By Nadeem ul Haq and Moazzam Husain
FROM antiquity, cities have performed political and commercial functions and served as cultural and social centres. In recent history, the ideas of the Renaissance were incubated in Florence. From here they grew out and ignited the Industrial Revolution which paved the way for the rise of Western civilisation. Cities were small and compact.
Ours too were dense cities, with skill and professional clusters and culture. Go back to pre-colonial Peshawar. Inside the walled city you would find clusters of dentists, potters, money changers and coppersmiths. In Qissa Khwani bazaar, listen! Story poems (badalas) recited beautifully to interested, inquiring audiences in dense urban, commercial settings.
But now we have uncultured suburban sprawl where once was a vibrant city. Why?
The car and cheap oil changed the anatomy of cities everywhere. In addition, bureaucratic and pretentious planning believed life could be segmented into compartments of commerce, housing and entertainment. The result was complex zoning laws that spread the city far and wide, making people hostage to cars. Wide avenues, underpasses and overhead highways became the arteries of cities while people were hived into housing colonies to work in distant commercial areas and seek officialdom in still distant compartments.
Not surprisingly, community, culture, public space and life were crowded out. The cosmopolitan city experience that energised Leonardo, Dickens, Picasso, Marquez and Iqbal has been strangled by the car and that new priesthood, the urban planner. As a result, density has given gave way to sprawl; community to heightened individualism; and sidewalk, walkability and human interaction to the automobile.
The post-colonial bureaucracy who had gained control of our cities’ inherited elite, publicly owned housing for private use. It didn’t take it long to realise that zoning could be a lucrative rent-seeking game and land development could bring personal rewards.
The result was sprawling DHAs and similar developments for the rich, in some places eating up valuable agricultural land — 200 years of irrigation investments — which continue to be converted into suburban housing year after year. Karachi’s protected mangrove forests could face similar predation. Of course, the poor were zoned out of the system and thrown to squatter settlements to suffer epithets of ‘informal’ and ‘illegal’.
So if cites are engines of growth, are we giving ours traction to pull the economy? Karachi has grown rapidly into an unmanageable urban mess. What can we learn from experience elsewhere?
Bogotá was a troubled city, characterised by drugs, conflict, lawlessness and crime. It was without self-esteem and ownership, its quality of life one of the lowest in Latin America. Yet a city governance model transformed Bogotá in the course of a decade. Copying isolated projects of Bogotá, (like the Metro buses) does not bring transformation without including the kernel ingredients of the policy: densification, high rise — mixed use developments, walkability and improved citizenship.
The current paradigm favouring cars and sprawl must change to one that favours people, community and life. Bogotá’s dangerous ghettos and slums have been opened up by a wide strip of 27 kilometres featuring play spaces, park land and walking and cycling tracks. Such initiatives nurture identity, encourage volunteerism, and have been known to improve citizenship and reduce crime rates.
Cities and citizens thrive when culture thrives. In contrast we have seen cultural focal points including foreign ones such as the Goethe Institutes and Alliance Française centres in our cities diminish. Cultural vitalisation begins with ‘place-making’ — creating destinations that people want to go to. Streets, public markets, waterfronts, public buildings, libraries, exhibition centres, museums, downtowns, squares and parks are foundations of civil society and cornerstones of democracy. Culturally vibrant cities are creative cities. They catalyse innovation, private investment and foster grass-roots entrepreneurial activities.
Transformation, how? By writing new rules to change rules. Developing new zoning regulations to favour high density, mixed use developments over sprawl, favouring public transport over cars and creating public spaces for cultural revitalisation.
The maze of bureaucracies and antiquated regulations only perpetuate status quo and foster entropy. They need to be replaced with autonomous city governments that can reduce over-regulation, allow urban reform and bring in open, consultative policy and decision-making mechanisms. With its road map to achieve transformation, Bogotá was able to increase city revenues. It was able to bring in private investment through public-private partnership mechanisms and float municipal bonds to raise money for transformation.
The genius of turning our cities to become engines of growth already exists in our people. All they need is to be given an enabling environment.
2014 – Dawn Media Group