Applying Urban Thinking to Islamabad

Islamabad is beautiful and idyllic. It is rightly considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world – one that its residents justifiably pride in . So it may come as a bitter pill but the sooner we talk of these issues, the better. For Islamabad, the designed city. was never designed to be a city or to house the over million people that it is now home to.

Cities drive prosperity by bringing people and opportunities together with dense construction and good transport. Thus, successful cities are tall and well-connected while managing the problems of density with services (i.e. sanitation, transport) to promote citizens’ well-being, health and productivity. Islamabad is a 50 year old “designed” city whose safety and suburban beauty make it desirable. However, its design ignored key principles of urbanisation or its future growth. This has come to hurt it and its problems are only piling.

Islamabad is a large city that is spread over 900 square kilometres but has a population of merely 1.9 million. Compare that with the megapolis Karachi that is home to 24 million people but is spread over 1360 square kilometres. That means Islamabad has 2,100 people per square kilometres compared to 17,650 in Karachi, around 25,000 for Shanghai and 46,000 for either Kolkata or Mumbai.

Its short buildings (rarely above 12 meters due to height limit regulations), limited space for new development and in-migration have caused property prices to skyrocket. In fact Islamabad’s property values are among the 20 highest worldwide. Over 90% businesses operate in residential areas, further straining residential stock while causing traffic problems; as commercial real estate to accommodate these is simply unavailable. Recent ill informed campaigns to expels businesses have been fortunately thwarted. One can only imagine the effects of successfully pushing out all businesses to the few commercial areas had been. Very likely the rents would have increased by 4-5 fold, meaning that the average small office that now pays 100,000 or so in rent would be paying around 0.5 million a month. Wonder how many businesses would have survived or how viable would the city have been after losing nearly all of private sector service related employment.

Although idyllic, Islamabad’s services are sporadic and expensive. Electricity, natural gas and electricity are supplied discontinuously for few to several hours daily. Rolling electricity blackouts, once unheard of in Islamabad, now happen for 6-8 hours during peak summer. We are so used to such blackouts for water that we think it normal for water to be supplied for only half to one hour a day. Much of this lack of quality of service relate to how they are priced. All pricing of services is central, with no connection to their actual usage/ availability. Erratic supplies lead to additional costs for storage i.e. water tanks and UPS and use-insensitive pricing leads to overuse of water and electricity when they are available, which further aggravates shortages.

Municipal services cost over Rs. 125,000 per household annually (although only a few thousand of these are directly charged to customers, the rest come from budgetary allocations by the federal government and although we all pay for them, its through indirect taxation and generally invisible), excluding the costs of police, infrastructure and the land transferred to city employees. More importantly the various agencies that manage the city don’t answer to citizenry. Political representation of Islamabad is via the entire National Assembly rather than dedicated members. One has heard of the old axiom: when many are responsible for something, no one is responsible for it.

Recently initiated public transport, connects few areas; requiring nearly all 500,000 children and employees to commute to school and work in private vehicles. This excercise is repeated twice a day. The resulting traffic jams are aggravated by bottlenecked roads, roadblocks and traffic lights that malfunction during peak hours. Just as an example, if all commuters wasted just 10 extra minutes of their time each way, that adds up to 5700 years of time wasted. Roughly equal to 89 lifetimes. Each year. Add to this the costs of wasted fuel while idling, that comes to around Rs. 21 billion a year. All because we choose to ignore how modern cities manage their transport and traffic.

Islamabad can grow into a model city provided its growth is re-conceptualised with services that answer to citizens through political representation, use competition to manage supplies and costs of civic amenity, relax laws on construction height and expand its public transport system. In these it can learn from the Singapore, London and New York.

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Independence Day 69 – Thanks for Our Home

Yesterday was Pakistan’s 69th independence day. Some celeberated exuberantly, while others remembered the ongoing sorrows. However, in the balance there was more cheer on the street than in recent years. And why not. Our independence day should be celebrated, if not for any other reason than the fact that we are free; for people without a land have wretched lives. Unhomed are never welcome anywhere.

That there were more people out in the streets than in recent years is good. Recent years have seen ordinary citizens abdicate public spaces to those who kill, terrorise or loot. For that reason alone it is good that so many Pakistanis felt safe enough to start reclaiming these spaces. It would be even better to have more places and activities where people can celebrate. But even when there are such few outlets for their joy, people turned out, claiming Pakistan as their own.

I see this as a slow and subtle turning point. Pakistan has not been easy for its citizens. Even today, a woman dies every half hour while giving birth and over half of our children and mothers are malnourished. Fewer than half the children study beyond secondary level and even when they do, they can’t read or write at that level. Nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line. 68 years later, this is not what nearly 2 million of our ancestors gave up their lives to achieve. They would want more prosperity for their children. So one may ask where is the turning point.

Slowly, things are improving. One sees the prosperity in the cities. The middle class has expanded. The GDP has more than doubled in the past decade. Indicators for development, health and education have improved albeit slowly. One felt that much that could have been possible in the past decade was squandered while the state played the militant game. This year, it appears that this game may be winding or at least tempering down. Any way, with a marked reduction in terrorist attacks on civilians and in public places this year, the change is noticeable and people are feeling a sense of safety.

Hopefully this will continue. People will continue to reclaim public places back from the militants and terrorists. The expressions of celebrations will transform from these forays into public spaces and flag waving to more constructive “owning” of the country. But this will take some time. People still have to feel that the country is their’s because it benefits them. Not a place where they pay all kinds of taxes while they also take care of their families and loved ones. All that will take time and will require continued stability, safety and some measure of economic independence. People need to continue to feel that their efforts can consistently give them returns and not be arbitrarily taken away from them at someone powerful’s whim. This feeling is still too strong and with good reasons. The state and its government remain whimsical and arbitrary. But even that is slowing down as people have learnt to protest and make it heard. Hopefully this trend grows, driven by increasing autonomy and economic power of the people and the resultant ability to be heard by their leaders.

Still the road is long. But in the meantime, let us be thankful. We have a land that is ours where all this can play out. Onwards to another decade. May its end see us better off than now, by far.