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World class cities- Ahmad Rafay Alam

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It’s difficult to describe what Arif Hasan does. He’s an architect and planner, based in Karachi, for sure. But he’s also a teacher, writer, social researcher and a thinker (rare in this country). I could go on to describe his experiences, qualifications, awards and so on, but then I wouldn’t have space to write anything else. Suffice it to say that when Arif Sahib spent some time at a workshop at the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore earlier this week and delivered an open lecture on the concept and repercussions of the world class city (based on a paper delivered at a symposia held in Istanbul last month), I jumped at the opportunity to hear from a man who is, quite literally, the foremost expert in his field. I was lucky enough to have been offered an invite to the event and come out significantly more edified that I had gone in.

The phrase ‘world class city’ is used to describe a metropolis that has an international airport, transport routes to other cities and regions, motorways, five-star hotels, shopping malls and lots of high-rises. It’s also a way of thinking about cities; about wanting them to take a certain shape and direction in preference over others. It’s about how city managers arrange their priorities when it comes to planning for the future of a city. And, according to Arif Hasan, as a development model, it is not just a massive conspiracy, it is also a failure.

Anyone who has lived in any of Pakistan’s large cities will immediately recognise what a world class city is. It is the reason why signal-free corridors exist in Karachi and why Lahore’s precious Canal Bank Road will be butchered to make a highway through the city. It is the reason why governments make announcements that do away the beachfront, whole islands and thousands of acres of arable land so that ‘foreign developers’ can evict numerous small land-holders and construct five-star homes for the relatively small upper and middle class. It is this mindset that convinced the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) of the need to spend millions of rupees on the world’s second highest water fountain.

Developments like these are often pitched as a magnet for important foreign investment. In some cases, the development of world class cities takes place under the control of just the companies that are attracted by the opportunity of investing in a developing country like Pakistan.

So, what’s wrong with the model?

According to Arif Hasan, the world, before the introduction of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the liberalisation of international trade, was totally different. The ability of goods, services and money to move freely through international borders limited the potential of the smuggling trade that existed before. These huge sums of black-market money needed an outlet and this was found, very conveniently, in the totally unregulated property market of this country. The money injected into this market caused property prices to sky-rocket and added to the property speculation business. I’ve often marvelled at the fact that, in this Islamic republic, you need a qualified doctor for a toothache, a chartered accountant for your taxes, a registered advocate for your legal matters and even a licensed stock broker to buy stock in a company. But there is no qualification for “property developers” who routinely handle multi-million-rupee transactions.

Speculation drives property prices up and flushes the poor out. Unable to pay sky-rocketing rent or perhaps desirous of benefitting from the windfall rise in property prices, the poor residents of a city are coerced from their habitats. The land they leave behind is then ripe for developing a world class city.

The shape of the world class city doesn’t depend entirely on local property speculation. The sums of money that define the property universe here aren’t a drop in the water compared to the type of money it takes to actually change the physical appearance of a place. Arif Hasan points out an unholy alliance between international financial institutions – the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation – props up the model and gives it the life support it needs. When a city centre needs to be redeveloped, who does the city district government look towards? Certainly not its tax-base.

When Lahore, we are told, needs a new multi-lane highway through the city, who will the province of Punjab look at to foot the bill? And thus project-based development, funded by international financial institutions, become part of the urban planning paradigm of our cities.

Projects per se aren’t bad. But note that, firstly, a lot of the foreign-aid money that comes in to give our world class cities the infrastructure they ‘need’ goes back in the form of consultancy fees. Then there’s the corruption and graft we’re so good at (we recently improved our TI ranking by five places).

What’s left is actually then used to construct vast roads, high-rises and things the displaced and majority poor don’t need, can’t afford and do not have access to.

Secondly, because of the amount of oil in this particular machine, internationally-funded projects have replaced urban planning and development. Instead of a coherent strategy, local, provincial and federal government agencies look for the quickest way they can fund a particular “development project”. Thus, our cities — and a majority of Pakistanis will live in urban areas in the next 10 years — grow haphazardly, without a plan and certainly not with people in mind. No sir, our cities are built as tourist havens and magnets for investment.

I recently sat in a government committee discussing aspects of Lahore’s development. I was surprised at the casual yet confident naiveté of some of the other members of the committee, some of whom were senior government functionaries. Their desire to build a world class city had blinded them to the reality of our country and that of Lahore. One actually had the gumption to suggest parking would become impossible if two new five-star hotels were to open in Lahore, totally blind to the fact that no J.W. Marriott would invest in a country racked by suicide bombers; no tourist would visit a place where school children have to be ferried to class behind bunkers and snipers; no high-end consumer retail shop would open a stone’s throw away from a slum. Usually I find such naiveté entertaining (it is rare to find such innocence), but at that point, I found it repulsive coming from the mouth of the senior government officer in question.

The latest world class city initiative to seize the imagination of the chief minister of Lahore is the widening of the Lahore Canal Road for Rs3.15 billion. Never mind that this sum represents 10 per cent of all the money the Government of Punjab spent on health, public health and education in 2008-2009. Never mind the fact that less than 20 per cent of Lahore’s eight million people have access to a car; that, for such a population there are fewer than 1,000 buses (the phrase ‘public transport’ does injustice to the type of humiliation this service actually is). What I find amazing is that, while the government is hell-bent on having a security picket every kilometre on account of the ‘security situation’ (another farce, by the way), it wants to build a multi-billion-rupee get-away route in and out of the city. World class city, indeed.

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:

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