Give the city back to its citizens

Flawed urban design and planning is the result of a lack of understanding of the ground realities and the vast lived experiences of urban citizens

Give the city back to its citizens

Does the city truly belong to its citizens? This is a fundamental question that needs to be explored in a country like Pakistan, which is urbanising at an accelerated pace. Typically, the city has been associated with promises of prosperity and progress. Countless hopefuls have left behind family and kinship networks in order to seek a brighter future, which they believe will greet them at the doorstep of the city.

Underneath all the promises, however, the reality seems very bleak.

We need not look too deep to understand that urban space in Pakistan is categorised by deep fragmentation and polarisation. Legendary urban theorist, David Harvey, emphasises that urban space, both physically and socially, is inextricably linked to power. Similar biases prevail in the design and planning of cities in Pakistan, where a majority of urban residents are systematically excluded from material and spatial access to the city and where planning authorities almost always favour construction lobbies and their wealthy counterparts.

Flawed policy-making is the result of a lack of understanding of the ground realities and the vast lived experiences of urban citizens. There is a fundamental disconnect between the ideology that informs urban design and planning, and the everyday experiences of the citizens it is meant to address.

One such blatant example is that of Lahore. In addition to being a mega city with a population of over 10.5 million, Lahore is among the most polluted cities in Pakistan, with no integrated sustainable land use and mobility planning, and a lack of basic sanitation and energy facilities for a large portion of its population. Billions have already been spent on building massive signal-free overpasses to facilitate the city’s car owning population, which amounts to a mere 7 per cent, while no low cost transport arrangements are being planned for the remaining overwhelming majority. Pedestrians, women and low income residents seem to occupy no space in the planning discourse.

A crucial explanation for the haphazard and chaotic growth of cities, as well as their widening inequalities, lies in the very ethos of the urban planning discourse, as well as the structure of the local government machinery. It is here that democracy becomes relevant, for it is becoming increasingly clear that there is still a desire to keep the development and planning process as centralised as possible, with an alarming lack of democratic, inclusive and participatory forums.

 The LDA has virtually no mechanism for being held accountable by the citizens and has usurped the functions of elected bodies.

In the case of Lahore, there is an overlap between the duties and domains of various planning and development bodies, negating the possibility of an integrated development scheme. Instead, unelected bodies like the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) have been empowered by the provincial government and key appointments are made directly by the chief minister. The Lahore Development Authority, which undertakes a significant chunk of the housing and infrastructural projects, has virtually no mechanism for being held accountable by the citizens and has usurped the functions of elected bodies.

The evolution of local government structures in Pakistan has been a complex one, with constant power struggles over local fiscal and administrative rights. The federal and provincial governments have refused to devolve administrative control to local bodies in the fear that it may affect election outcomes. The result has been a clear dominance of unrepresentative bodies operated by politically appointed bureaucrats.

Instead of empowering local bodies to undertake inclusive and systematic development planning in consultation with their communities, development projects are conceived at the centre and imposed upon the people. Under the local government ordinance of 2001, an initiative was taken to democratise the development process through the establishment of a three-tier local government structure divided into Districts, Tehsil Municipal Authorities and Union Councils.

The District Nazims, Tehsil Nazims and Union Nazims were to be directly involved in the development and planning process, and provincial bureaucrats were to report to them. Under this system, bodies like the LDA were accountable to elected representatives, who in turn were accountable to the people. However, a lack of political will and the fear of losing control over the administrative and financial powers of the local apparatus caused the reversal of this system only after a few years, with powers falling back into the hands of provincial authorities and their appointed bureaucracy.

This politicisation of the development process has had severely adverse effects on local democracy, as well as on the lives and wellbeing of urban citizens. It has meant, for the large part, that the urban poor have been virtually eliminated from the realm of decision-making, as their only forums for participation, namely Union Councils and Tehsils, have been stripped of any real control. It has also meant that the main aim of development projects has been political point scoring and an exclusive focus on "mega projects" which hold significant visibility on the national scale.

Localised issues faced by urban low income residents such as streets, public parks, water and sanitation etc have been abandoned in favour of larger infrastructural projects which are directly controlled and administered by provincial bodies and rubber stamped by bodies such as the LDA.

Furthermore, the deep entanglement of federal and provincial governments in development schemes has meant that planning is done on a short term basis, setting targets and goals which expire the moment these governments go out of power, with no subsequent governments willing to claim their ownership.

For example, the constant political instability of the 1980s and 1990s saw the removal of elected governments well before the completion of their terms. Each new government, instead of carrying forward the development initiatives of its predecessor, chose to abandon half completed projects and initiate new schemes altogether.

Since 1977, for example, approximately five different low income housing schemes have been initiated by different governments, including the Apni Basti Scheme, the Mera Ghar Scheme and The New Islamabad City Project. The refusal to share political glory and credit has resulted in none of the aforementioned projects reaching completion to provide relief to low income communities amidst a severe housing crisis. Had the local machinery been operating autonomously, changes in national governments would not have led to a complete abandonment of the ongoing development projects.

There is also much to be said about the lack of genuine research, transparency and accountability in the internal structures and planning paradigms of unelected development bodies such as the LDA.

Reza Ali, an urbanisation expert based in Lahore, believes that we must distinguish between independent and commissioned research, where the latter is merely a formality carried out to justify projects planned at the top. Consider, for example, that no independent research, impact or need assessment studies and surveys were conducted in consultation with local communities during the conception and implementation of mass transit projects such as the Metro Bus and more recently, the Orange Line. Additionally, internal audits in bodies such as the LDA are particularly weak and oftentimes no action is taken even when malpractice is uncovered.

With an annual budget of over Rs50 billion, one is forced to wonder how much of it is actually spent on the basic needs of low income urban residents. It is a genuine lack of collaborative and inclusive planning which has resulted in the displacement of several low income communities to make way for ‘mega projects’, the destruction of slums, the acquisition of public land and the abysmal state of public services in poor urban communities.

A higher participation by the urban poor would serve to reduce the class bias which undeniably dominates the planning paradigm. Nowhere is this planning bias of unelected local bodies more pronounced than in the housing and infrastructure sectors, where private and market forces mostly dictate the allocation of resources.

A simple google search of the LDA leads one into a world of sprawling housing schemes aimed at serving the interests of the already propertied classes. With virtually no integrated social housing scheme, the last 15 years have brought an explosion of gated communities and land prices have risen approximately by 1500 per cent.

The last two successful low income housing schemes in Lahore, namely Green Town and Township, were completed almost four decades ago. The LDA has made no efforts to regulate the highly speculative housing market, or levying property taxes, which has exacerbated the housing crisis.

Cheap land, affordable housing and the availability of housing credit are nowhere on the planning agenda and the state has been complicit in allowing private developers to make massive fortunes through file trading and capitalising on the housing demands of wealthy urban residents. Urban land is a highly contested commodity and it is clear whose interests the state has favoured so far.

The question then is "what should be done?" And whereas the answers vary greatly, one starting point would be to hand the city back to its citizens. Idealistic as it may seem to those of us operating in the Pakistani context, such practices have become quite common all over the world. A majority of developed countries in the world now have highly representative local government structures in place, which are subject to scrutiny through regular elections and active civil society engagement.

Furthermore, the last 15 years have also witnessed a trend toward democratisation and decentralisation in major urban centres of the global south, including cities in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. Extensive research on inclusive and participatory urban development mechanisms has been done in consultation with southern practitioners, and there now exists a set of internationally certified ‘best practices’ to guide transitioning democracies.

According to a UN habitat report, forums for participatory and inclusive urban planning have been established at the community level in many developing cities, and the result has been the active involvement of communities, especially low income ones, in deciding the future of their city.

Such changes are also possible in Pakistan. We must take planning down to the basic forms of social organisation. Union councils, as elected grassroots bodies, with substantial representation from minorities, women and labourers, contain massive potential as engines of devolution and democratisation. Linkages between different union councils could lead to the identification of common needs and goals faced by different low income communities in the city.

There is also an increasing space for the involvement of civil society, NGOs and independent research organisations in the development process. Once all these community elements are involved, forums for enhancing their collaboration and building sustainable partnerships for development must be formed.

Bodies like the Lahore Development Authority could be transformed into representative and accountable platforms for meaningful engagement between different actors who can negotiate, set goals and steer the planning agenda to incorporate the basic needs of the urban poor.

A meaningful shift in the planning process is the need of the hour. Development planning must be transported from the private to the public realm.