No more master plans needed

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  • Master plans are a relic of colonialism

All the evidence worked to analyze the evolution and spatial signatures of ancient human civilizations have proved that historically the world was not rural, it was urban.  Most of the ancient foundational human civilizations, including Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greece and Indus Valley (Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro), had a number of evidential markers of having followed a master planning approach of human settlements development though with a numinous system of land use distribution and layout. All had a prominence of religious/ritual land use as a super-function and monumental landmark placed in the city core surrounded by market/trading places, and mostly had paved streets on a gridiron pattern with a drainage system though all at a primaeval level. This era laid the foundation stone of an ancient urban planning epoch that eventually transformed into modernistic spatial planning through an evolution straddling over centuries.

Urban institutions must seek to enhance their technical capacity to steer through the process of city visioning, developing design guidelines and supportive regulations to promote and incentivize the creation of robust work-live-leisure mixed use spaces rather than promoting single-function zones, sprawl and linear commercialisation

During the late 1700s, the industrial revolution spurred large-scale urbanization and economic transformation that also had impacted the human settlement patterns at large but mostly in a very deleterious way. Most of the industrialization took place within the already congested urban areas and resultant poor living conditions seriously threatened the public health. By the late 1800s, the British urban and architectural professionals came up with a new urban planning tool, the master plan, to redress the urban challenges. This was the beginning of a well-fated era of “Master Planning” which still continues to have its influence in developing countries. In the same era, North American cities transformed their basic zoning regulations into the Comprehensive Development Plans (a variant of the master plan); however, they were believed to promote racial divide and elitist interests. The British Town and Country Planning Act 1909 was the first ever legal tool to legitimize urban planning and master plan making in the UK and its colonies. Former British colonies around the globe, including Pakistan, still bear strong urban planning and architectural imprints of their colonial masters.

A city master plan charts the course of a city’s development over next 10 to 20 years, envisaged through a city vision translated from political manifestos, citizen’s aspirations, national and sub-national development perspectives, local geospatial setting, and environmental opportunities. The broader strategies are translated into actionable programs and projects through the development of supplemental guidelines. A plan holistically covers diverse subjects like housing, infrastructure, municipal services, social infrastructure, transit, mobility, environmental management, economy, culture, and tourism.

Master plans are no more practised the same way in the West as they once were; these are now mostly devised for green-field developments (New Economic City in Punjab, Pakistan, and Amravati, Maharashtra, India are recent examples). Urban dynamics now demand a focus shift from large-scale restrictive master planning to guidelines-based monosyllabic planning interventions since the old-fashioned master plans proved too restrictive, time- and cost-intensive and practically almost unimplementable in our institutional context. There is also a need to look into the reasons why there is no enacted or alive master plan despite the hundreds that have been made so far.

City managers often argue that master plans and subordinate regulations are in conflict with basic human rights defined under Articles 23 and 24 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Ironically, no backbone urban planning law has been made in Pakistan to safeguard the state’s development rights; even countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia have had such laws for decades. Master plans are believed to seize free will and authority of city managers, so they tend to put them on the backburner. Master plans are supposed to be living tools while not exercising any long-term moratorium, and it is believed they are to be revised at any time when there is a wider public interest but unfortunately, implementers used these plans to exercise long-term cessation of business activities in a spatial context and mostly instigated public resentment.

In Pakistan, master plans are made in bureaucratic silos. City visioning has never been considered as an imperious bottom-up approach, the way the developed world does. No urban policy can sustain in the long run without public stewardship. An emerging thought in urban planning “A city that plans itself” has taken over the old model “A [master] planned city.” Our colonial masters have also recently moved to a contemporary bottom-up approach through introduction of a localism act which focuses on neighborhood-level planning and decision-making, rather exercising more centrality or sub-nationalism. Moreover, prior to developing a master plan, a city must have an inclusive economic vision. Islamabad, Lahore, and Faisalabad are struggling to have their master plans afresh without having city visions and an economic foresight, and even committees constituted to steer the processes are not appropriately inclusive.

None of the local councils and development authorities in Pakistan has a clear mandate or the technical capacity to develop and implement master plans, though every single urban law requires each institution to devise a master plan for its jurisdiction. Functional, regulatory and fiscal space of local councils has largely been encroached by sub-national authorities, corporate entities and supra-city rules, thus leaving them arbitrarily dysfunctional. With such staggering, split and overlapping urban mandates, a plethora of urban regulations, at least two dozen departments working in friction without any vertical or horizontal integration and without a consensus service delivery ambit; it seems almost impossible for a city to devise and implement a master plan. And above all, a master plan takes eight to 10 years to get notified while in the meantime sprawl spawns as much as five km on the perimeters. Punjab’s “Land Use Classification, Reclassification, and Redevelopment Rules 2009” are another abridged variant of a master plan and a legal binding on each city in Punjab; why do we need another master plan in their presence?

Last but not the least reason for the failure of master plans is; public-sector institutions always prefer to engage consulting organizations for plan making which have no innovation and motivation to learn and practice contemporary approaches but would still like to practice their 1960s knowledge zeitgeist.

Cities must endeavour to adopt and practice more localized, succinct, inclusive and implementable planning interventions focusing to improve the overall urban form, function, and sense of place, rather going for a large-scale multi-sectoral, high-cost and time-intensive daunting master plans. Besides, urban institutions must seek to enhance their technical capacity to steer through the process of city visioning, developing design guidelines and supportive regulations to promote and incentivize the creation of robust work-live-leisure mixed use spaces rather than promoting single-function zones, sprawl and linear commercialization, like ancient Egyptian markets. And for sure, if we keep managing our 21st century cities with archaic 18th century planning tools; we will only be adding more and more to our urban fiasco.