Fairy tale of a city, changing cities in Pakistan

Imagination is a powerful tool. Imagine you live in a metropolitan city plagued by violence, corruption and all the malice imaginable. Now imagine for a moment, that the local government has called on the community to band together and create a consensus on how to fix the city and transform it into a modern and an innovative metropolis. See yourself sitting in a room, surrounded by local politicians, everyone discussing future government projects to cater to the neighbourhood’s needs. Feel that sense of ownership when both parties walk out of that room having signed agreements detailing the roles and responsibilities of both parties.

What if the chief minister, in ensuring full disclosure and transparency, broadcasts the agreements and meetings to the entire city? Imagine the public participating in the budgeting process where the local communities decide the allocation of the portion of the city budget. Also imagine that the government opens up library parks, libraries with ample green space around them for public use, in the city’s slums that offers education to low-income individuals. Envision the underprivileged youth’s exposure to book clubs, theatre groups and other healthy activities. Visualise the government emphasising public education, building schools and libraries in poor cities.

What if the city dedicates space for local and foreign companies to set up their offices? Envision an international cooperation agency that creates international ties to increase the flow of capital, products, services and knowledge. Imagine the city provides funding, space and mentorship to small and medium companies to help create businesses, proposals, financial plans and marketing strategies. Envision a large state-owned company being run by the municipal government that contributes 30 per cent of its revenue to the city. The company funds huge projects such as botanical gardens, planetarium, children’s interactive museums, libraries, large urban parks and even a 16,000 hectare park right outside the city. Not only that, but the company even funds 3,000 students annually and also has a fund to spur innovation and new businesses.

Now, this may sound like a fairy tale but it is the true story of Medellin, Columbia. The city was heralded as the “Innovative city of the year” by both Citibank and The Wall Street Journal. The local government changed Medellin from a drug capital into a modern and innovative city. The lessons learned from this city’s success story can be applied to any city in Pakistan, given that we have the determination and resolve to see the changes through. Some important goals guided and prioritised Medellin’s development projects. Those were as follows: a) indicators of human development and quality of life will guide public investment, focusing on first serving the ones in most need; b) public space and infrastructure must become the framework where education and culture are cultivated in places of encounter and coexistence; c) urban projects must simultaneously integrate physical, cultural and social components, improving not only places but also the life and interactions of people in the communities; d) the integrated metropolitan transport system must be used as the organising axis of mobility and projects in the city. All projects must be directly linked to the main transport system; e) the decision to make Medellín an educated city, with education and culture as priorities that guide programmes and projects.

All these were not mere words eloquently crafted by an expensive speech-writer to win an election, but goals that are meaningful. Their usefulness was proven by the mayor of Medellin, and our policymakers can make use of these ideas. Meaningful infrastructure development is good, but haphazard infrastructure development is not. It is said that if we plan cities for cars, traffic and noise, we will get more cars, traffic and noise. However, if cities are planned for healthy people and places, we will get more healthy people and places. Moreover, local governments rarely take local opinion or input before making decisions, which weakens the sense of ownership and pride that locals may feel about the decisions made by those in charge.

There is this powerful idea of the ‘Power of 10’ — the number can vary. But the idea is, basically, that if we can do 10 things to attract people to one place (such as a place to sit and play, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience and people to meet), then we may have designed a good place. We can then further it by creating 10 such places. We can then create 10 such places in 10 other neighbourhoods. This will snowball into a massive project that will drastically improve the life of every citizen.

As a nation, and as individuals, we need to take a step back and evaluate our current developments. Are they truly what we need to improve the lives of everyone involved? Or does the answer to that question lie in the fairy tale of Medellin?   

This opinion was published in the Express Tribune on May 01, 2016.