Lahore has been a lucky city for having an incumbent government that is committed to urban development and image improvement. During the time of CM Shahbaz Sharif, Lahore has seen an increase in investment and employment opportunities that have decisively placed the city on the regional map. Hence, to say that the Chief Minister and his office do not have the future of Lahore in mind would be an entirely inaccurate assumption. What, perhaps, is less inaccurate is the concern over the lack of inclusiveness on the future development of Lahore.

Ironically, this is not the first time the introduction of a train line has divided the city. Historians have long argued that the introduction of the railway system during the colonial era disrupted the socio-economic traditions of old Lahore. The colonial railway system introduced a modern way of life that separated the city into two halves – both socio-economically and physically.

Similarly, the Orange Line will not only divide old and new Lahore once again, but is likely to introduce a economic and social variety that the city and its people must be prepared for.

While the recent uproar created over the Orange Train line project in Lahore and its allegedly controversial route plan has been able to get responses both from the Chief Minister as well as the Prime Minister, there remains much to be done to involve the civil society in the development process.

Groups like The Lahore Bachao Tehreek, the Office of Conservation and Community Outreach (OCCO), the Lahore Conservation Society and the HRCP have rallied together along with prominent professionals from the architecture and engineering fraternity to raise concerns about the proposed route. Are they misinformed or is information not being made available? Is the process decision making transparent? Is there a political agenda against the Government? What is the cause of this distrust and fragmentation between the citizens and their government?

Whatever the case may be, it is safe to assume that the urban planning and design community in Lahore is bifurcated. There is a consummate lack of consensus on design and planning approaches for the city. It is worthwhile to note that the presence of active debate on Lahore’s urban future is a decisively good thing; it should be seen as an opportunity to move towards a healthier development discourse.

How well the government will use this citizen awakening remains to be seen. An altruistic and inclusive urban government will widen the space for collaboration and consensus. Such a move will allow the city to benefit from its existing and increasing professional talent in the architecture and planning professions.

There are valid concerns that the top down approach currently in practice carries the risk of both legal irregularities and design flaws. In a city like Lahore, historic urban fabric is wide spread and cutting into it requires careful consideration. This consideration ought to begin with a plurality of voices in the design phase. Designing for development is a consultative process anchored in the basic principles of democracy.

Lahore, a historic bustling metropolis, needs to be developed and designed keeping in mind both the diversity of its people and its physical forms. This diversity is what lends it its unique social ambiance, its culture and charm.

Poverty and traffic congestion have long been used as the main impetus for mega infrastructure planning in Lahore. However, urban development cannot – and must not – be limited to physical infrastructure. These new projects ought to be counterbalanced with requisite awareness raising and sensitivity to the myriad socio-spatial realities at the neighborhoods level. Seldom does one hear of efforts to address socio-economic disruption caused by flyover and underpass construction. This lack of attention at the micro scale is part of project - instead of people- oriented development model currently being implemented. The people of Lahore are being treated as large swathes being shuttled from point A to point B for commerce, but little is being designed to give various groups of citizen’s spaces to interact with each other. In addition, those slated to be the commuters on the Orange Line make up only a fraction of the city’s workforce.

But Lahore is a city with socio-economic practices moored significantly in the history of the urban surroundings – its economy and society are heavily dependent on century old street culture and folklore. To develop a city with such rich a history and tradition, the government must ask itself an important question: How well will the future Lahore – as imagined via these mega infrastructure projects - integrate with the historically, religiously, economically and culturally significant Lahore of yesterday and today?

In an effort to introduce new economic opportunities and reduce traffic congestion, there is a serious threat posed to the very spirit of the city; its people. Lahori’s – as is evident in the protests this week – are frustrated by on-going construction, neighborhood displacement and economic fragmentation in the city. The citizenry is divided on what is best for it – in a metropolis as large as Lahore, a difference of viewpoint is expected, but is the government the only voice in designing and planning the city we all do – and will – live in?

Not all who are protesting the route alignment of the Orange Train Line postulate themselves as anti-development; in fact some of the groups involved have offered support to the government in its noble efforts to improve the city. Alternatives have been offered and violation of laws has been pointed out but the response has been thus far iron fisted. With an election coming up, a wiser urban government would work with its people to imagine a Lahore that thrives in the past, present and in the future.