Our mega cities


Are they livable?



Does this question bother us? How do we perceive livability? Though most of us do not think about it as such, yet every complaint, every monologue, every gossip and every protest about city affairs contributes to the broader conceptualisation of livability. We want our city like this, the government should do this or that, etcetera. Indeed we have a vision of our own about the city and how we want to live here. And then there is a vision of the government that tends to be tainted by the ‘investors’. It is this influence under which governments want to make cities as ‘engines of growth’.

As the population in our mega cities grow, the economy picks up its pace and cities become ‘engines of growth’, they would depict the socio-spatial conditions beset by inequality, poverty and social exclusion. Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad would become ‘dual cities’ – one where the rich live, work, play and thrive under the made-on-order environs and the other where the rest are left in substandard living. The most important thing is: this is not the prediction for these cities, this is the order of the day here.

Both public and private sectors are catering for the rich. For example, Lahore Development Authority (LDA) is set to launch its billion dollar ventures in Lahore, Ravi Riverfront Project on 36 km stretch of the river Ravi, the iconic LDA Tower on Jail Road, Luxury Apartments/Health Club and one Amusement Park in Johar Town. Similarly, big investments from the private sector in Karachi like Emaar’s Crescent Bay and Bahria Town’s Safe Island City in collaboration with the famous Miami Beach builder Thomas Kramer are designed for the loaded. As opposed to these, efforts and investments in clean drinking water, sanitation, health, social housing, parks and open spaces and other urban amenities in these cities are far from being impressive.

This trend will go from bad to worse if our policymakers keep insisting on the mantra of ‘growth engines’. I do not mean to oppose cities being hub of ‘productive synergies’, I am advocating for a damage control, a remedy for the cities’ wounds at the time when the urban agenda is taking its shape. Though the metamorphosis of this organisational framework in the country is slow and donor driven, yet there are discernable developments – urban policy units in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, public sector companies for urban governance, solid waste and urban water sector reforms, LDA emerging as a regional authority and city transit projects for Lahore, Karachi and other big cities etc.

These institutions should have a mission to enhance livability in our socio-spatially torn apart cities that are places of urban poverty and low standard living. They should work for a policy construct that brings on board all the stakeholders, captures their aspirations about their city and shapes up plans accordingly. That is where those who cannot buy good life are taken care of. The round table of stakeholders should comprise citizen groups, architects and planners, private investors and the government with a task to deliberate upon the question of making our megacities livable, for designing them as ‘cities for people and not for profit’.

Though the concept of livability or livable communities/cities is highly subjective, elusive and local, yet lessons can be drawn from the best practices going on. For our reference, there are global programmes, rankings and indices for livable cities — Economist’s Livability Ranking, Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey, Phillips’ Index on Livability or Monocle magazine’s List of Livable Cities – but we have to find our own meaning out of a thorough consultative process. If we follow three guiding principles in city planning — democracy, diversity and equity — things can be much easier to start with. Democracy stresses that we have to be utilitarian in city development initiatives — greatest good for the greatest number. Diversity is to respect the variety of social groups that exist in the society and equity calls for a just redistribution of spaces and resources of the city.

The most important thing to understand is that the city as a great work of peoples’ endeavours must be planned and designed in a way that its development and redevelopment benefit the people to fulfil their right to the city. At this juncture, we will have to set priorities about the outcomes that we are expecting lest boys and girls in green or red with placards in their hands should tell us to mend our ways.