Inculcating technology and making the planning process more inclusive are key to sustainable urban development
Roaming around in major cities, one only sees people and vehicles. Lahore, for instance, once the City of Gardens, has become a clutter where clouds of smog make clean air a luxury. Data show that Pakistan has the fastest rate of urbanisation in South Asia, so that almost 50 percent of the population is expected to be living in the cities by 2025. Analysts say the uncontrolled rise of population and the ever-increasing rural-urban migration are two primary causes of high population density in urban areas.
This piece aims at highlighting the need for innovative and adaptive solutions to deal with the urbanisation mess, and its mounting impact on the overall well-being of the general public.
Urbanisation can bring both problems and opportunities. People move to the cities in the hopes of enjoying better socioeconomic conditions and an environment where upward social mobility seems feasible. Unfortunately, the situation is more complex than it appears to be. People aspire to diversify their sources of income or shift away from the conventional mode of earning. Some families and youngsters move to the cities for “quality” and a lifestyle affording more freedom. Academicians believe that such aims are only attainable if urban-focused public institutions are active, urban governance effective and distribution of public goods is fair. Otherwise, urban inequalities keep growing, making it even more difficult to provide basic amenities to those left behind amidst unrestrained urban growth.
In recent times, critics have been paying more attention to the domain of urban planning. In retrospect, the problems we face today emerged from how cities were and are still being, planned, built and expanded. The first master plan for Lahore was designed in 1966. This made Lahore the first city in Pakistan to have an exclusive master plan. The city has thus had a history of extensive large-scale planning before reaching the current Master Plan 2050, which is currently under scrutiny. The worries regarding impractical plans and lack of implementation mechanism are justified.
Two possible solutions can be proposed at this time. The first one is to make the process of urban planning more inclusive and coordinated. The cities cannot be viewed as mere commercial hubs or residential areas. People-centric development of cities is possible when voices of all stakeholders and social factions are part of the integrated planning process, achievable via improved information and communication technology (ICT). Gathering insights from people is not a tough job in the age of social media. Exclusive public forums can also be created and run effectively (similar to Pakistan Citizen’s Portal).
Human psychology dictates that individuals trust authorities more when they feel heard. This elimination of trust deficit between citizens and planning authorities among various planning authorities/ stakeholders can help make the final plan implementation conflict-free. The use of improved communication technology has the potential to make the planning process quick, cost-effective and participatory. This is more important than ever before.
The other remedy is also linked to the inculcation of technology in managing the planning process. Urban plans can address the core issues of urban resource management, spatial mapping and making urban spaces citizen-friendly when there is sufficient data available for informed decision-making. Some of the planning and management bodies (both public and private) are already relying on IT and relevant data collection mechanisms (including Safe City Authority Lahore, The Urban Unit and the Punjab Information Technology Board). The data sources can be further enhanced to study the pattern in citizens’ behaviour and preferences, and to design plans keeping those in utmost consideration.
It is also high time to standardise the use of big data in urban research. The issue is not only about data collection. Real effort lies in organising, integrating and analysing the data in a functional manner. The social activities of people in a particular neighbourhood, accessibility of diverse groups of people to basic facilities, and the patterns in their financial transactions are convenient variables to be studied to map the basic needs of people living in a particular area. The data can then be integrated into the planning and management of particular neighbourhoods in the city. This directs us towards another approach which is to plan various parts of a city separately. In the case of Lahore, this is quite feasible because different areas are already under different planning and regulatory authorities. The region/ area-specific plans are more likely to establish people’s emotional attachment with their residential areas, which can result in citizens becoming more responsible, and local communities more active, in local area management (as shown by multiple qualitative studies).
Population density is rising in urban areas more rapidly than ever. Our cities are becoming more difficult to manage effectively. A major impact of this can be viewed in the increasing socioeconomic disparities. In focusing on the management of cities, it is important to make sure that inclusivity, coordination and relevance to the actual needs of the people remain at the heart of the planning process. This is achievable with the integration of ICT and big data in urban planning and research. However, it is crucial to invest time and resources in generating a workforce requiring a tech-savvy skill set.
The writer works for Department of Governance and Global Studies at Information Technology University