Not quite livable, let alone “sustainable”

December 29, 2019

Under the SDG 11, the UN has defined 10 targets. Here’s a look at how Lahore measures up to some of them

Unless city managers understand that mobility cannot be divorced from urban planning, we will continue to invest ludicrous amounts of money into infrastructure that does not serve the public and instead makes the city less safe and more polluted for everyone.— Photos by Rahat Dar

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN General Assembly in 2015 are a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” to be met by the year 2030. Goal 11 of the SDGs relates to sustainable cities and communities. The UN explains, “The challenges cities face in ways that allow them to continue to thrive and grow, while improving resource use and reducing pollution and poverty. The future we want includes cities of opportunities for all, with access to basic services, energy, housing transportation and more.”

Under SDG 11, the UN has defined 10 targets. This article seeks to look at how Lahore in particular measures up to some of them.

Target 1: Safe and affordable housing

The neo-liberal idea of cities providing enough economic activity that young, middle-class couples could invest in property and eventually become homeowners is, simply put, impossible for the majority of Lahoris. Property prices are not rational, as they are driven by speculation.

The present housing market in Lahore caters to the urban elite. Poor land-use controls allowed speculative development to fuel urban sprawl. The past quarter century has seen the city explode.

In 2019, the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) announced new building regulations that work through floor-area-ratios rather than the set-back method previously employed. The idea is to stimulate mid- and high-rise development that will save on property costs and reduce home prices.

Despite years since the glorious success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, tenants of property are still required to undergo rigorous police registration on the execution of a simple residential lease. Non-Muslims are frequently denied tenancy on the grounds of their religion.

Target 2: Affordable and sustainable transport systems

The PML-N government of the 1990s widened the Main Boulevard and Jail Road. The PML-Q government of the early 2000s built underpasses and initiated the construction of the Ring Road. The PML-N government of 2008-2018, with the approval of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, undertook the construction of a number of underpasses, flyovers, and signal-free corridors. Billions and billions of rupees have been spent on infrastructure that is enjoyed by a minority of the automobile-owning urban elite.

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The PML-N government did introduce the Metro Bus service on Ferozepur Road, and undertook the construction of the Orange Line, both public transport projects. But has the overall result made the city safer and more inclusive? Or do these projects bisect neighbourhoods? Have they improved congestion or pollution?

Unless city managers understand that mobility cannot be divorced from urban planning, we will continue to invest ludicrous amounts of money into infrastructure that does not serve the public and instead makes the city less safe and more polluted for everyone.

Target 3: Inclusive and sustainable urbanisation

The open areas near the airport, by the entrance of the Askari Housing Scheme, are filled on the weekends by dozens of cricket matches. Yet none of the billions spent on the infrastructure in the surrounding areas caters to these middle-income youths from nearby non-Cantonment residential areas. These open areas are the only spaces available for them. The Cantonment Board has constructed a wall between these areas, but it has not deterred these cricket lovers.

This does, however, portray the exclusive nature of urban planning in the city.

The private housing schemes that dominate the city’s sprawl are all automobile dependent. There is no effective public transport to speak of, and the resulting dependence on motorised transport has made the city’s streets congested and unsafe. Every day, Rescue 1122 teams respond to dozens of serious, frequently fatal, traffic accidents. And the low quality fuel used by motorised vehicles pollutes the air. Lahore is now routinely amongst the most air-polluted of the world’s cities, with the toxic air now a public health emergency. Lahore is not quite livable, let alone sustainable.

Target 4: Protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage

Lahore is home to scores of ancient and historical monuments and buildings. Shalimar Gardens is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Picture Wall of the Lahore Fort — under the painstaking work of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture — is another glory for the world to behold.

Dozens of literary, art, music and cultural festivals light up the city’s social calendar. UNESCO recently selected Lahore as a “creative city,” to mark how culture is a pillar of the city’s strategy. This may sound at odds with Lahore’s performance against the other SDGs, but the truth is, despite a desperately flawed development paradigm, the Government of Punjab and the city of Lahore have always remained committed to preserving the city’s cultural and natural heritage. This commitment is often overcome by political considerations, but it nevertheless persists and should be acknowledged and celebrated.

Target 6: Reduce the environmental impact of cities

Lahore is by far the largest city of Punjab. It is also a hub of industry and commerce. Tragically, only a handful of the over 10,000 industrial units in the city own or operate a waste treatment plant. Neither do any of the government or private housing schemes. As a result, the raw domestic and industrial effluent of a city of 10 million is discharged into the Ravi River bed every day.

With the water of the Ravi apportioned to India under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, the river is now an open sewage and sludge carrier. This effluent, along with the waste from Sialkot, Gujranwala, and Faisalabad, has devastated the ecology of the Ravi Basin. The effluent from the city is diverted at Balloki, mixed with canal water, and used to irrigate fields producing food crops.

Despite the devastation of the Ravi Basin by the waste of Lahore, nothing has been done to treat the waste produced by the city. There have been plans in the past, but they have remained firmly that. What remains to be seen is if any of the present government’s many plans can actually see the light of day.

The author is an environment lawyer and former chairman of the LESCO and the LWMC and present member of the (yet unconvened) Pakistan Climate Change Council and Punjab Environmental Protection Council. He Tweets at @rafay_alam

Lahore and SDG 11: Not quite livable, let alone “sustainable”