Ahmad Rafay Alam
When the Lahore Development Authority published full-page advertisements inviting people to submit their opinions on whether or not 58 of the city’s roads should be ‘commercialised’, it struck one as ironic how an unrepresentative organisation like the LDA should suddenly turn to the people for input on complex urban planning issues.
Then again, there is much more to the concept of commercialisation that meets the eye. And most of it is incredibly destructive to urban development.
‘Commercialization’ is the word used to describe when local authorities allow residential property owners to engage in commercial activity on their properties. It is a process whereby land previously zoned for residential use is re-zoned for commercial use. However, it has little to do with commercial activity.
Commercial activity occurs anywhere where human beings engage in trade or commerce with or provide goods and services to one another. It has nothing to do with permission granted by a development authority for change in land use.
When a local authority such as the LDA allows properties to be commercialised, it is immediately admitting that it has failed to recognise the needs of the urban development within its jurisdiction. Had commercial spaces been better defined or growth demographics better understood, there would be no need to change land use from residential to commercial. The authority’s local development plan should have foreseen the needs of its residents and adapted its strategy in advance by planning more space dedicated to commercial use.
When land zoned for residential use alone is allowed to be used for commercial use, the following persons benefit: first, the owner of the residential property finds that, with his property now available to be used for numerous other commercial purposes – and that too for profit – the laws of supply and demand raise the value of his property. Second, the development authority that allows change in land use finds that it makes money by receiving a ‘commercialisation fee’ for its permission. I must point out that the increase in property value as well as the income received by the development authority occurs without any underlying commercial activity on the property. They occur simply on the belief that property has an intrinsic value. While some may believe such hogwash, readers are reminded that fake economies are always built on invisible infrastructures.
The most obvious example is the effect of commercialisation in Lahore’s Gulberg residential district. Originally planned as a residential enclave in the 1950s, there’s little of Gulberg that isn’t used for commercial purposes today. This means the LDA completely underestimated the changes that would occur in Lahore in the 50 or so years since the Gulberg scheme was launched.
Allowing residential properties to be used for commercial purposes, as the LDA has done with properties along the Main Boulevard, means that people who bought land in the 1950s to build their homes now receive a windfall benefit in the form of permission to change the use they had dedicated their land to. Compare this windfall benefit to someone who invested in one of Gulberg’s four markets in the 1950s. Even though they have lawfully engaged in commercial activity in one of the areas designated for such use, they do not see any corresponding increase in value of their properties. This is because commercialisation is arbitrary and does not reward the diligent and hardworking. However, because of the immense increases in property value commercialisation brings, residential home owners are incentivised to change land use. And because of the hefty commercialisation fees development authorities like the LDA receive, they are seldom known to say no to requests to commercialise.
Commercialisation of residential areas has other negative effects as well. A study carried out by the faculty of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore (“Haphazard commercialisation: a potential threat to sustainable commercial development in metropolitan cities? A case study of Lahore” by Obaidullah Nadeem and Dr Rizwan Hameed) conclusively demonstrates that commercialisation of residential areas inevitably impacts human health and traffic flow, creates parking problems and impacts on the tranquillity of residential areas.
These negative effects are compounded when local authorities allow commercialisation along roads, as the LDA is proposing to do with its invitations to the public to comment on its proposal to commercialise 58 roads. Because we have no public transport and because we are almost completely automobile dependent, the increased number of properties now vying to create space for commercial activity will have an effect on traffic and parking. Increased traffic is bad for air quality, as the increased number of vehicles in a previously residential area will only spew their exhaust into the air. They will also make pedestrian mobility dangerous and difficult. Commercialised roads also render any efforts to introduce public transport impossible.
Imagine: if our cities were organised so that major commercial areas were in one place rather than spread along roads, shopping could be done by bus. But with commercialised roads, commercial activity becomes dependent on automobiles. The government of Punjab is committed to introducing public transport to Lahore, but it is a shame to see that the LDA is bent on ruining the chances of its success by insisting that further commercialisation of properties on roads be allowed.
Another factor should also be taken into consideration. The people who develop commercialised plots do so for gain and seldom with any regard to the environment. It is well-known that (i) buildings consume about half of the electricity produced in the world (and this figure should be more or less true of Pakistan as well); and (ii) that our largest single source of electricity at this moment is actually in energy conservation. All over the world, governments are giving incentives to building-developers to introduce and use energy-efficient building techniques. Not so in Pakistan. The buildings that will inevitably crop up along commercialised roads will all be energy inefficient. With the electricity crisis facing Pakistan and Lahore, the LDA should stop and ask itself whether it is right or fair to allow property-developers to get rich without investing a single rupee in energy efficiency? Will it be fair to allow commercialisation on the pretext of encouraging economic activity when that economic activity will be energy-inefficient? The United States Congress recently passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill. This 1,428-page legislation, which is currently under consideration before the Senate, provides for incentive for energy efficiency in the housing and property markets. It is about time the LDA and our government took notice of this trend and stopped thinking about making just a quick buck.
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: email@example.com