Sustainable cities and communities have been identified as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 11 – sustainable, green and resilient cities – forms the defining constructs of an emerging urban planning paradigm that is fast gaining global traction. Here, strategic plans are replacing master plans. Gated communities and urban sprawl, supported by private automobile-friendly transportation infrastructure, are being discouraged to promote mixed, integrated neighbourhoods with walking and bicycling supportive streets. With more than half of the world’s population presently residing in urban centres, these designs serve as the frontlines in the battle against climate change. In addition, major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, that are warming up the planet are based in cities. Therefore, how we live, travel and consume all have a bearing on climate change. So, in smart cities, innovations in urban design will catalyse changes in lifestyles.
With Pakistan rapidly urbanising, managing such sustained urbanisation processes is a critical development challenge. According to the 2011 Task Force Report on Urban Development by the Planning Commission, demographic trends have shown an average annual rate of urbanisation exceeding 4pc since 1951. By the year 2030, Pakistan is estimated to become predominantly urban with 45.6pc of its population living in urban areas, and about 12 cities housing more than one million people. There are various challenges for attaining sustainable growth, where dividends can be shared by all — and one such challenge is a dysfunctional governance construct. It is globally recognised that urban planning is placed within the mandate of local government. Not so in Pakistan. In terms of policy-making and service provision, city governments are not empowered with the provincial tier of governance encroaching on various municipal functions. This is a critical fault-line, as a multiplicity in role allocations when it comes to policy, planning and service provision in the absence of effective coordination mechanisms leads to fragmented development. This also creates governance vacuums, mostly in service provision filled by an unregulated informal sector.
In Karachi alone, control over land and service provision is shared between 13 land controlling and management authorities, with a parallel, informal and undocumented economy. However, sustainable cities are not those with smart infrastructure, dotted with solar panels. In fact, they promote inclusive growth and have a strong public agenda with planning priorities catering to society’s most vulnerable groups. With regards to the latter, our cities are severely challenged without an inclusive development agenda. The targets associated with SDG 11 look into integrating social, environmental and economic considerations. For example, there is a focus on ensuring access to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and upgrading of slums. In terms of indicator setting, the measure of sustainability of a city is linked with the percentage of the population living in slum settlements — the lesser the percentage, the more sustainable the city will become. Slums are alarmingly on the rise in urban centres, including a city like Islamabad. In Karachi, about 50pc of the population resides in slum settlements.
The target calling for sustainable transport stresses that systems for public transportation should be affordable and accessible for all. Karachi, a city of over 20 million, is not served by a public transportation system, for example. Then, it is important that elements of physical growth are dovetailed with the need to preserve natural and heritage assets. In Lahore, while investment is being made in public transport, there is a serious concern that it is at the cost of the city’s historical heritage. Similar inclusive guidelines are considered when setting targets for green and public spaces. In larger urban centres, green development is often linked with gated communities — the antithesis of a smart city.
The SDGs cannot offer answers to all the challenges of urban growth in Pakistan, but can help identify a roadmap of policy and institutional reforms needed to support effective implementation. They also call for setting in place a robust monitoring mechanism that is dependent on data availability. In a country where a national census has not been conducted since 1998, the non-availability of updated data on important urban growth indicators will be a critical implementation roadblock. Therefore, there is an urgent need to develop a consensus-based strategy for sustainable urbanisation. Critically important is the framing of a governance construct that empowers city governments with appropriate powers, functions and access to resources. There is an urban revolution taking place globally where the role of the state is being reinvented — the role of not providing for all but rather ensuring that all are provided for. This is opening the way for exciting collaborations and partnerships between the state, the private sector, communities and other urban stakeholders. We need to create a similar enabling environment where innovation, diversity and enterprise – hallmarks of urban settlements – find new life and energy to redefine our urban landscape. A sustainable city requires a public agenda ,and that cannot happen unless urban governance is made transparent and socially accountable.
By Farhan Anwar
(The writer is the Executive Director at Sustainable Initiatives, a not-for-profit organisation based in Karachi. He can be contacted at email@example.com)