Humanising cities

September 3, 2017

Trees still don’t seem to be on the governments’ agenda when planning new projects

Humanising cities

It was year 2009. The Punjab government had decided to cut down over a thousand trees along the length of the Lahore canal -- from Thokar Niaz Beg to Dharampura -- to widen the road. A group of activists got together and protested. There were many arguments that came out of that discussion eight years ago but what seemed the most significant thing was the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013.

The act was passed by the Punjab government to protect old trees around the canal. A few years later, the canal act seems to be failing. Almost every year since then, the canal has lost its trees as it has been widened to make room for more cars.

Apart from the canal, trees have been cut throughout the city for various development projects. The city of gardens continues to lose its trees.

An unnatural smog in the middle of October last year raised many concerns about the air pollution.

"The smog came much earlier than the winter and people had very serious issues," says Ali Cheema, who is on the Board of Directors at the Urban Unit and heads the Economics Department at LUMS.

He adds, "The sense I got from people who look at pollution data was that the pollution numbers had become seriously high during that time."

The world now agrees that trees can play a big role in relieving dense and overburdened cities not only of pollutants but green spaces can be safe havens for people to relax. Most large cities around the world took steps to preserve these spaces. New York’s Central Park in the heart of Manhattan is a glaring example of this. Established in 1857, the park reserved open green space in city, the population of which had quadrupled in a decade.

"They (trees) humanise the environment of a city, especially today when the environment has become very brutalised; there are concrete structures in the form of high rises," says Yasmeen Lari, an architect who runs the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan.

Others seem to have reached that conclusion a little late. Beijing is another city that grew rapidly and has had a chronic air problem. Its pollution levels are amongst the worst in the world. In March this year, the Chinese government decided to grow a ring of trees around the city to reduce smog.

Yasmeen Lari, an architect who runs the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan, says trees play a very important part in sculpting the environment of cities. She stresses on the environmental benefits of having trees in a city and says their role is entrenched deep into the fabric of a society.

"They humanise the environment of a city, especially today when the environment has become very brutalised; there are concrete structures in the form of high rises," Lari says.

"For human beings, that is a terrible thing to have when there is no greenery and no vegetation and they can’t really rest their eyes. So, from many points of view, it’s very important that in every area there should be a huge number of trees," she adds.

Lari believes that the more brutal an environment the more violent it will be. For a city like Karachi, where Lari lives, this is important.

Karachi has had its own tussle with development. Not really known for its trees or greenery like Lahore, it becomes easy to assume that, may be, there were no trees to cut in Karachi and all that ever existed were tall buildings desperately reaching for the sky.

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"Cities like Lahore have been very fortunate where they have this huge reservoir of trees but even in Karachi in the old parts there were lots of trees," says Shanaz Ramzi, who has grown up in Karachi and is part of Global Green, an NGO running tree plantation drives all over the country.

She says there has been more awareness on environmental issues over the past decade or so and people have realised the importance of having trees in the city. She points to a large number of private organisations that have sprung up to make Karachi greener. Ramzi says the Sindh government lacked foresight and cut a lot of trees in the 1980s.

As awareness grows on which species to plant and how important trees are, Ramzi is confident that Karachi will be a much greener place than it was when she was child, "When I grew up in Karachi, there was a lot less greenery, it looked more like a desert," she says. She attributes this increased greenery largely to the private sector.

The problem is that trees still don’t seem to be on the government’s agenda when planning new projects. Maryam Hussain, based in Lahore, vehemently disagrees with the Punjab government’s development agenda.

An artist by profession, Hussain has been very vocal about the Orange Line and the impact it has had on the population in that area. One aspect of this has been the trees that have been cut down to make way for the pillars that hold up the elevated train track.

Hussain gives the example of McLeod Road. She says while she was unable to count the exact number of trees in the area but the fact they are gone is visible. With the trees, Hussain says, the livelihood of the people sitting under those trees has also disappeared.

"There were denters and key-makers who sat under the shade of these trees. It was well-known that McLeod Road was your one-stop-shop to get anything related to your car," she says adding, "They couldn’t sit on the open pavement."

Trees feature in a larger debate of how cities are planned and who they are planned for.

"The issue of tress has to be contextualised within the larger problem. The idea of developing green lungs of a city," says Cheema. He says they feature into a larger plan of what the modes of transportation in a city are going to be and in Lahore, where trees are cut down to accommodate roads as the number of cars increases, the development model is not sustainable.

He stresses on the fact that trees do more than just make a city look pretty and this, he says, "needs to be brought more clearly to the table in discussions on development."

Humanising cities