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.

Urban Sprawl and Pakistan


(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)

Cities are often a reflection of their zoning codes. Unfortunately, in Pakistan citizens never have any say in how their cities and towns are designed. The width of our streets, height of our homes, size of building lots, amount of space reserved for pedestrians, even the reason we cannot operate a donut store in our garage are all dictated by zoning regulations.

Bad zoning codes result in sprawl – and sprawl make societies worse off. According to urbanist Charles Montgomery, sprawls result in bad health, little trust and low social capital. Moreover, people living in sprawls are less likely to volunteer, vote and even join political parties. Therefore bad zoning codes result in miserable communities and they are affecting our cities too. But how do our zoning codes and misuse of land result in sprawl?

First of all, our zoning codes discourage mixed-use and high-rise development. There are no apartment buildings with shops and offices near even within such buildings. Most well-designed cities that we appreciate are based on mixed use.

Our zoning codes also mandate that for new housing projects developers buy land in hundreds of acres. This results in sprawl primarily because hundreds of acres are usually not available within a city. It also encourages big investors who can afford that much land, thus reducing competition. An aside, it reduces the availability of fertile agricultural land.

The fact that the government owns large chunks of prime urban land reduces the supply of available land within cities, which in turn also leads to sprawl. There is a huge opportunity cost of the inner city land that government holds to provide its officials with plush housing and unnecessary offices. A Planning Commission study showed that investment could increase by 50 percent of GDP over 10 years – if this land were made available for mixed-use, high-rise development.

Our traffic management focuses on building roads and corridors for cars. The use of cars has been facilitated at the expense of other forms of transport such as bicycles, walking, taxis and even buses. With cars so subsidised, it is not hard to see why the sprawl is spreading.

In most cities, the planning process often has no zoning for the poor. Apartment buildings are seriously discouraged through planning permissions and high fees for commercialization. For some reason our planners think of apartments as commercialisation, and so poor housing is taxed heavily.

Rich housing – single family homes with highways leading to them – are encouraged. Planners even forget to cost the infrastructure required by such housing. Pipes, electricity roads etc – eventually all this expense is borne by the poor of the city.

Excessive focus on form over function has incentivised inefficient use of land to attract customers, and inefficient use of land leads to sprawl. As consumers we have to pay more attention to form than aesthetically appealing architectures because empirical evidence shows that though we place more weight on physical features, eventually we might be less happier in physically appealing buildings. A study at Harvard by Elizabeth Dunn had students select their houses for their subsequent school years; there was a forecast among students that they would be happier in beautiful houses than less appealing ones.

However, after students settled in these houses their happiness was determined more by social features and the quality of relationships they developed in those houses. Students ended up being happier in architecturally miserable houses because they had better social features. Dunn noted: “Participants overestimated how happy they would be in desirable houses and how miserable they would be in undesirable houses. Our results suggest that forecasters may have erred by focusing on physical features such as location while virtually ignoring the quality of social life in the houses.”

We can try to fix our land use and zoning laws to discourage sprawl and thereby construct more equitable, vibrant and productive cities.

We need to tweak our zoning codes so we can build high-rise and mixed-use property to create more spaces for people in a more concentrated area. We need to think more about building vertically rather than horizontally.

Zoning laws should encourage competition and also mandate socially-responsible housing. Large investors who buy the hundreds of kanals mandated are keen to maximise their profits, so their plans price out low-income households. This results in illegal housing and housing schemes deprived of the basic necessities of life. Zoning codes in some developed countries mandate social housing that accommodates people from low-income background. This helps mitigate sprawl and fosters tolerance, trust, equality and care.

Our zoning codes should encourage urban development with high FARs (Floor Area Ratio). According to a study, on urban land and housing markets in Punjab by David Dowall and Peter Ellis, restrictive FARs are constraining urban density in Punjab. The study also notes that low FARs result in high land prices, a reduction in agglomeration benefits, lengthier commutes, limits formal housing (thus pricing out poor), and affects low-income most.

Zoning codes shouldn’t incentivise parking. Currently developers are mandated by law to provide parking spaces – no matter the type of building. Incentivising parking means we are encouraging developers to create commercial and housing projects farther away from urban centres and encouraging people to shop farther away from home.

Both of these lead to sprawl. In addition, according to economist Donald Shoup, “minimum parking requirements subsidize cars, increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions, pollute the air and water, raise housing costs, exclude poor people, degrade urban design, reduce walkability and damage the economy.” More land for parking also means less land for housing, shops, libraries, schools and hospitals.

It is important to understand where we are headed. All major cities like Karachi and Lahore have master plans. Though inhabitants should have the largest say in shaping cities, their input is never incorporated in these master plans. Our zoning codes should address senior citizens, persons with disabilities, as well as matters of public bike sharing, low-income households and the fact that real-estate developers should be mandated to give back to society in the of schools, libraries and hospitals.

Whenever we move into a particular housing society there is only one zoning law available; there have to be alternatives that prevent or repair sprawl. We need to correct our zoning codes by looking at other poorly-designed modern cities are and not repeating their mistakes.


This opinion was published in The News on 19th July, 2016. 

Real cost of car-centric cities (in Pakistan and elsewhere)

(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)


DRIVING a car takes a personal, societal, financial and environmental toll. Since the cost of cars is high, we should not support development projects (roads, flyovers and bypasses) and policies (misuse of urban land and poor zoning) that subsidise and necessitate their use. Too many automobiles make us unsafe, unhealthy, unhappy, unfriendly, and, in general, miserable as a society.

Among the costs that cars exact is that on our personal health and safety. Excessive driving causes stress and ill health. Gallup and Healthways surveys have determined that longer commutes lead to more chronic pain, higher cholesterol and general unhappiness in drivers. Moreover, driving everywhere leads to obesity; in the US alone, the cost of obesity in 2008 was $147 billion.

Secondly, cars have a societal cost: increased traffic decreases social capital. Donald Appleyard, in his now famous 1972 study, found that residents of high-traffic areas have fewer friends and acquaintances than residents of light-traffic locations. Traffic also causes noise pollution, which makes us more intolerant of each other.

Thirdly, cars cost us a great deal financially. There is the initial, upfront payment. Then we have to pay for financing (and hidden fees), car maintenance, parking, and fuel. According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, people in Lahore pay Rs24bn per year for fuel and oil changes. In addition, there is the expected cost of treating accidents and injuries that inevitably occur when we drive.

There is what we would call an opportunity cost as well. That is, with the money tied up in their cars, individuals could instead have invested in activities with greater returns or of higher value to their families (like holidays). Also, the overuse of cars costs us in terms of productivity when we are injured and cannot work, or are stuck in traffic.

Fourthly, an excess of cars adversely affects the environment. According to an online environment-cost calculator, we emit 1.2 pounds (0.54kg) of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by driving 1.5 miles (2.4km). Cars in Karachi alone are releasing roughly one million pounds of carbon every day, and 126m pounds of carbon every month.

Current policies enabling sprawl and subsidising high-speed traffic mean that people must own and use cars excessively. So what can we do?

As a guiding principle, we should keep everyone, not just the rich or people with higher incomes, in mind when we plan and zone our cities. As Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota noted, “Mobility is a right for all”. Peñalosa also noted that the modes of transport of the poor —walking, bicycling, and public transportation — need to be prioritised, as the bulk of the population uses them. We thus need to create more space for these modes.

First, we need to slow down cars and create more spaces for people. After the Second World War, Copenhagen had so many cars it came to a standstill. They prohibited cars in some areas, and the city thrived. Restricting the use of the car and slowing down the speed of vehicles is required to create space for people.

We can also charge a congestion tax, like Singapore and London, during peak hours in busier areas of cities. In addition, we can tax high-speed lanes and charge parking fees on a per-hour basis. These taxes can help reduce congestion. We also need to re-evaluate our zoning policies to discourage sprawl, and build mixed-use development, creating combined residential, office, commercial, and entertainment spaces within walking distance of each other.

Next we need to make more room for biking and walking, both currently hazardous activities. In cities around the world, separate bike lanes are being created; bike-sharing programmes are encouraged and sponsored by the corporate sector. We should also hold events to celebrate walking and biking like Ciclovía. Held in cities like Bogota and Medellin, Ciclovía is an event in which main roads are blocked on Sundays and public holidays and reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Finally, we need to improve public transportation. Thanks to the emphasis our cities place on the use of cars, our public transport system has been allowed to erode. If we tax and regulate cars, we will have the funds and space required for public transport.

The famous Danish architect Jan Gehl said that if we make more roads, we get more cars; and if we make more space for people, we get more people, which in turn give us more vital and productive cities. When planning new development projects and designing urban policies, we should factor in the real cost of cars to an average citizen’s personal, social, and financial well-being, and to our environment. We should not repeat the mistakes that developed countries made in the last century in building their cities around cars.


This opinion was published in The Dawn on 16th May, 2016.