Reimagining Islamabad

Our aim should be to make the city more inclusive, create jobs and make room for various income and demographic groups

Nestled in the Margalla hills, Islamabad was planned as a scenic modern capital by a Greek architect, Constantinos Doxiadis. The city that was supposed to accommodate the future demographic and socio-economic changes, is now facing the consequences of a lack of affordable housing, commercial and office space, mushrooming slums, environmentally detrimental urban sprawl, decaying public infrastructure, insufficient public utilities and a lack of sustainable options for mobility.

We still hope to find an answer for the development needs of Islamabad. The federal government is preparing to revise the master plan after 60 years. It was supposed to be reviewed every 20 years.

Over the years, ad hoc amendments have been made in the master plan. These include the ICT Zoning Regulations of 1992, followed by revisions in 2010 where Zone 4 was subdivided. In terms of governance, Islamabad Local Government Act 2015 established 50 union councils.

The lack of an overall revision, weak institutional framework and rent-seeking by many actors resulted in minimal implementation of the original master plan. An example of this is the elite takeover of the agricultural lands in Shehzad Town and Chak Shehzad for construction of luxury villas. This area had an idealistic vision in our cherished master plan of farming to meet the needs of meat and food for the capital city.

For now, we have the interim report of the commission formed by the federal government, which has given its recommendations for the next 20 years. However, the commission has been quite generous in retaining the spirit of the original master plan even as the city has been at war with it. The low-rise suburban dream of single-family homes has failed miserably to accommodate the population growth and demographic changes. Moreover, valuable land has been lost at the expense of urban sprawl that has promoted a car-oriented approach.

Today, we not only see physical urban challenges but also socio-economic disparities, economic segregation, lack of affordability and environmental degradation. The report appears to be oblivious towards social, economic and environmental considerations, which need an integrated solution through urban development.

Many of the recommendations are contradictory and can be used by the land mafia to advance its interests. For instance, there is a provision for high-risers in Zones 2 and 5 to restrict the sprawl but primarily the proposal does not support vertical living. There is no clarity whether these projects will provide affordable housing or create another elite divide by ending up as luxury apartments.

The reduced area requirement for developing a housing society will keep encouraging urban sprawl. The report still paints a picture of a car-oriented development and proposes resource-exhausting infrastructure solutions. A reduction in traffic congestion should be achieved by reducing and substituting the traffic rather than expanding the lanes.

Three more transit lines are proposed for the BRT to connect the Markaz with regional markets. These will only burden the meagre resources. Started in 2017, the BRT project from Peshawar Mor to the Islamabad Internal Airport (IIA) is still not functional. More BRTs are a delusion. Moreover, without a citywide densification and regeneration policy, there is a proposal for the renewal of G-6 sector to regenerate and utilise vacant sites. This could be a model for more sectors.

A shift from master planning to more flexible vision planning where social and economic challenges are integrated with urban strategies in the planning process for urban settlements has been recognised globally.

When addressing urban challenges, it is of immense significance to dive into the changing demographics and understand the population’s need. The rising cost of living in the city has pushed the lower middle income group to the outskirts. This burdens their transport expenditure, yet the new projects are not recognising this need. Moreover, the city has a huge potential for absorbing a young population as a number of well-ranked universities beckon.

Affordable housing, such as studio apartments and student hostels will not only facilitate their stay but also provide a step in the housing ladder for many. Additionally, the recent graduates are not getting enough job-opportunities and facilitation for start-ups due to flawed land use in the city. There is also a need to promote blue-collar jobs to support the economy.

Legalised sites for vendors in under-utilised areas of each sector will not only help the small businesses but also meet the needs of middle-income buyers. These urban challenges from the lens of the common person residing in Islamabad remain unanswered after the Master Plan revision.

There is a naïve mention of urban practices, such as community-driven and participatory approach in planning. Nonetheless, the approach has not been used to arrive at the conclusions of the report. The proposals by the commission have focused on the physical infrastructure, i.e., the hardware aspect of the city without any intervention in the institutional framework.

Even after the report recognises the weaknesses leading to the failure in the implementation of the original master plan, the authors have chosen to follow the same path.

There is a dire need to re-evaluate the traditional approach to urban planning. Literature and policies worldwide have recognised the failure of traditional practice of developing mater plans and suburban model of living in view of the increasing climate change concerns.

The ’90s saw a change in urban policy from expansion to a compact city approach, especially in the European countries, which are now assessing the outcome of their projects under densification policies. We are at an advantage as precedents for the compact city policies exist so that the the solutions can be contextualised. There’s no better way to explain this through David Harvey’s quote, “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”

A statutory master plan will not allow Islamabad to harness its full potential; hence, it is crucial to implement trans-disciplinary strategies by involving social scientists, economists, environmentalists, etc, and most significantly, the citizens in the process. It was okay to consult a foreign firm when Potohar plateau was a clean state. Today, the city is home to over a million people who should have a say in their future.

It is important to understand that as someone who does not live an everyday life here cannot reach culturally sensitive and contextual solutions.

A shift from master planning to more flexible vision planning, where social and economic challenges are integrated with urban strategies in the planning process for urban settlements, has been recognised globally. Area development plans are quick to achieve results. Innovative architectural models of mixed-use typologies create agglomeration economies.

Alternative modes of transport can be explored in walking, cycling, car-sharing, improved quality and gender friendly vans and buses for sustainable and more accessible mobility. Our aim should be to reimagine Islamabad to make it more inclusive. It should have room for different income and demographic groups rather than impose a master plan.

Samna Sadaf Khan is an architect and urban researcher with specialisation in affordable housing and urban development studies

Naveed Iftikhar is a teacher and public policy advisor with a research focus on cities, public sector governance and entrepreneurship

Reimagining Islamabad