It was an opportunity to revisit Lahore for the first time in 20 years and to experience the grandeur and vibrancy of this great city, which encapsulates the opportunities and challenges of rapid urbanisation in this part of Asia.
Pakistan’s urbanisation level is still only around 37%, so this remains a rural country. However it is the highest in south-west Asia, and the rate of urbanisation is around 3%. When I was last here in 1994, the population of Pakistan was 126M. Today it is approaching 200M and the urban population has grown from under 40M to 70M. By 2050 another 90M urban dwellers are anticipated. These trajectories formed the backdrop to the conference. Despite the surge in urban growth, planning has little impact. Around half the people already live in slums. There is no comprehensive planning law. Plans ‘expire’ and are not updated.
There are about 900 professional planners in Pakistan, a much lower ratio of planners to new development than in rich countries. There has been some progress in confronting the urban challenge. There is now an Urban Unit for the Punjab province. However, there is no urban policy as such, no policy vehicle for addressing the spatial aspects of the massive construction that will run for two more generations. The mind set of older planners here seems to be still shaped by the UK’s 1947 Act. A less appropriate framework would be hard to invent. The 1947 Act assumed the public sector would be the major force for development: in Pakistan today most development is informal and most of the rest is led by the private sector. The pace of new development far outstrips that in 1940s Britain. Instead of strong local authorities you have hollow bodies that raise less than 1% of their own spending money. Not surprisingly, plans are produced but not implemented, a situation that corrodes any legitimacy that planning might have.
Contrasts with Asian Tigers
Some at the conference spoke in anguished voices about this situation. The Federal Minister for Planning, Development and Reform, Ashan Iqbal, made some perceptive comparisons with Asian Tiger countries. Singapore, South Korea, China and Malaysia had experienced far stronger economic growth than Pakistan since the 1960s, a fact that he attributed to a combination of political stability and an endogenous growth model. In contrast Pakistan has had periods of military rule, and low levels of investment in human capital. Vision 2025 is the government’s growth strategy. It puts universities at the centre of the drive for modernisation.
It promotes the ‘triple helix’ partnerships between governments, academia and the private sector that has been such a central message in regional development for the past 20 years, though today many add civil society also. Vision 2025 includes ‘Modernisation of transport infrastructure and regional connectivity’ as one of its seven ‘pillars’. However, there was a Vision 2010 and a Vision 2030, neither of which were realised, so there must still be question marks about what will happen this time. Conference presentations by current and current PhD students suggest that that the investment in research is paying off. Many presentations by younger contributors were distinguished by their analytical skills and command of research methods. There was a particular focus on smart transport technologies, which can potentially reduce accidents and increase logistics efficiency in a country where you are much more at risk on the road than from a terrorist atrocity (despite the media focus on the latter).
The results of non-plan
A combination of natural increase and rural to urban migration is fuelling the urban growth. However, jobs are not increasing at the same rate as GDP. Agriculture still absorbs the jobless. Within the cities the informal sector is the main source of jobs. Unplanned growth means air pollution, water shortages and poor access to basic sanitation for many households. Sewage industrial effluents and solid waste pollute surface and ground waters. One speaker estimated that poor sanitation costs 4% of GDP each year. Only 5% of urban households have access to a household garbage collection system. However, there were few presentations that addressed directly the challenges posed by urban poverty and the need for upgrading of informal settlements. While there were passing references to the lucrative process of land grabbing and the ‘mafias’ who operate the system, there was no paper that systematically addressed this fundamental issue.
On the streets
As soon as you step outside gates of the extensive campus of the University of Engineering and Technology, you feel the full force of this tumultuous urban organism that is home to around 10M people. A couple of young children sit between their dad and the handlebars of his motorbike, with Mum raiding side-saddle on the back, as they weave between the stop-start traffic, amidst the trucks and trailers, the donkey carts towing piles of bamboo shoots, and the ubiquitous motorised chingchi rickshaws, many of whose drivers are reputedly on drugs. Exhortations to wear helmets have little impact. While there are fewer animal-drawn vehicles than when I was last here, there is still no traffic segregation, and I did spot one camel on the main highway out of town.
There is scant provision for pedestrians outside the CBD, and none for cyclists. Poor street lighting adds to the risks. There are no ‘safe routes to school’. It all adds up to a situation in which road safety is now one of the main health issues. I was told that around 20,000 people a year die on Pakistan’s roads and another 80,000 are injured. Over the past decade many more have died in road accidents than were victims of terrorism. Encroachment of traders onto the edge of roads is of great concern to planners, and doubtless it contributes to the accident figures. But it also gives the city some of its vitality. Returning to the campus late at around midnight there were still stalls selling anything and everything along the edge of the road, with paraffin lamps for illumination.
Then suddenly you pass a herd of goats outside a row of shops or a group of cattle being walked along the highway. All this I remembered from my previous visits in the early 1990s. However, there were also some radical new infrastructure interventions in the urban fabric. Not only is there a new airport, but it is linked to a new city ring road, of motorway standard and tolled. More remarkable is a 27 km long elevated busway, which was completed in about a year.
This bus rapid transit system is reputedly cheap and offers a reliable and frequent service, setting a new standard for delivery of major transport infrastructure in Pakistan. It is a sign of what might be possible if political will, technical skills and access to investment can be combined. The good news is that there is a sense of optimism amongst the planners I met, many of them young and highly motivated. Graduates from planning schools are getting jobs, recruitment is increasing and there seems to be a recognition that it is possible to plan a better future. It won’t be easy, with climate change adding to the already chronic problems of water shortage, but I came away uplifted by the spirit shown by the young planners that I met.