Vertical ascent

PM’s vertical urban growth plan is attractive but not easy to implement in the face of inherent challenges

Vertical ascent

The prime minister of Pakistan has announced the banning of real estate development on fertile agricultural land in Punjab, and urged vertical growth instead. The declared objectives behind this move are saving green areas in the outskirts of cities, ensuring agricultural yields, avoiding environmental degradation and maximising land use within urban limits.

The announcement has come at a time when a large number of housing societies are being developed on agricultural lands in the province, especially in large cities such as Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi. Besides, huge tracts of forest lands have been cleansed of trees and used for real estate development.

The government’s initiative not withstanding there are land use rules already in place in the country that protect the appropriation of agricultural lands for housing projects. Urban planning departments have developed GIS-based maps of cities that clearly define land masses meant for housing, agriculture, industrial use and so on. Over the years, municipal corporations and development authorities have enforced these rules but allowed changes in land use rules on a case to case basis.

Under the standard process a person desirous of building a housing society on agricultural land would approach the provincial housing and urban development project and apply for a No Objection Certificate (NOC). This certificate would be awarded subject to fulfillment of certain requirements and sometimes on the intervention of some influential people. What seems to be the case now is that if this policy is implemented in its true spirit, the door to such exceptions and exemptions will be closed.

The question here is whether opting abruptly for vertical growth and parting with urban sprawl will be an easy choice or a formidable challenge for the PTI government. Why has this trend not taken off in Pakistan, except in Karachi, needs to be explored as well. If there are certain difficulties, does the sitting government have the ability to overcome those.

Arshad Rafiq, former team leader Sustainable Cities Initiative at LEAD Pakistan believes it is mostly the rich land developers and mafias that benefit from conversion of farmland, not the farmers. Aware of the ongoing development in an area, they approach land owners well in time and make deals that are mostly tilted in their favour.

Rafiq says the current regime will have to be cognizant of real estate dynamics to take the housing sector in the direction it wants. Denying urban infrastructure and services around agricultural lands can discourage this trend, he says. Besides, regulating the land market, exerting control on money laundering for land purchase and setting an upper limit to own urban land or housing space can yield desired results. "At the moment, around 90 percent of the urban land in the country is disproportionally owned by 10 percent of the population."

Rafiq is a bit skeptical about the plan’s success and terms it a temporary measure before a well thought-out policy comes forth. "As per PTI government’s lack of decision-making so far, I don’t think a well chalked-out plan is coming in the near future," he adds.

There is an argument as well that the uninhibited expansion of cities cannot be seen in isolation and also has to do with the condition of the owners of agricultural lands. Pushed to the wall due to low yields, high cost of production, unfavourable government policies, water shortage, climate change etc, they apparently find instant relief in selling off their lands to developers.

Aisha Khan, Executive Director for Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC) based in Islamabad, believes the farmers’ woes will have to be addressed to stop them from selling their lands. She thinks "it will be difficult to implement the PM’s plan without land zoning." She says there are two things happening here. "One, farmers are finding it difficult to cope with climate variability/precipitation changes and other associated risks to be able to rely on agriculture, and second, the rapid growth in population requires more housing."

She says the existing trend must be prevented but alternative solutions must be found, especially for small farmers who do not have the capacity to adapt to or absorb climate shocks and are also restricted from selling land for real estate development.

Khan points out that the next two decades will witness mass climate induced migrations and the pressure on cities will increase. She agrees vertical construction saves space and if combined with green building principles and urban forestry concepts it can provide answers to housing needs. "Depending on the number of floors the need for sustained energy to keep lifts operational will be a necessary consideration. Managing water, sanitation and waste will also require good municipal services. Neither is a given."

Rafiq also terms vertical growth a challenge because it is inhibited, especially in Punjab, due to poor building standards, poor emergency provisions, poor security and maintenance of buildings and cultural reasons such as privacy concerns. In cities like Islamabad and Karachi, he says, "good flats are expensive and safe investment". In Punjab, however, the situation is different as land is still abundantly available. As per Urban Unit’s GIS mapping, only three percent area is built area in Punjab, he adds.

Back in 2012, the Planning Commission formed a task force on urban development under the chair of architect and urban planner Arif Hasan. The recommendations given by the task force included development of high-density and mid to low-rise buildings instead of high-rises but these could not be followed. It is after a lapse of nine years that the federal government has shown interest in opting for this.

Ahmad Rafay Alam, environmentalist, urban planner and lawyer says, "The country does not have the steel required for this purpose." The cement used for buildings gets too heavy after some floors that the structure cannot sustain. On PM’s announcement, he comments, the PM can only give a plan but it has to be implemented by provinces for which they might have to legislate. "Karachi saw vertical growth because there was dearth of land and the land added recently is that reclaimed from the sea by the DHA. In Punjab, easy availability of land discouraged this trend."

Alam calls for incentives to promote vertical growth including modification in property laws that support inhabitants of apartments. Presently, he says, an owner of a residential flat in any of the upper floors cannot claim compensation in case of damage as he does not own a tract of land. The prospective buyers think their apartments exist only in air and do not have a tangible presence, he adds.

Rafay shares that around 2014, the land use rules in Punjab were changed to allow industrial activity on agricultural lands. There is a strong impression that this was done in the context of industrial areas and power plants like Sahiwal Coal Power plants to be set up in these areas under CPEC. To achieve long-term results, such modifications must be avoided.

Karachi-based Rafiul Haq, who is a member of IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management, agrees cultural inhibitions also discourage vertical growth in cities other than Karachi. People often need privacy and seclusion which are not there in the case of shared properties. He shares since Karachi has been developed relatively recently, people are not that hooked to tradition and accept changes in building patterns easily. Being bound by the sea on one side, the chances of Karachi’s horizontal expansion on that side are also not possible, he adds.

Haq terms the PM’s plan the first step towards rational land use allocation. The next step he suggests should be a ban on construction in catchment or near catchment areas, particularly in urban limits. Low-lying areas demarcated on maps or catchment areas have been identified as natural passage of water in case of high flow. Populations living close to Ravi in Lahore, near Lyari and Malir rivers in Karachi, around Nowshera in KP and Muslim Bagh and Qila Abdullah and Qila Saifullah in Balochistan are relevant examples.

Vertical ascent