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A city ‘turned around’?

Ahmad Rafay Alam

A few days ago, I found myself in a room full of people who agreed that Karachi “has been turned around” and now “looks like a reasonably functioning city.” This impression had been brought about someone’s recent visit to the same city where gun-battles had claimed 28 lives in July, where news of the death of Rehman Dakait brought out tens of thousands of mourners to offer his namaz-e-janaza, where over half its people live in slums and where water is now critically short in supply. A strange opinion to hold, given the circumstances, I thought, and wondered what criterion must be applied for someone to completely overlook the real issues that face a city.

City Nazim Mustafa Kamal is energetic and full of ideas. No doubt he has, in many ways, transformed the city of Karachi. Of course, he also had, during his soon-to-expire term, the backing and political will necessary to shape the infrastructure of a mega-city. But Nazim Mustafa Kamal will also be the first to tell you his job isn’t even half done: Over half the city lives in slums and katchi abadis; water – one of the prerequisites of a safe habitat – is in scarce supply; there is insufficient public transport, crime is rampant and social inequality growing. Given the circumstances, it takes quite an imagination to conclude that Karachi is “like a reasonably functioning city.”

Far too many people who matter – like, sadly, the ones discussing the “transformation” of Karachi – have far too much a say in the planning and development of our cities. If the criterion of a working city for, say, the chief secretary of Punjab happens to be how long it takes it for him to get from home to work and then to the golf club, then Lahore is a great city. If, for example, the commander of the 4th Corps in Lahore thinks that the customers of a bakery on the route between the airport and the city pose a “security threat” to passing VIPs, then, come hell or high water, green belts will be ripped up, trees uprooted, walls built and “security” ensured.

The great road-builders, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Khadim-e-Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, when last in control of the city of Lahore, built wide boulevards from the airport to Model Town and from there to the meetha doodh shops in Purani Anarkali; an overpass called “Honey” Bridge; and, of course, a Motorway to work in Islamabad. The city of Lahore must have functioned pretty well for them. The master property developers, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat — thinking that marathons, basant, pilgrims from India and the money from Dubai and Abu Dhabi would keep property prices afloat forever — threw billions of rupees on the developing the Lahore Canal Bank into an inner-city highway when the city was begging for sewage treatment plants and public transport. Like nowhere else as in Pakistan does political power (and all the folly that is born under its patronage) manifest itself in urban planning. I rest my case referring to the KPT fountain in Karachi.

There is much wrong with such a state of affairs. Jane Jacobs, whose book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in the early 1960s, challenged the very foundations upon which the theory of urban planning rested, insisted that, first and foremost, a city is a place of people and, therefore, urban planning must be about people. The heart of this sentiment, according to Jacobs, is not some sort of liberal utopian ideal but a question of property rights.

Few recognise that power manifests itself in our cities in things such as zoning of areas as “residential,” “commercial” or “industrial.” Since when did it become permissible to tell a person what he could or could not do on with his property? It seems because the people who matter, the people who have far too much say in our urban planning, believe that a “residential area” should be devoid of the ugly face of commerce and free of the congestion and litter that plague our “commercial areas.”

Islamabad is a perfectly good example of this. Barring exceptions, residential areas are clearly marked, as are market areas. While this may seem, on first glance, the reason why Islamabad appears to be one of the most orderly and “clean” cities in Pakistan, few understand this is not the case. Islamabad is orderly and clean because it is heavily patronised and subsidised, as are all other urban schemes in this country, to some degree or the other. How else can a city like Islamabad survive, a city which is fast running out of drinking water (largely because everyone waters their lawn and washes their car in it). The fact that the CDA has proposed digging a canal from Ghazi Barotha (while not doing a thing to promote water conservation) is an indication of the type of patronage and subsidy Islamabad enjoys.

Likewise, the DHA in Lahore is a pretty place to live, but few consider the hidden cost of petrol-consumed commuting to and from the rest of the city, and almost no one seems to care about how deep the tube-wells there have now had to be sunk in order to reach clean water.

Despite the best of intentions, it is the “control” of urban planning that segregates work and home which, more than anything, is responsible for the need for motorised transport. The further work is from home, the more you need public transport; and, if there isn’t any, a car. Because none of our cities has effective public transport, because we are only now coming to grips with several years of easy credit and the leased automobiles, we have traffic.

The solution given by the people who have too much say – widen roads – doesn’t go an iota towards addressing the problems of congestion, let alone solving them. It does, however, explain completely their values and morals when it comes to the environment.

Traffic woes are relieved by allowing mixed-use residential areas and working to reducing the need for motorised transport. Traffic is relieved by public transport (including, importantly, taxis) and by measures such as congestion-charging, traffic management and provision for alternative transport modes (cycles). But for that to happen, the “control” over urban planning has to end. For that to happen, the whole urban planning paradigm has to be changed to make it follow commands from the bottom up, rather than from above, as it does now. Our cities will work only if the people who have too much say in planning them consider something other than their drive from the airport to Sindh Club before concluding Karachi “looks like a reasonably functioning city.”

The unwarranted “control” over urban planning is destroying our cities and making them unliveable. At a time when, in less than a decade, over half of all Pakistanis will live in urban areas, an understanding of urban planning is paramount. Not just for the Pakistani economy, but also for its people. Yet it is nowhere to be found. I rest my case with the fact that, six months into the financial year, the Lahore Development Authority still hasn’t submitted its statutorily required annual budget. Follow the LDA’s source of funds, and you’ll find the people who “control” the 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:

3 thoughts on “A city ‘turned around’?”

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