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Climate-smart cities

PAKISTANI urban planners have failed miserably to plan safe and livable cities for us. Instead of serving as engines of growth, our cities are holding us back from economic development. They are fast becoming Pakistan’s climate hotspots, unprepared for urban flooding and heatwaves and other climate-induced disasters with poor urban infrastructure and rarely enforced building codes. Yet, cities have the gravitational force to attract the poor from rural areas, making Pakistan the most urbanised country in the region with an unmanageably high population growth rate. The quality of life of the 75 million urban residents is snowballing towards free fall.

While most cities’ administrations lag behind in providing municipal or environmental services to their existing populations, waves of new migrants flock to the cities seeking social and economic opportunities. Cities have become the epicentres of polluted air and water, with disappearing footpaths, parks, graveyards and open public spaces.

None of Pakistan’s provincial capitals has a master plan to guide its development. Karachi’s several master plans since 1951 have remained unimplemented drafts. Lahore’s master plan, ambitiously named Vision 2050, has been wrought with jurisdictional fights for decades without seeing the light of day. Peshawar and Quetta, despite a push from successive governments have also failed to develop their city’s visions.

City master plans must include five components to bring sanity to the real estate gold rush.

In fact, secondary and tertiary cities across the country have not fared any better. Despite loud announcements by their present governments, Sindh has failed to develop master plans for its 17 cities, Punjab for 154 local governments and cities, and KP for seven divisional headquarters. Except for the Gwadar Master Plan 2050, no other city in Balochistan has a master plan. The revision of Islamabad’s master plan has also proved elusive for almost 30 years, even if there were at least 42 major deviations from the original plan of 1960, including the change in zone IV from green areas to residential colonies.

Numerous small and medium-sized cities have been encroaching on prime agricultural lands, without any compass. Policymakers have routinely looked the other way. In Punjab, for example, while the entire attention was on Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Faisalabad, the 10 cities that recorded the highest rate of urban expansion between 1995 and 2015 did not include any of these big cities. In the absence of any climate-compatible development, this growth has increased inequities and vulnerabilities. A unique nexus has emerged that defies all political parties and civil and military bureaucracies, as we have recently witnessed in the case of Rawalpindi’s Ring Road.

In fact, the ring roads that were supposed to steer planned growth, have become a code word for elite capture by land grabbers and real estate tycoons. We have seen the trend whereby ring roads promote sprawls and enhance the access and commercial value of elite housing societies. All transactions take place on the basis of DC rates rather than a fair market value. According to one estimate, real estate was devalued by Rs4.5 trillion in Islamabad alone by revising DC rates downward and causing a revenue loss of Rs30 billion. This has been propelled in recent years supposedly to stimulate a post-Covid-19 economic turnaround.

This pattern of urbanisation has marginalised residents, particularly the poor, women, children and the elderly, by restricting their mobility and adding to their climate vulnerability. The provincial political leadership, instead of providing vision, has left our cities’ future in the hands of real estate developers. No wonder the draft master plans, or their TORs, do not incorporate essential components for developing inclusive, socially vibrant, disaster-resilient, and climate-smart communities by providing common spaces, green areas, and educational, cultural and amusement facilities in neighbourhoods. Instead of engaging the residents, local universities, independent experts and other stakeholders, the developers only add layers of concrete to the growing sprawl, without thinking about the centrality of human, social and climate dimensions to urban development.

Concerted efforts are needed to bring some sanity to this real estate gold rush and set a direction with consensus by engaging key stakeholders. The provincial planning departments together with the Planning Commission can perform this function jointly through an umbrella PC-1 that brings the federating units together to agree that city master plans in Pakistan will include the following components:

First, cities should be water secure. Since cities do not have the right to water from the Indus and can get water only from their provincial share, it is critical for cities to identify and protect their catchment areas, inject rainwater to recharge their aquifers and use rooftops, parks, playgrounds and greenbelts to serve this purpose. Absorbing every drop is critical to developing sponge cities.

Second, cities should steadily reclaim and protect urban water bodies to curtail urban flooding by negotiating their banks as public parks and urban forests. Water bodies are critical to blunt the spikes in temperature during heatwaves, that are projected to increase in severity and frequency.

Third, cities should plan for low or near zero emissions by promoting public transportation and technological transformations to reduce commuting. Covid-19 has transformed the future of work, commerce, education and shopping. As entrepreneurs are finding innovative ways for livelihoods, city planners need to help overcome the digital and technological divide. Master plans can envision renewable energy-based transportation systems and promote infrastructure for electric vehicles.

Fourth, plan for equity and inclusion by provisioning seven essential functions for residents within 15-20 minutes: living, working, commerce, healthcare, education, entertainment, and access to public transportation. This can serve as the backbone of the urban economy. The notion of the 15-minute city is gaining traction in political and planning circles because it deals with the neglected scale of planning that is localised to the neighbourhood level. This return to local ways of life through walkable neighborhoods is particularly suitable for Pakistan where the emphasis on walkability and accessibility is essential for women, children and the elderly who have historically been left out of urban planning.

Finally, how cities will be governed, managed and resourced should be clearly articulated in over 200 urban master plans that are presently being developed. We must know what will be the accountability mechanisms and what climate change-specific considerations will be addressed in the master plans.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, "Climate-smart cities," Dawn. 2021-08-10.
Keywords: Climate change , Urban planning , Economic development , Gravitational force , Infrastructure