Ur­ban re­newal for Pak­istan cities


If you have lived in a mid­dle­class neigh­bor­hood in a large city in Pak­istan, you prob­a­bly grew up de­prived of what ur­ban living of­fers else­where: qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, en­ter­tain­ment, hope and op­por­tu­ni­ties.

What you know is chaos, con­ges­tion, re­li­gious zeal, vi­o­lence, and a sti­fling sense of en­trap­ment. No won­der mil­lions of Pak­istani youth have one goal: “Pak­istan se zinda bhaag” (es­cape from Pak­istan while you are still alive).

But this need not be the case. Cities in Pak­istan could be trans­formed to be­come en­gines of eco­nomic growth.

How­ever, this would re­main a dream as long as ur­ban eco­nomic devel­op­ment stays on the back­burner of Pak­istan’s eco­nomic pol­i­cy­mak­ing.

For the na­tion’s eco­nomic for­tunes to turn, ur­ban eco­nomic devel­op­ment has to be at the fore­front of eco­nomic pol­i­cy­mak­ing, which in the past has fo­cused ex­clu­sively on agri­cul­ture and man­u­fac­tur­ing, and more re­cently on remit­tances.

Pak­istan’s econ­o­mists, too, have ig­nored the sub­ject of ur­ban eco­nomic growth.

Hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of aca­demic pa­pers have been gen­er­ated that of­fer a tiny vari­a­tion on the time-se­ries mod­els that fo­cus on the macroe­co­nomics of Pak­istan’s debt-rid­den econ­omy.

That is why hav­ing one of the na­tion’s pre­em­i­nent econ­o­mists, Dr. Nadeem ul Haque, fo­cus on ur­ban economies is a rare but wel­come event.

In a re­cent PIDE (Pak­istan In­sti­tute of Devel­op­ment Eco­nomics) work­ing pa­per, Dr. Haque makes a strong case for de­vel­op­ing cities to their po­ten­tial to trig­ger eco­nomic growth.

He iden­ti­fies sev­eral short­com­ings that have pre­vented ur­ban economies from reach­ing their po­ten­tial in Pak­istan.

I would sub­mit that sim­i­lar short­com­ings have been preva­lent in North Amer­ica and Europe, where hun­dreds of bustling me­trop­o­lis de­vel­oped and thrived.

It is, there­fore, im­por­tant to un­der­stand the unique fail­ures of pol­icy and so­cial or­der that have kept Pak­istan’s ur­ban cen­ters in a state of de­spair.

Dr. Haque laments the paucity of ur­ban re­search in Pak­istan.

But this is also true for North Amer­ica. The cel­e­brated eco­nomics de­part­ments in North Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties of­ten boast lit­tle more than a to­ken ur­ban econ­o­mist.

De­part­ments with two ur­ban­fo­cused aca­demics claim to of­fer an “ur­ban” spe­cial­iza­tion!

Com­pare re­search in macroe­co­nomics, which is be­ing pro­duced with industrial ef­fi­ciency, to re­search in ur­ban eco­nomics, which is few and far be­tween in the West.

Al­ter­na­tively, com­pare the num­ber of books pub­lished with macroe­co­nomics in their ti­tle to those high­light­ing ur­ban eco­nomics on the cover page.

Based on the sales vol­ume, the best­selling ur­ban eco­nomics ti­tle on Ama­zon.com is ranked 187,207. In com­par­i­son, the text on macroe­co­nomics is ranked much higher at 1,431.

The dom­i­nance of small builders is a com­mon trait too.

Dr. Haque high­lights that un­like North Amer­ica, where large builders mass-pro­duce hous­ing, res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment is largely done by in­di­vid­ual house­holds or small­sized de­vel­op­ers in Pak­istan.

While it is true that large builders and land de­vel­op­ers are un­com­mon in Pak­istan, the house­build­ing in­dus­try in North Amer­ica is also dom­i­nated by a large num­ber of small builders.

Michael Buzzelli, who is cur­rently a pro­fes­sor of Geog­ra­phy at West­ern Uni­ver­sity, stud­ied the struc­ture of house-build­ing firms in North Amer­ica.

Dr. Buzzelli and I were con­tem­po­raries and fo­cused on the sup­ply side of hous­ing equa­tion for our doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tions. Dr. Buzzelli’s find­ings are quite re­veal­ing.

His re­search showed that the house-build­ing in­dus­try “con­tin­ued to be the pre­serve of small firms, when over 85 per­cent of all builders con­structed no more than 25 units each.”

He fur­ther noted that roughly one-third of small builders con­structed just one house a year.

The other not so com­monly known fact about large home-builders in North Amer­ica is that they are con­sid­ered large not be­cause of their size, but be­cause of the num­ber of hous­ing units they pro­duce un­der their brand.

Es­sen­tially, large builders are ag­glom­er­ates of a large num­ber of small builders and trades who are in­di­vid­u­ally in­cor­po­rated busi­nesses that col­lab­o­rate to pro­duce a large num­ber of hous­ing units un­der the same brand.

What we need is a bet­ter def­i­ni­tion of the term “ur­ban.”

The other key lim­i­ta­tion of ur­ban pol­i­cy­mak­ing in Pak­istan is how one may de­fine “ur­ban.”

The gov­ern­ment uses ar­bi­trary ad­min­is­tra­tive bound­aries to de­fine what is ur­ban and what is not. Some re­searchers have ar­gued that Pak­istan is more ur­ban than what the of­fi­cial statis­tics show.

Dr. Haque quotes re­search which claims that al­most 70 per­cent of Pak­istan is ei­ther ur­ban or ur­ban­iz­ing.

This is rather ex­ag­ger­ated and it com­pli­cates fur­ther the task of re­form­ing ur­ban economies.

He quotes un­pub­lished work from South Asia In­sti­tute at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity that shows 39.7 per­cent of Pun­jab’s pop­u­la­tion to be ur­ban and an ad­di­tional 33.2 per­cent ur­ban­iz­ing.

Al­most 40 per­cent of Sindh’s pop­u­la­tion is es­ti­mated to be ur­ban with an ad­di­tional 19.4 per­cent ur­ban­iz­ing. The devil, how­ever, is in the de­tail.

The re­port con­sid­ers an area “ur­ban” if it has a gross pop­u­la­tion den­sity of 500 per­sons per square kilo­me­ter.

The other cri­te­rion for be­ing ur­ban is a min­i­mum pop­u­la­tion thresh­old of 100,000 or more in a sin­gle place de­fined by the cen­sus.

The min­i­mum gross pop­u­la­tion den­sity for an ur­ban­iz­ing area is set at 250 per­sons per square kilo­me­ter.

I am con­cerned that the den­sity thresh­olds have been set too low. Take La­hore for in­stance, where the pop­u­la­tion den­sity in cen­tral ar­eas, such as Ravi Town was recorded at 25,000 per­sons per square kilo­me­ter (based on the 1998 cen­sus).

The pop­u­la­tion den­sity in Can­ton­ment was recorded at 5,800 per­sons per square kilo­me­ter.

Even the sparsely pop­u­lated Wagha Town re­ported a pop­u­la­tion den­sity of 1,100 per­sons per square kilo­me­ter, which is more than twice the pop­u­la­tion den­sity thresh­olds de­fined ear­lier.

One needs to ac­knowl­edge that what sur­rounds the hap­haz­ardly grow­ing ur­ban ar­eas of Pak­istan are not ur­ban­iz­ing ar­eas, but Ru­ralopolises.

Th­ese ar­eas “un­der­line the fu­sion of ru­ral eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tems with metropoli­tan spa­tial or­ga­ni­za­tions. Ru­ralopolises are the sites of ur­ban­iza­tion through im­plo­sion.”

Dr. Haque rightly iden­ti­fies the lack of in­sti­tu­tions and gov­er­nance struc­tures that have con­trib­uted to the sorry state of Pak­istan’s ur­ban cen­ters.

It is hard to imag­ine an ur­ban gov­er­nance struc­ture in the ab­sence of ur­ban or lo­cal gov­ern­ments and sta­ble in­sti­tu­tions that could en­force plans and pre­vent their vi­o­la­tions.

A stronger con­sti­tu­tional cover is needed to pro­tect the lo­cal gov­ern­ments from be­com­ing vic­tims of pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments, which have re­peat­edly and de­lib­er­ately de­feated at­tempts to evolve demo­cratic gov­er­nance at the mu­nic­i­pal level.

This also re­quires abol­ish­ing Can­ton­ment Boards that ef­fec­tively dis­en­fran­chise cit­i­zens by deny­ing them the right to run and lead their lo­cal gov­ern­ments.

Also, his point about the lack of high-den­sity mixed use de­vel­op­ments in ur­ban Pak­istan is spot on.

Where are the tower cranes, he asks. He iden­ti­fies the blind ad­her­ence to the Gar­den City utopia that led to low-den­sity res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hoods.

As a re­sult of that, ur­ban devel­op­ment poli­cies in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized ur­ban sprawl in Pak­istan.

The low-den­sity devel­op­ment con­trib­uted to con­vert­ing ex­ces­sive con­ver­sion of fer­tile agri­cul­tural land to low-den­sity res­i­den­tial land uses.

If hous­ing were de­vel­oped at high-den­sity in mid- to high-rise de­vel­op­ments, the land con­ver­sion would have taken place at a much slower pace.

How­ever, ur­ban gov­er­nance mech­a­nisms have to be im­proved be­fore any high-den­sity devel­op­ment can be de­liv­ered in Pak­istan.

Ur­ban land is the in­stru­ment of wealth cre­ation in Pak­istan. This fact is not lost on politi­cians, armed forces per­son­nel, and even mem­bers of the ju­di­ciary.

Ev­ery pow­er­ful group in Pak­istan has laid claims on land all across Pak­istan.

Hous­ing schemes have been de­vel­oped for the ben­e­fit of the in­ter­est groups who have ac­quired land at highly sub­si­dized rates, de­vel­oped hous­ing, and flipped prop­er­ties for as­tro­nom­i­cal prof­its.

On the other hand, plumbers, ma­chine op­er­a­tors, restau­rant work­ers and mil­lions like them lack the in­sti­tu­tional back­ing en­joyed by the oth­ers to ac­quire hun­dreds of hectares for the ben­e­fit of their com­mu­nity.

For eq­ui­table eco­nomic growth in Pak­istan, ac­cess to state land for planned devel­op­ment has to hap­pen for all, and not just for the priv­i­leged few.

Ev­ery first Fri­day of the month is the most im­por­tant day for fi­nan­cial mar­kets in the United States. The gov­ern­ment re­leases the non­farm pay­roll statis­tics for the pre­vi­ous month.

The num­ber of jobs cre­ated in the past month in­flu­ences the in­ter­est rates and the larger econ­omy.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment dili­gently re­ports the em­ploy­ment statis­tics ev­ery month in the United States.

When was the last time such num­bers were re­ported on a regular in­ter­val for Pak­istan?

Has the econ­omy gen­er­ated or lost jobs dur­ing the ten­ure of a gov­ern­ment in Pak­istan is a ques­tion of prime im­por­tance, yet it is sel­dom raised by the elec­torate, and hence never an­swered.

If job cre­ation were a real con­cern of the gov­ern­ment, it would have fo­cused on cre­at­ing the right en­vi­ron­ments for ur­ban cen­ters to be­come en­gines of eco­nomic growth and pro­vide em­ploy­ment to the mil­lions of youth who have come of age in the past few decades.

But it is clear that they do not care enough.

At the same time, ur­ban cen­ters lack in­fra­struc­ture for en­ter­tain­ment. Dr. Haque notes that the De­fence Hous­ing Author­ity in La­hore has 26 mosques, one cinema, and a li­brary.

It should there­fore come as no sur­prise that the ur­ban youth have em­braced re­li­gious fa­nati­cism in a place where en­ter­tain­ment is scarce and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions aplenty.

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