In January, I had written about the ominous nature of the construction that threatened the very walls of the Punjab Institute of Mental Health. The area immediately adjacent to the PIMH, used as an open space and public park, had been turned into the site of a new out-patient facility for the various health institutions in the vicinity. Back then I had written: “When a city like Lahore starts to lose parks to things like hospitals, alarm bells should be heard everywhere. It means two crucially important urban utilities are at conflict.”
In February, I had heard the Nazim of Karachi speak at a conference where he publicly professed his ignorance of the environment and chastised NGOs which challenged his development projects. He informed the assembled crowd that Karachi produced 400 million gallons of sewage a day and that it possessed no sewage treatment plants. He did, however, say that he was doing something about this. The same day, the City Council of Karachi passed a resolution converting the 40 acres of amenity space in Mehmoodabad earmarked for Sewage Treatment Plant No 2 into a housing colony.
SHEHRI-CBE has been keeping a close eye on the abuse of land use regulations and zoning laws in Karachi. They have evidence that public parks and spaces in North Nazimabad are being encroached upon and replaced by restaurants and housing schemes. They have brought these encroachments to the notice, among other people, of the governor and chief minister of Sindh and the Environment Department of the Government of Sindh and the City District Government Karachi.
Public parks are crucial for any city to thrive. Much more than “the lungs of a city,” public parks are powerful political statements. They are declarations of how democratic a society is. The more public parks and public spaces in a city, the more the rich and poor stand shoulder-to-shoulder as equals, the more egalitarian the society. The next time you spot a full-fledged cricket match being played in a public park, take time to appreciate the immense and informal social infrastructure that exists to support such an exercise.
Parks are also a statement of how much city fathers value democratic spaces. Where parks fall to housing or commerce, the statement being made is that housing and commerce is more important than the social function of parks.
The debate isn’t entirely one-sided. Pakistan faces a severe housing shortage. According to official (and outdated) statistics, about 1,000,000 housing units need to be built every year just to keep the backlog of housing demand from growing. Pakistan is also increasingly becoming an urbanised country. With its population estimated by some to be as much as 45 percent urbanised, this country is set to see over half of its people living in urban areas in the next 10 years. For large cities like Karachi and Lahore, it means a doubling or maybe a tripling of population over the next two decades.
What’s happening is that the high demand of housing, especially in urban areas, is so great that it has become a political issue. Local-government officials, MPAs and MNA are under constant pressure to do something about housing for their constituents. One can understand where the temptation to convert whatever public space is available – who goes for walks anyway! – into housing. And of course, with new settlements comes the demand for consumer goods. And so one can see where the pressure to allow whatever public space is available for use as commercial areas to supply nearby residents with the everyday goods they need. To give in to the pressure, however, is a great mistake.
One can go into great detail about what the loss of public spaces in our cities means. At the most profound level, it means that the city is depriving its residents of the ability to communicate with one another. It means creating inequality. The haves get to go to their private clubs in their automobiles while the have-nots get from home to work or home to school and back either on foot, by way of the humiliating public-transport system or by inhaling the poisonous city air riding on a cycle or motorcycles, without the benefit of parks, sports and community centres, museums, art galleries, affordable restaurants. Imagine what sort of society a city like this produces.
The 40 acres of Sewage Treatment Plant No 2 may not be a public park, but its conversion into a housing colony is also of great concern. Without treatment plants for the hundreds of tonnes of raw sewage Karachi produces every day, without facilities to handle the thousands of tonnes of solid waste produced each day, sewage is simply dumped into the sea and solid waste is left to decompose in the open. The sewage destroys marine life. The waste pollutes neighbouring areas. The urban poor are the most vulnerable to this pollution, and the affect of this pollution on their health hampers their ability to work every day. It lowers their monthly income, most of which is already diverted to treating a multitude of pollution-related ailments.
All this happens in cities like Lahore and Karachi, home of some of the richest people and most profitable industrial and commercial houses in the country.
The great tragedy about the conversion of these plots and open spaces is that they cater to the accommodation and housing needs of increasing numbers of urban residents. But what these conversions also mean is that the government, in converting these plots of land, are not solving anything. They are not solving the housing shortage. That can only be stemmed by population stabilisation and by focusing on the development of secondary and tertiary cities. They are merely providing a very short-term solution for one of the most complex problems Pakistan is facing.
Within a few years, there will be no more public amenity plots to convert. What will the City Council of Karachi do then? They will find that they run a mega-city without recreational facilities for its residents.
The fact is our cities are broke. They are run in a manner so wasteful that they cannot harness the economic activity that takes place in them. If Karachi is the country’s greatest taxpayer, what benefit does the city of Karachi get from it? How come the billions earned in Karachi can’t be put into housing its residents? Why can’t the city find opportunity in the great demand for sanitation and public transport?
The fact is our cities are run on governance templates that date back to the times of Lord Ripon. We cannot continue to take hundred-year old solutions and hope they solve the problems of the 21^st Century.
Pakistan is no longer a rustic agricultural land. It is fast evolving into a complex urban economy with an agricultural base. If our cities were run the way they should be, there would be no need to convert public utilities to cater to urbanisation. The challenges of urbanization would be met with proper solutions.
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