important, one can sympathise with the reasoning employed to allow previously residential units to be used for education. And what is true of commercialisation allowed for schools is more or less true for many other types of activity that take place under this classification: grocery and utility shops, restaurants, tea kiosks, barbershops, gyms and beauty salons and other uses catered to our quotidian needs.

But back to the Acting DG EPA’s comment on how all roads are markets. Most commercial activity on residential land stems from the need to supply a pressing demand. In part due to the lack of commercial space available in existing schemes, and in part because of the murky nature of commercialisation (there is good reason commercialisation is also the doorway to the many tales of corruption we hear stemming from municipal offices), most commercialisation takes place along the roads to new housing developments (and thereafter along green belts and other amenity plots or public spaces).

The first to respond to new commercial space do so at their own risk and cost. Notice yourself as how commercial activity usually takes place along the length of a road, rather than in a cluster or around nodes. The reasons for this are obvious. Front-facing shops are first to be noticed on a busy road. Front-facing shops are also easy to reach for automobile commuters and there are no costs in proving road and other utilities if one wanted to develop land away from the road. It really is that simple. But as a result, you will notice commercial strip development on all major roads and streets in all of our urban areas.

The environmental repercussions of commercial development that follows this template are equally simple to understand. There is, and will never be, enough parking spaces for the types of land use and commercial activity currently allowed along our roads. As a result, there is congestion. Air pollution is too complicated to be dismissed as only connected to traffic congestion, but congestion does contribute enormously to poor air quality. High levels of PM, SO2, NOx and CO are directly responsible for diseases like asthma and other lung disorders. High levels of noise on busy commercial streets are also known to affect hearing and mental stability. And since most commercial activity is haphazard, there is usually insufficient infrastructure capacity to deal with the sewage and solid waste produced by the commercial activity.

But there are also some interesting non-environmental repercussions to commercialisation. I mention them specifically because, all too often, environmental concerns are given lower priority than the development that fuels commercialisation.

Strip development (the all-roads-are-markets observation) is one of the basic templates of our urban commercial activity. It also affects property values and potential property tax and other incomes that can be recovered by the public exchequer. The commercial and industrial interests that have the ear of urban planning authorities have not yet realised the money they waste investing in strip commercialisation.

Because of the premium attached to front-facing properties, demand for commercial property off the strip and, therefore, property values off a strip, fall drastically. Take Lahore’s Mall Road. Immediately behind the most prized commercial strip in the city, where government offices, major banks and multinationals and an array of high-end commercial and service activity takes place, land use and property values are remarkably different. You will find much lower rents and land use a mix of industrial and manufacturing. Though the examples cited here may be particular to this strip of road in this city, the principle remains the same everywhere.

On the other hand, with nodal or cluster developments, property developers can obtain premium land prices and rents by developing all four sides of their property. And if you can fit 10 shops on 100 meters of a strip development, you can fit all 10 in a 15×15-meter nodal development. Node developments also take less space and free up land for other urban development purposes. Of course, to be truly successful, nodal development relies on public transport rather than a glut of automobiles to cater to the mobility of its customers. But we already know the environmental and urban planning benefits of public transport.

Given the depressing news that one is fast growing accustomed to, the Acting DG EPa Punjab’s remarks are good news. Pakistan is already the most urbanised city in South Asia. Already most of the pollution generated in Pakistan stems from urban areas. Now that the EPA has figured out these important links between commercialisation, urban planning and the environment, it must react responsibly and order that sense prevail in the current rush to frame and implement a new commercialisation policy for this unfortunate city.

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.



Source: The News, 1/9/2008


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