The world’s cities are growing, and so are their governance challenges, especially in the global south. Today, more than 60 out of the 84cities with a collective population that exceeds five million, are in developing countries. At least three of them are in Pakistan, while more Pakistani cities are in the queue. These mega cities share the nature and scope of challenges in terms of urban expansion, density, and liveability as they struggle to benefit from the urban agglomeration effect and mitigate the negative impacts of congestion, pollution and high rates of human mobility. In most vibrant and liveable cities of the world, the government enjoys full cooperation of the people to govern them in a better way. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the response to urban challenges takes the form of an ever-larger size of government with little participation of the people. Unfortunately, the public discourse on civic roles and responsibilities is heavily biased and tilted towards the government while the role of the citizenry remains in the periphery.According to Dr Nasir Javed of the Urban Unit Punjab, ‘The main reason for this lack of public interest and civic engagement is absence of dialogue between the urban institutions and the targeted communities’. He was speaking at Quaid-e-Azam Library in Lahore where a City Dialogue series has been initiated to provide a forum to the public and other stakeholders to debate on the pressing issues facing their city and discuss possible solutions to the problems faced by civic authorities in serving the public.Dr Nadeemul Haq, the ex-Chairman of Planning Commission who conducted the first session of the City Dialogue is of the view that “Only collective scientific thinking at the societal and governmental levels, not the borrowed money, can boost the national economy and ensure progress”. “Unfortunately, the Pakistani nation and government has outsourced the thinking process, which is the mother of policy and planning”. There is a need to develop real national and sub-national policies, which are geared towards social benefits, based on clear-cut national objectives and well-researched policy optionsDr Haq used his futuristic lens on urban development in Pakistan to apprise the audience that there are no quick fixes or set prescriptions to complex urban problems, because today’s society and economy are very complex. The national development agenda should never be a wish list, as it is subject to budgetary limitations and other constraints. ‘These problems need a systematic and biotic approach against the current sectoral approach of development planning in Pakistan. There is a need to develop real national and sub-national policies, which are geared towards social benefits, based on clear-cut national objectives and well-researched policy options’, he added.Dr Haq was of the view that modern day economies depended on innovation and not on traditional agriculture or industry. He urged that the new Economics of the 21st century must be applied instead of the Keynesian Economics of the 19th Century. ‘The size of the government must be reduced to make cities functional. This is because the government has assumed the role of a rent-distributing agency, for which different social groups and regions compete to get their share. This gives rise to unhealthy competition, unrealistic land prices and social disparities in cities in Pakistan’. According to Dr Haq’s model of sustainable future cities, the quality of life in livable cities is directly linked with the quality of governance, markets, creativity and potential energy of youth and community. Mr. Babar Khan Mumtaz who conducted the City Dialogue in the next week deliberated on the state of housing in Pakistani cities. He said that neo-liberal economics has pushed governments to leave the housing sectors to the whims of the private sector, which is giving rise to inequality in our cities. He said that the housing issue surfaced in the 20th Century when residence was turned into a product than a place. ‘There are at least 185,000 homeless people in Lahore only while there is a deficit of 10 million housing units across Pakistan’. Market failure, unavailability of housing finance and absence of government policy for social housing are some of the leading reasons for the housing issue in our cities, he added.Dr Kaisar Bengali, a renowned economist, held the next City Dialogue. He was of the view that urban economies have been turned into Casino Economies and our cities are chaotic where land mafia determines their growth and surplus rural labour is being continuously dumped. The situation is becoming worse with the passage of time and city authorities are not able to meet the demand for daily services such as water and sanitation and safe public transportation for all. ‘A progressive and integrated urban policy and notified master plans for cities are needed to get benefit of agglomeration effect of our expanding cities’.Dr Bengali lamented that vertical growth of Pakistani cities is not aligned with services and infrastructure network, public spaces are occupied and built upon for other uses and our cities are bereft of public interest control. To improve the situation, he suggested ‘identification and development of city clusters in each province and addition of local government chapter in the constitution of Pakistan’.The City Dialogue is an important initiative for increasing communication between the government agencies and the public and a step forward to participatory governance model practiced all over the world. At the very least, it will elevate the quality of debate on urban issues, bring forth democratic ideas for a range of public interest areas concerning urban development, economy, sociology and culture, and lead to bottom-up approach of city governance.The writer works as Team Leader, Sustainable Cities at LEAD Pakistan and writes on urban issue as a freelance contributor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgPublished in Daily Times, February 28th 2018.