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Cities can save us

Recent research shows many reasons why city development is at the heart of progress, growth and development.

All major scientific, social, political, economic and technological innovations have taken place in human agglomerations known as cities. Great civilisations and empires have been developed around cities. It is no accident that the dominant empire of any time had the most important, creative and productive city of the time.

Cities such as London, Edinburgh, Paris, Los Angeles and New York have been the birthplace of invention, creativity and, most important of all, enlightenment and reformation. Historically these cities have been for commerce and merchants and have evolved as mixed-use commercial cities.

Markets are based in cities and in bigger denser cities these markets can be highly specialised clusters of information exchange. Innovation and entrepreneurship are often incubated in such cities. Economic activity, innovation and entrepreneurship tend to cluster and feed off each other favouring density.

The difference between poor and rich countries often lies in the productivity of their cities. ?Cities allow space for everyone and all activities. All classes live in cities. Often the poor and the middle classes live in cities while the rich estates move to open suburban environments. Cities offer community and networking infrastructure – libraries, community centres, sporting and conference facilities and theatres – to all, especially the poor and the middle classes.

In the post-industrial information age, creativity creates value. Creative cities are multi-ethnic, open to immigration, culturally rich, dense, full of learning and innovation, allow for eccentricity, and offer many diverse learning experiences. In well-organised societies, productivity increases and energies converge to produce innovation and fresh ideas.

Increasingly, cities are using congestion taxes for cars and putting more emphasis on  to make cities more people-friendly. The young, the poor and the middle classes, along with their creative activities, co-exist and interact with businesses in busy 24-hour downtowns. These city centres are the heart of a city and define a city. All development around a city is then relative to this city centre. City centres are a magnet for ideas and migration. In fact globalisation is really the network of ideas generated in city centres.

Sprawls that put cars first are less productive, more energy intensive and wasteful. Cities are dense human settlements and it is no wonder that they accentuate all conflicts. Successful countries and city administrations develop institutions for managing these conflicts bearing in mind the needs of development and growth. Where conflicts are not properly managed, decline sets in.

Building regulations must allow for creative destruction and renewal must be allowed. One important tension that needs to be managed is that between preservation of legacies and histories and accommodating the new and the modern.

Preservation is costly but necessary. However, without creative destruction, city development may be arrested. Preservation must be cleverly executed, preserving the spirit of the past and not seeking to keep obsolescent culture and functions alive.

Incumbents have the first mover advantage in any city occupying the best land and the use of the main amenities of cities like clubs and parks. Unless city management is looking toward development, these incumbents will use the preservation argument to preserve more than is necessary; most of the preservation will be self-serving.

Real-estate prices go up where height restrictions are excessive and the building process discourages construction. Re-zoning helps development and increase of supply to keep prices in check. Mayor Koch of New York talked of the NIMBY (‘not in my backyard’) mentality. Most of us would like a nice spacious mansion set in the middle of nice green meadows with all urban amenities within easy reach. Yet no one wants a busy highway or a shopping mall close to their backyard. But as a city grows, space has to be made for urban conveniences such as highways, hotels, offices and shopping malls. Often estates and even palaces have to give way to the development of the city.

City management must be able to deal with the NIMBY mantra. Palaces, estates, hunting grounds, and leisure parks of the rich have given ground to the needs of the city. There are examples of the supremely entitled, namely kings and dukes and barons, who have seen the importance of yielding such private spaces to the development of more productive cities.

While this is the emerging global consensus on city development being at the heart of the growth process, Pakistani policy and research remain largely oblivious to it given the highly donor-dependent policy process which eschews domestic thought and debate. The result is that Pakistani cities are the opposite of what conventional policy advice would be. Their key characteristics are:

• Sprawl is actively encouraged by policy. All Pakistani cities appear to have no downtowns or city centres – dense areas of mixed use concentrating residential, office, commercial and entertainment within an almost walk-able district. Many cities are becoming urban sprawls at the expense of valuable agricultural land for which, at various times, expensive irrigation has been put in place.

• Sprawl development favours roads and housing estates for the rich over other activities. There is an excess demand for most forms of city activities – education, entertainment, office, retail, warehousing and even low income and middle-class housing. All these activities lack purpose-oriented space and are forced to be conducted in the only kind of city space that planners have been allowing for the last few years – single family homes.

• High rises even for flats are severely discouraged and penalised. The result is that housing for low-income groups, young families, and the middle class is in extreme short supply. In addition there is no cohesive, mindful construction activity in any of the cities even though this sector could sharply expand employment and growth.

• City zoning has been very unfriendly to commercial construction, public spaces, and commercial and community activity. Zoning, heavily manipulated by influential groups with vested interests, favours single-family housing leaving little space for other activities. Commercialisation – anything other than single family homes – is arbitrary, cumbersome, ill-planned and expensive. As a result, zoning and real-estate development appears to be a rent-seeking game.

• Government rather than commerce dominates city functioning. There is a large presence of government, especially the army, in all cities. Most prime land is government-owned, making the availability of prime land for commercial and mixed use development very difficult. For example, the Mall Road in Lahore, the main thoroughfare, is completely owned by the government almost all the way from the provincial assembly chambers to the airport. To be continued

The writer is former deputy chairman of the Planning Commission.

Nadeem ul Haque, "Cities can save us," The News. 2013-11-27.
Keywords: Social sciences , Government-Pakistan , Political issues , Economic issues , Social issues , Public transport , National development , Policy-Pakistan , Economic growth , Economic development , Taxes , London , New York