Regenerating cities

We need to move away from big flashy developments and improve and utilise existing spaces in our built environment

Cities face many challenges in Pakistan. These days the focus is shifting towards more suburban development or new cities. This is leading to an increase in the use of cars, heightened by an increasing number of new developments of gated communities that are low density, single use and further away from cities. Instead, there is a need to regenerate old settlements in cities through appropriate land use reforms to improve the quality of life for residents and to accommodate more migrants to the cities.

Our cities are certainly not pedestrian-friendly, especially for women, children, the elderly and the disabled. So, before using up undeveloped land for endless housing societies, shouldn’t we improve our existing areas and utilise vacant or underused land? There is a huge shortage of housing units in Pakistan due to rapid growth in young population. Our current housing approach in suburban areas will damage the environmental ecosystem and will never be able to provide affordable housing to the youth and the lower-middle class.

Most job opportunities lie within cities. This makes people commute from their suburban gated communities, increasing traffic and congestion on the roads because of the lack of public transport options. This, in turn, leads to increasing pollution and higher demand for parking spaces in cities, making them motor vehicle dominated, less pedestrian-friendly and generally very busy. This can be unpleasant, especially during rush hours.

There are a few wealthy individuals occupying huge spaces at the centre of our cities. The middle and working class have had to shift to suburban living and slums, respectively. Limited and expensive travel options add to existing income pressures. Furthermore, there is a desperate need for affordable housing for the youth and the women entering the labour force.

Our cities do not provide the kind of housing that is demanded - studio apartments and small flats. The existing housing is not convenient. Those coming to cities to work do not need and cannot afford houses - even some portions of big houses. Since job opportunities outside the cities are limited, such workers find themselves in great difficulty. Small pockets of vacant or derelict land can be easily converted to create additional housing units to cater for the needs of the emerging labour force.

There is a need to pursue urban regeneration in major cities of Pakistan, incorporating mixed uses in their development to provide housing while also catering for commercial, office and leisure. An example is the Circus Street project in Brighton, UK, where a derelict fruit and vegetable market is being transformed into an “innovation quarter”. It includes new homes, student accommodation, office and retail space built around green urban squares, with facilities for bike storage and underground car parking. Such developments can reduce travelling distances and promote a healthier lifestyle. Additional revenue and employment can also be created through different uses.

In Pakistan, there is so much advertising for big flashy new developments but there is no need for these. Reimagining and regenerating existing areas will help improve physical conditions, address local problems, create employment opportunities and tourism to boost the local economy, and create additional housing units. It will contribute to sustainability by focusing on the already developed areas, instead of starting from scratch on undeveloped land far from cities. However, urban regeneration in isolation may be limited unless there is wider consideration of problems, such as mobility and the lack of public transport options. There is also the need for changes in behaviour and mindsets.

It must be stressed that urban regeneration does not necessarily mean demolition and reconstruction. It is about using existing spaces, improving them by upgrading infrastructure, maintenance or essential work on existing buildings, or creating public spaces within the area. Furthermore, where there are parcels of land within cities that are completely vacant or derelict, they can be developed for the most optimal use of the area.

Let our villages and towns grow into cities organically, instead of erasing the human settlements to develop new cities or suburban housing societies for the elite.

Involving local communities is a key factor in the sustainability of any project. Their inclusion creates a sense of local ownership and motivation to enable benefits to continue beyond the project timeline. Regeneration needs to consider the context and culture of local communities. It cannot be a forced top-down approach, it must be bottom-up, participatory and with active engagement of the locals. Furthermore, the support and cooperation of governments and local authorities is vital for projects to succeed and create a real impact. If key stakeholders and authorities are not on board, any positive outcome will be limited.

The Blue Area in Islamabad is a strong candidate for urban regeneration. Although it is a central part of the capital city, it certainly does not function as such for a number of reasons. Given the central location of the area, it is considerably underused, especially after office hours and on weekends. There is insufficient parking but basements of buildings are not used for this purpose, which means that land is not available for public spaces or recreational purposes. However, regulations prevent mixed use of the land. The area is not pedestrian-friendly either and there is poor street lighting. Furthermore, buildings and plazas suffer from a lack of maintenance. With no clear building names or numbers, navigation around the area becomes difficult.

The existing spaces in Blue Area can be transformed creatively into a vibrant, accessible space and allow a range of seasonal or more permanent activities, for example green and public spaces, temporary market stalls, or other recreational activities. This would make the area more attractive overall, inviting new businesses.

Similarly, many areas in Rawalpindi, Karachi and Lahore need regeneration to respond to the emerging needs of apartment housing and commercial spaces. Public sector lands in major cities need to be utilised more optimally. Peshawar also illustrates the importance of urban regeneration. The city is seeing rapid population growth and increasing economic activity, leading to higher land demand and urban sprawl. This has come at the cost of agricultural land around the city, considered the most fertile and productive. Growth has also put pressure on the transport system. However, the new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has reduced congestion and is more accessible. The BRT has been called “a catalyst for urban regeneration” on account of changes made along its route. These include energy-efficient street lighting, footpaths, drainage systems and cycle lanes.

To enable cities to function smoothly, urban mobility is vital. Therefore, with an established BRT system working effectively for people, it can be used as the basis of regeneration in Peshawar by improving areas along the route to increase density. This will lower the demand for land away from the city, leaving agricultural land to help contribute to food security.

Creating new public spaces is great but they must be safe, vibrant and accessible to all. Inclusive urban design requires basic adjustments which can have a major impact, for example, walkable streets and adequate lighting both on streets and in public spaces. Visibility of an area is likely to make people feel more safe, particularly women and vulnerable groups. Additionally, creating spaces for small local businesses to sell local products and celebrate culture within public spaces will add to the vibrancy of the area, making it more welcoming and attractive.

We need to move away from big flashy developments and improve and utilise existing spaces in our built environment. Let our villages and towns grow into cities organically, instead of erasing the human settlements to develop new cities or suburban housing societies for the elite.

Nida Mahmood is a researcher interested in urban development and regeneration. Twitter: @NidaMahmood5

Naveed Iftikhar is a teacher and economic/urban policy professional having education and interest in public sector governance, entrepreneurship, and cities. He tweets @navift­

Regenerating cities