VIEW: Greening our cities —Saleem H Ali.
With growing urbanisation rates, Pakistan will have to contend with the challenge faced by our cities immediately. The solutions are not as far-fetched as we may initially consider. The amount of money needed for green planning is usually no more than what is invested in many other misguided infrastructure projects
Nostalgically, most Pakistanis salute President Ayub Khan for his vision in establishing the capital city of Islamabad. Apart from its abysmal airport, which pales in comparison to Lahore and Karachi’s lavish terminals, Islamabad is often mentioned by expatriate Pakistanis to foreigners with a sense of pride. The spacious boulevards and relatively clean environs are a welcome relief from the sweltering dusty bazaars of most other cities in the country.
During the twentieth century, there were a series of planned capitals built all over the world. From Canberra in Australia, to Brasilia in Brazil, to Abuja in Nigeria, countries were keen to sanitize their diplomatic image, and the easiest route to many was a gleaming new metropolis. Such a large enterprise as building a new city is a tremendous opportunity for improving plans and learning from design mistakes of the past and the planners of Islamabad aimed to accomplish that.
The team which designed Islamabad was led by the great Greek urban planner, Constantinos Doxiadis, who is considered a pioneer in modern ecological urban design. The fabled “green belts” which we often extol in Islamabad were his brainchild, and he also founded a movement in architecture known as “ekistics,” which aimed to harmonize various aspects of aesthetic design and livelihood needs in human settlements. Doxiadis famously said: “What human beings need is not utopia (‘no place’) but entopia (‘in place’), a real city which they can build, a place which satisfies the dreamer and is acceptable to the scientist, a place where the projections of the artist and the builder merge.”
Each sector in Islamabad was designed to be self-contained with its own central area, the “markaz”, and parks, as well as easy access routes to the downtown “blue area”. Over the past four decades or so, Islamabad has endured rapid growth and infringements of zoning regulations from madrassa construction to shopping complexes with relative grace. However, there are limits to what even the most visionary of architects could accommodate in terms of mismanaged growth and careless infrastructure planning.
Instead of focusing on good public transportation infrastructure, the government has chosen to build more roads and underpasses that only tear up the original urban plans. Imagine the vitality of a good monorail, similar to Kuala Lumpur, which would connect the F-11 sector to the Blue Area, or a circular rail system, starting from the newly refurbished Golra train station, that trails the Margalla hills across to Quaid-e-Azam University and around to Rawal Lake, and then back towards Rawalpindi. Consider how easy life would be for the average commuter and also for the tourist who currently languishes in wait for taxis at one hotel or another.
The amount of money needed for such green planning is usually no more than what is invested in many other misguided infrastructure projects. Since competition with India usually spurs many Pakistanis out of their complacency, I should mention that Delhi has a new subway system which is pretty good and is being used by people from across the economic spectrum. Chandigarh (capital of Indian Punjab and Haryana), which is also a planned city and one which shares some design similarities with Islamabad (though designed by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and the American urban planner Albert Mayer), has made tremendous strides to reduce pollution. Its air quality is now comparable to many Western European cities. Interestingly enough, the city was established because Lahore, the old capital of Punjab, came to Pakistan. While Chandigarh is not a patch on Lahore in terms of historical and cultural richness or monumental splendour, it has clearly scored well in true “greening”.
Air pollution is now getting quite oppressive and intolerable in many South Asian cities, and in this regard the situation in Pakistan is looking a bit positive due to widespread use of CNG in cars (the highest in Asia). Nevertheless, we still have a major problem with diesel fumes and factory pollution that will eventually have to be curtailed.
As a Lahori, I am quite proud of the city’s green space and some credit should certainly be given to former Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif for aesthetic embellishments and road maintenance. Sadly, gargantuan bill-boards have obscured many of the picturesque vistas that were created by the greening efforts of that time. Furthermore, many of the long-term urban planning features for sustainable growth are still absent in Lahore, just as much as they are in Islamabad or Karachi. Poor public transport, uncontrolled sprawl and non-strategic construction of new public buildings such as schools, universities and colleges are a major problem.
The strategies for green design of an ancient city such as Lahore clearly require greater innovation and are far more complex. Historic buildings need immediate preservation and preferential subsidies for developers to rehabilitate rather than demolish and rebuild. Water and sanitation infrastructures need prime attention and these are sadly lacking in all of Pakistan’s major cities. I was amused to recently encounter a brand new sign in Samanabad which declared a road bordering an open sewer as the “Ganda Nala Road”!
Imagine the amount of concrete needed to build the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway. If one less lane had been built on this largely vacant causeway, we would have had enough material to probably fill all of Lahore and Islamabad’s “ganda nalas”. The benefits of this would not only be in terms of stench-reduction but also prevention of contagious diseases and reclamation of thousands of acres of wasted land that are taken up by putrid sewers. Yet, the master-builders were more concerned with building big rather than with building smart. Just as the Gulf states are obsessed with satisfying some phallic urge to build towers upon towers, we seem to have fallen for the same urge. Thankfully, the Abu Dhabi establishment has decided to truly green their city and not emulate Dubai’s rampant real estate euphoria.
Squatter settlements are a major concern throughout the developing world and any green city will need to equitably address the millions who live in such kachi abadis. In this regard, Indian cities are even worse than Pakistan and tend to have the most intransigent squatter population. I remember landing in Mumbai once to discover that our flight’s landing had been delayed because one of the runway radars at the airport had been stolen by some thugs from a neighbouring slum!
Perhaps a good lesson in dealing with these informal settlements can be drawn from the experiences of dealing with the Kashmir earthquake of 2005. There are numerous low-cost habitation arrangements which can be instituted for squatter communities with careful planning and regulatory enforcement. One would hope that education and employment opportunities would eventually catch up with the slum-dwellers as they did in Malaysia, so that they can have their own formal apartments.
With growing urbanisation rates, Pakistan will have to contend with the challenge faced by our cities immediately. The solutions are not as far-fetched as we may initially consider. This week, as forest fires raged in Greece and arson by greedy real estate developers as well as growing urban sprawl was blamed for some of them, I pondered over how the grand vision of Doxiadis was being shattered by his own country. More than thirty years after his death, the man who gave us our capital deserves to be remembered now more than ever. His plans for an eminently liveable Pakistani city must be realized by the government and by us all.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate dean for graduate education at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment, and on the research faculty at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. He can be reached at email@example.com