An executive order directing the provincial chief secretary to initiate shifting the Walton Airport when Gulberg’s Main Boulevard, the city’s existing business hub, is a stone’s throw away, begs many a pertinent question
For the first time in history, more people now live in urban areas than in rural regions. By 2050, more than two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. If managed properly, urbanisation has the potential to improve quality of life, socioeconomic welfare, education and health. On the other hand, poorly planned urban sprawl has the potential to increase pollution, set back sustainability, create public health challenges, and promote social exclusion. The uncontrolled growth of cities, particularly in developing countries makes sustainable urban planning and adequate governance an urgent need.
Recently, an ordinance, promulgated by the Government of the Punjab, proclaimed the establishment of Lahore Central Business District Development Authority (CBDDA) to repurpose the Walton area of Lahore. Until now, the 2000+ kanals area, located in the heart of Lahore, had been classified as “reserved land” under the ownership of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and as such, was securely tucked away from developers’ reach.
The area is home to the historic Walton Airfield (OPLH), which holds immense historic significance for the country. At the time of partition, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah had landed here in 1947. Prior to the establishment of a new airport in the 1960s, Walton served as Lahore’s main airport. The CAA reports that more than 2,000 flights, including VIP flights, are operated from the city’s Allama Iqbal International Airport per month. The CAA goes on to declare the Walton Airport a part of “National Heritage.”
Today, the place is home to the Department of Plant Protection, the Lahore Flying Club, and other flight training institutes. The Lahore Flying Club is the first flying club in the subcontinent, established in 1932 by aviation enthusiasts and philanthropists as Northern India Flying Club. In the ’50s, the club was used to train Pakistan Air Force (PAF) cadets. In 1954 it began training pilots for the national flag carrier.
The ordinance realises a 2009 proposal by the Lahore Development Authority for the development of what they are calling a Central Business District in Lahore, spanning 2,035 kanals in Walton area. The ordinance empowers the CBDDA to initiate and maintain master planning, urban planning, spatial planning, and amend the Master Plan of an area of significant historical and environmental importance.
Prior to the establishment of a new airport in the 1960s, Walton served as Lahore’s main airport. CAA reports that more than 2,000 flights, including VIP flights, are operated from the city’s Allama Iqbal International Airport per month. The CAA goes on to declare the Walton Airport a part of “National Heritage.”
Only two out of CBDDA’s 14 board members shall be “technical experts,” whose qualifications and criteria are still to be defined. They may also “plan, amend or change the land use,” as deemed necessary, and even “outsource one or more functions for smooth functioning, building control and infrastructure development.”
Ironically, the authority, keen on taking over a unique piece of Pakistan and indeed the subcontinent’s aviation history, also intends to “prepare, implement, and enforce schemes for… preservation of… places of historical importance.”
Furthermore, Clause 25 of the ordinance allows the authority to “eliminate, demolish, or relocate sources of environmental pollution such as… slums,” which speaks volumes for the thought process that has been invested in preparing the ‘grand’ scheme. The cherry on top is the exclusive right to control groundwater resources in the area, including extraction and levying charges.
More crucially, the CBDDA shall be able to “acquire, dispose of property both movable and immovable, raise funds, sell, and lease or exchange concessions in respect of any property, and enter into contracts with local and international organisations.”
Sources point to a more-than-a-decade-old proposal for a high-rise made under Taavun, a joint venture of Abu Dhabi Group and the Government of the Punjab, as the envisioned outcome of the area.
This, in effect, creates a sub-authority in the metropolitan area of Lahore. Until now, the Lahore Metropolitan Area has been planned and developed by the Lahore Development Authority (LDA). Established under the LDA Act of 1975, the authority has been the “official development agency” for the entire Lahore Metropolitan Area, and parts of Kasur and Sheikhupura. Additionally, LDA has had the coveted power to acquire and hold both movable and immovable property in its assigned area.
The establishment of a new authority, with heavy emphasis on “international partnerships,” undoubtedly raises more questions than it answers.
The situation is further compounded in the backdrop of an executive order directing the provincial chief secretary to initiate shifting the airport when Gulberg’s Main Boulevard, the city’s existing business hub, is just a stone’s throw away. Elementary land cover analysis indicates that a total area of more than 500 acres of green cover (parks, trees, and nurseries) will be impacted.
Concentrated and intense human activity in cities is already magnifying the urban ecological footprint. Dwelling in a uniform urban setting from which plantation has been eradicated to make way for infrastructure takes a toll on everyone, from schoolchildren to the elderly. The effects of this manmade environment extend beyond the tangible impacts in energy consumption, waste management and sanitation, and pollution control to long-term intangible effects.
A key element of urban greening is tree plantation and the development of green spaces within urban limits. Green spaces not only increase the quality of urban environment, but also enhance local resilience and promote sustainable lifestyles by impacting the health and wellbeing of residents. For a city whose tree cover has fallen to 0.6 percent (of the district’s area), this decision begs serious questions that policymakers and urban planners must answer before our next generation realises that it’s already too late.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan
Also see Dr Ajaz Anwar's column on the Walton Airport shutdown in inside pages