Harvard economist Edward Glaeser once said, “There’s no such thing as a poor urbanized country; there’s no such thing as a rich rural country.” Urbanization, once considered, cancerous, is now considered as good news. With Earth’s population reaching ten billion, the urbanization looks like a cure, even a recipe for poverty alleviation. Recently, the Prime Minister Imran Khan comes up with his vision for Pakistan’s urbanization that itself is a revelation how the PM wants to deliver the future of Pakistani cities to our next generations. The history will mark his name as the first prime minister of Pakistan who ever seriously thought about the transformation needed for revitalizing the economy through urban planning. His twitter statements and further speeches at various occasions are just the explanation of what he foresees the future cities of Pakistan. As for PM’s vision is concerned, he is convinced that going vertically and compact could be a solution to combat environmental and food security issues.

Imagine for a second, the vision of Imran Khan is achieved and our mega cities are transformed with new skyline and urban identities, the small towns are just getting ready to go big, the urban economy has taken over the majority in contribution in the national GDP, the citizens are enjoying more urban amenities and more and more people are migrating to cities for a foray of socio-economic opportunities and contributing to urban economy. But look and behold, to reach that level, what we have to do? Will it be done by just a broad vision statement by the premier or do we need certain reforms in the urban development sector? To understand the complexity, we need to see the current scenario of urbanization in Pakistan and how our cities are being managed? What are the bottlenecks and what alternatives do we have? How this transformation will be done and who will be responsible? Let me explain the current set up, before I discuss how we embark on the train of opportunities.

Currently, the country doesn’t have any town and regional planning act. The only measures, through which the whole country’s urban future is positioned, are inadequate housing scheme rules, building and zoning regulations and land use conversion aka commercialization policy being enforced through multi overlapping jurisdiction of inept institutions such as Development Authorities or Local Governments (Councils, Municipal Committees and Corporations); a supra jurisdiction of cantonments and DHAs exist too. All these institutions are either run by jack-of-all-trades bureaucracy or armed forces officers with little incumbency of technical people such as urban planners, architects, engineers etc. The business interests of real-estate developers further aggravate the urban sector by introducing projects to be called housing schemes spread over thousands of acres from Khyber to Gwadar lying vacant for decades. In most part of Pakistan, the multistorey buildings are not favoured both by developers and intended buyers on the account that living vertically is not an option but a forced compromise on the pretext of affordability. The interests of persons living in multistorey buildings are not safeguarded and currently no condominium act exist in the country. The land titles and ownership procedures are too vague and not favorable for the weak buyers. The planning and development control are bureaucratically inefficient and favor only sprawl based development. The non-sanctioned development booms and that too with the connivance of public officials. Most of such schemes emerge on periurban lands on the cost of agricultural lands. The government’s role is only seen as observers with limited regulatory and policy liability. Assume this was past and we are now entering into Naya Pakistan.

By each passing day, the vision for Naya Pakistan has been getting refined. The recent policy statement of PM Khan, focuses on the potential of cities as not only engines of economic growth but he has clearly stated the future of Pakistan is urban and our cities will now be vertically grown, safeguarding environment and addressing food-security issues. This is not a simple task and is a clear stab in the back of land-mafia. What Imran Khan has specifically need to do is introduction of certain policy reforms suggested here: a National Town and Country Planning Act, this will define the broad vision of national urban picture that notifies a range of land uses to be adopted, national institutional setup and coordination mechanism between the provinces and cities.

A National Urban Policy, that addresses in terms of public policy in direct translation of SDGs and other international charters. The policy should guide the future through short, medium and long-term measures to achieve the policy visions. The respective provinces should downstream the National Urban Policy and adopt Sub-National Urban Policy accordingly.

Focusing city-specific management plans, these should address multisectoral issues respective cities are facing. These plans should deal specifically environmental management, urban management, housing, urban regeneration, infill development, transport, environmental sustainability and linked with economic goals. The matters with the land use should separately be addressed through a city specific land use plan that defines the zoning parameters such as height, compatibility of land uses, urban design guidelines and implementation mechanism.

Empowering Local Governments, the LGs should have more autonomy in terms of local decision making related with land use matters and financial controls. The building and zoning regulations should be updated with the contemporary urban planning practices happening in best cities.

Abolishing supra rules, the LGs should be responsible for running their cities rather controlled through the rules and strings in the hands of the provincial bureaucracy. The city level management needs to hire technical resources comprising urban planners, architects, engineers and urban economists etc. and of course, political maturity is highly needed in such local level decision-making to achieve a form and function of a city.

Structural reforms of urban institutions, a singular civic body should be made to exercise better planning and development control. Development Authorities should be made part of the Local Governments.

Act as enabler not as developer; it is not the business of the government to run the business. Let the urban development happen through the private sector. The government should act as facilitator. Investments in real-estate would flourish only if the regulatory regime is pro-developer, transparent and futuristic.

Initiate a comprehensive capacity building and training programme of the institutions responsible for urban planning and management. High-rises require certain skill set from the point of regulator as well such as structural safety and firefighting are crucial elements.

Make plans live by including public opinion, the cities are for citizens. Let them have their say in the planning process and include their opinions. When citizens are put in ownership, they will care about the implementation of plans in its true spirit.

Open the market for international consultants and contractors. High-rises is a very specialized field, let’s facilitate the international expertise by opening the local market for them. This will not only train the local industry and human resources but will also bring a remarkable best practice in Pakistan. We should learn how the middle-eastern cities embraced post-modern architecture and neo-urbanism by opening their market for specialized consultants, contractors and manufacturers related with building and urban planning fields. The local HR pool shall also get trained while working with the international firms.

Above all, we must remember that now cities are new nations. The cities now act as brands and are key to attract national and international market players, hence contributing to national economy. With current rate of urbanization at 3 percent per annum, 39.2 percent population being urban, Pakistan will soon embrace 50 percent urban mark in next 20 years horizon. To exploit the true potential of urban economy, the government should kick-start preparation of master plans and relevant policy measures at earliest. Let’s hope our cities turning to be another Singapore or Dubai and we see a Naya Pakistan emerging as an urban economy. Truly, only sky is the limit.