Rediscovering Pakistan’s inner cities


Rediscovering Pakistan’s inner cities

Ayaz Amir

The craze for expanding our cities horizontally has gone too far. Take Lahore. Once upon a time Punjab University and Thokar Niaz Beg marked the city’s outer limits. Beyond that the rural scene started.

On the eastern side—towards the Indian border—it was all farmland and villages. All that land, once dedicated to agriculture, is now part of Lahore’s Defence Housing Authority. Nor is the phenomenon of relentless urban expansion confined to Lahore. Senior journalist Wasif Nagi was recently lamenting the fact that mango orchards around Multan, growing the legendary Chaunsa, were being uprooted to make way for housing societies.

All over Pakistan precious agricultural land is being destroyed in this manner. Has anyone thought of the consequences? Cement, mortar and infrastructure are important but a balance has to be kept. Advanced nations at the cutting edge of technological and scientific innovation don’t neglect the land. In fact they remain agricultural pioneers as well. We should think about this—urban expansion is all very well but it must be kept under check and it must be monitored, which means that there must be rules and regulations governing the process.

The current free-for-all whereby everyone is investing in land and housing societies are spreading like a virus is suicidal. Is anyone thinking about this problem? I think the honest answer is no. Governments, all of them—central and provincial—are into other things. They have no time and certainly no inclination to worry themselves over issues which bring no immediate political benefits.

There are votes to be had from road expansion and traffic flyovers. There is political advantage in setting up power plants, even if a coal-fired plant is set up on fertile agricultural land in the very agricultural district of Sahiwal. But there are no votes in a chief minister of Punjab or Sindh holding forth on the evils of uncontrolled urban expansion.

The economist Nadeem-ul-Haque has written passionately about the need for our cities to go up— that is, to rise vertically rather than spread horizontally. To cite one showcase of vertical expansion, Hong Kong, where land is scarce, is a city of skyscrapers…an endless vista of high-rises in which most of the population lives. In Singapore, which again is a land-scarce city-state, land has been reclaimed from the sea and efforts are on to reclaim more.

Apart from other factors driving urban expansion in Pakistan one important reason lies in the way we have neglected our inner city areas. For example, in British times and well after Partition the area around the Mall in Lahore was where the best houses used to be. This was Lahore’s downtown where you had cafes and teahouses and hotels like the Faletti’s and Park Luxury where people met and talked literature and politics. And there were any number of watering holes where the convivially-inclined could meet over a glass of something or the other.

Temple Road (from Mozang to Charing Cross), Egerton Road, Cooper Road, Davis Road, Empress Road, Queen’s Road…these were all laidback neighbourhoods. The only housing society of note was Model Town, designed and built by the great Sir Ganga Ram, located in what then were the city’s outskirts.

This was British Lahore as opposed to Mughal and Sikh Lahore which was the old or walled city next to Akbar’ majestic fort and the stately Badshahi mosque constructed by the Emperor Aurangzeb. But the times changed. Car showrooms sprang up on Temple Road and Jail Road. Mechanics came and set up their workshops. The cafes and teahouses of the Mall disappeared and in their place opened up shoe and clothing stores.

With prohibition and the onset of officially-inspired piety the old watering holes were left with no choice but to close down. Floorshows which were a regular feature, say, at the Faletti’s came to an end. With cinema houses no longer the popular avenues they once were it seemed as if an entire era was coming to a close. The gentry moved out to new places, like Gulberg and then in the fullness of time Cavalry Ground and then Defence. That march hasn’t stopped and Lahore continues to spread in all directions far beyond its once well-defined limits at what almost seems breakneck speed.

The point I am trying to get at is that if our city developers had any sense, and if they could somehow break out of the housing society craze in whose spell they are caught, the old downtown area of Lahore, comprising all the roads with the empire names, can still be rediscovered and recreated anew. Not only can the old glory be brought back, it can be enhanced. What Times Square is to New York, or Soho and the West End to London, this downtown area can become for Lahore.

With the right incentives the shoe and clothing stores can again become cafes and teahouses. But before this reclamation project is undertaken a crucial condition would have to be fulfilled: the footpaths of the Mall, now in permanent occupation of motorcycles, would have to be reclaimed. The traffic generally would have to be regulated because as things stand today, the entire city of Lahore is in danger of being overrun by the motorcar.

In Paris and some other cities the experiment has been tried of banning for one or two days of the week all vehicles from city centres, and it has been a resounding success. Imagine if the Mall were closed to traffic for, let’s say, two days of the week—no motorcycles, no cars, only bicycles and the red buses recently introduced by the chief minister, a more useful initiative than any overhead metro bus service. It would do everyone a world of good. Shopkeepers and other tradesmen would especially rejoice because with more women and children walking the Mall business prospects would grow.

Downtown Lahore still has character. There are any number of old buildings and houses which recall the glory days of the past. Does Cavalry Ground have any character? Defence may be a comfortable place to live in but I think even enthusiastic souls wouldn’t credit it with anything like character. Famous cities everywhere haven’t destroyed their past. They have preserved and built on it. We have been unkind to history and tradition. And we seem to have a national grudge against trees and vegetation.

We have unlocked the nuclear code but we can’t keep our cities clean and must rely on Turkish or Chinese companies to lift garbage from our biggest metropolises such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi. The capital still doesn’t have a system for the disposal of solid waste, although we keep splurging scarce resources on showy projects whose utility is next to nothing. Is there something wrong with the Pakistani imagination?

We should realize that before democracy came to much of Europe, there came city autonomy. Even under monarchies, and absolute monarchies at that, city affairs were managed by city fathers. There were lord majors of London and other cities in the time of Shakespeare. Here in Pakistan the concept of city autonomy does not exist. And local elections are held only after judicial intervention. This surely calls for updating the definition of Pakistani democracy.