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March 14, 2019

Vertical expansion

Editorial

 
March 14, 2019

One interesting thing about the prime minister’s new housing programme is that it presents a vision for what the future of cities in Pakistan could look like. Speaking at the launch of the State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) finance policy for low-cost housing, PM Imran Khan promised that the future of urban development in Pakistan is vertical. The promises have been high and mighty. Khan spoke a number of buzz words – the ‘sky is the limit’ for future high-rise buildings in Punjab and Khyber Pakthunkhwa – but the merits of the proposal need to be determined separate from the talk. It is true that the horizontal expansion of cities in these provinces presents serious challenges, such as the availability of land for urban expansion in the first place. But one must wonder why cities have not expanded vertically in the first place. Does it have anything to do with the cheap land prices, the ease of expanding cities into rural land spaces, regulations around high rises or something in the societal mindset? The government will need to be able to answer these questions to be able to move forward with its vertical cities plans.

The PM Khan sees a future in which Islamabad has no bar on the height of buildings, except those in a flight restriction zone. The trouble is that this image of the future seems to mirror the images of global cities. The reality is that building high-rises for housing has rarely been a successful strategy in Pakistan, apart from parts of Karachi. The rest of Pakistan seems committed to an idea of horizontal living, especially with little difference between the cost of buying an apartment compared to the cost of buying an independent house for one’s family. The PM will have to be strict about the position to ‘not let cities expand horizontally’ – which might require enforcing strict laws, including stopping a number of ongoing land acquisitions for urban development.

Does the government have the commitment to legislate and enforce stricter laws on urban expansions? Its focus seems to be on pushing the courts to enforce mortgage repossession laws first. Stricter repossession laws might be good for banks, but could be a recipe for a mortgage-related disaster if the larger health of the Pakistani economy does not improve. The fact that much of the housing market in Pakistan continues to operate on cash is one of the reasons why it remained protected from the last global financial crisis. Instead of pushing for stricter mortgage laws, the government would do better to ensure that the cost of the housing its builds is lowered. Moreover, there will be questions asked about the so-called plan to ‘replace’ katchi abadis with flats. This will raise major questions about displacement, whether the replacement homes will be free and whether the same people will get the flats. This is likely to create more controversy and the government would do well to come up with a plan to regularise informal housing settlements that does not involve destroying existing housing. These questions need to be better addressed before they are implemented.

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