Issues of Urbanization and Over development

URBANISATION in Pakistan has been moving at a swift pace, albeit in a rudderless fashion. The Planning Commission estimates that half of our population shall be living in cities by 2030. Among other impacts, the approach and conduct of land governance shall drastically change for the worse, clear evidence of which is visible even today.

When Pakistan came into being in 1947, 17pc of our population lived in cities. The land, infrastructure and routine affairs of urban centres were managed according to the systems and institutions inherited from the British Raj. Municipal corporations and committees oversaw the routines of urban management and kept records of new developments as per regular procedures. Urban boundaries were well articulated and land categories of peri-urban, agricultural, forest and other typologies of land well documented.

For addressing urban problems of extraordinary significance, urban improvement trusts were set up. Following tradition, the Karachi Improvement Trust (KIT) was founded in 1951 to deal with issues of housing and settlement of incoming refugees and newcomers to the city. The government transformed KIT to the Karachi Development Authority (KDA) in 1957 to deal with expanded issues of urban planning, development and procurement of vital infrastructure. Mechanisms were devised to prevent speculation or land hoarding by prospective monopolists. The same approach was followed in Lahore, Hyderabad, Islamabad and other large cities in the country.

Pakistan’s cities are fast turning into supermarkets of real estate products for the rich and powerful.
Planning controls, regulatory capacity and resolve to safeguard urban and peri-urban land assets have weakened since the late 1970s. At the macroeconomic level, the Bhutto government nationalised enterprises and production houses, leaving fewer options for businessmen to invest in. The rapid rise in remittances from overseas Pakistanis created an instant demand for investment in lucrative but secure ventures. Since manufacturing, industries, commercial and trading enterprises were viewed as high-risk options, a natural shift occurred towards land and housing initiatives. Large swathes of land, which were allocated for non-urban uses, were gradually taken over by urban land uses.

Plot development schemes were promoted by different government agencies, military authorities and private developers. Over the last three decades the status of land has changed from being a collective benefit asset to a saleable commodity, under the control and ownership of rich and powerful investors — a trend which has intensified. In this process of laissez-faire land transactions, public regulatory controls, checks and balances have been muted and rendered completely ineffective.

During the 1970-90s period, urban development authorities routinely prepared urban plans for projecting land uses by extrapolating from the existing urban situation. These plans were neither notified nor given potent legal cover. Chief ministers usually retained controls to decide on land distribution, adjustments in uses, jurisdictional considerations and even welfare functions. A legally validated plan would be a hurdle in the exercise of such discretionary powers. Therefore, urban planning assignments were reduced to being merely of academic value, and the government failed to implement vital recommendations.

For example, successive urban plans for Karachi recommended preserving the land use of the eastern and northern peripheries as green agricultural territories — wisely — to maintain environmental balance, food production, and for the consolidation of value-added agricultural livelihoods for the rural population. In total violation of this urban planning prescription, the administration has allowed mega-scale real-estate schemes to be developed by private and military agencies along the Super Highway. After dubiously expropriating farmlands and pastures, these leapfrog ventures have redefined the urban limits of Karachi to its farthest territorial end.

While Lahore’s planners have categorically insisted on controlling urban sprawl to safeguard invaluable farmland along the southern edges, the same has been swiftly converted into housing schemes for upper income groups, overseas investors and other socioeconomic classes of power and privilege.

Unplanned densification of inner city locations and central city residential areas is another anomaly. In 2002, the City District Government of Karachi (now defunct) promulgated the commercialisation of roads policy to allow changes of densities and land use for a few important streets and roads. Under this ill-conceived initiative, more and more streets are allowed to experience high-density, high-rise development alongside residential plots.

The provisions for upgrading infrastructure, feasibility of urban services along the corridor, parking facilities for visitors, and possibilities of sporadic densification of other streets were not considered. Sharea Faisal, Shahrah-i-Pakistan, Tariq Road, Khalid Bin Waleed Road, Shaheed-i-Millat Road, Shahrah-i-Quaideen and Khayaban-i-Iqbal display a stockpile of new, and under-construction, tall buildings. Once these buildings are occupied, there shall be severe impacts on traffic flow, pedestrian movement and urban services.

A few days ago, the mad rush of consumers to a just opened department store caused a total traffic jam along Rashid Minhas Road. Likewise in Lahore, Main Boulevard in Gulberg and many other arteries show high-scale densification. In these strident physical transformations, heritage sites are not spared. Commercial developments taking place in southern parts of Karachi have caused damage to public heritage sites such as the Jehangir Kothari Parade and Shri Ratneshwar Mahadev Temple. Statutes — such as Sindh High Density Board Act — provide sweeping powers for the executive to fiddle with land use and density, almost at will.

Urbanisation will continue to rise — and thus the intention to turn cities and hinterlands into supermarkets of real-estate products. Some steps are vital to stem the rot. A provincial spatial plan must be prepared for each province to identify existing urban footprints, cite locations suitable for expansion of urban development, and pinpoint territories where urban development must be forbidden.

All land uses, according to scientifically validated criteria, must be addressed for its present and future projections. Local governments must be instituted and empowered to manage urban lands and territories according to these plans. Investment options in other sectors must be devised in order to ease pressure on urban development. Necessary targeting must be done to absorb the urban poor in specially designed housing schemes.

It must be remembered that land is a finite asset. If we lose those categories of land which are vital to support our food production and environmental equilibrium, we threaten our very existence.