Why Pakistani cities should go

‘horizontal’, not ‘vertical’

Sooner or later Pakistan has to answer an important question: How do we design and build our cities? The question is important for two reasons. First, our population is growing at an approximate rate of 1.6% per year. This translates to about three million new people every year — equivalent to a city the size of Multan. And second, accelerating urbanisation — the movement of people from rural areas to the cities in search of jobs. The combined pressure of these two factors means that existing cities will continue to grow into the foreseeable future. And at some point new cities will need to be built.

Cities can grow in two ways: Vertically or horizontally or some combination of both. Vertically means building multi-storey structures — five storeys and beyond. And horizontally means building relatively flat structures — up to 4 storeys. Both options have their benefits and disadvantages.

Going vertical makes sense if there is paucity of land — as is the case, for example, in Manhattan or Hong Kong. But if the availability of land is not an issue then it almost always makes sense to prefer a horizontal approach to urban planning. This is especially true in less developed countries like Pakistan.

Going vertical means that in fact the city does not expand geographically but that existing spaces are used to build multi-storey buildings to accommodate more people. This immediately stresses essential infrastructure — water supply, sewage disposal, gas and electric supply. When these systems were put in place they did not foresee that a plot which would normally house eight or ten people now has a multi-storey building on it which houses several hundred people. And since much of this infrastructure is underground upgrading it is near impossible.

There are also serious sociological and psychological consequences of people literally living on top of each other. This is especially true for a country with an overwhelmingly young population — some 63 million Pakistanis are under the age of 14. Children need playgrounds, parks and recreational areas. Our cities are already woefully short of these. Cramming children into apartments or having them loiter in narrow lanes is no way to bring up a new generation.

The extent to which the ‘vertical’ experiment has failed is visible in most large Pakistani cities. With the exception of a few upper end highrises, multi-storey residential buildings have become places of squalor and desperation. People live there because they have to, not because they want to.

On the other hand the ‘horizontal’ model has much going for it. Pakistan is a vast land. We have no shortage of space. Cities can easily expand. New communities — micro cities — can be planned with wide roads, playgrounds, parks and recreational facilities. Low cost housing options can be explored. The quality of life in these communities will be vastly better than is possible in cramped urban high rises.

Such horizontal communities also make possible the implementation of new concepts in urban design which seek to provide decentralized utility services. A new micro city can, for example, be planned to have its own sewage disposal system. This becomes especially relevant as centralised services have started to fail. The city of Karachi dumps millions of tonnes of raw sewage into the Arabian Sea because existing sewage treatment facilities are either insufficient or non existent. So a new micro city in Karachi could process and dispose sewage locally.

The same applies to power generation. Centralised power generation and distribution in Pakistan is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. Some areas of the country now see only a few hours of utility power a day. New technologies make local power generation at the micro city level economically feasible. The cost of solar panels has now dropped to a level where it is possible to set up small ‘solar farms’ to provide basic power requirements for lighting and appliances. Work now being done with fuel cells will soon broaden the available options.

To move forward with the micro city concept we need first to put a stop to creeping ‘verticalisation’. Imposing a blanket ban on buildings taller than four stories in all Pakistani cities would be a good place to start. At the same time we must commission our architects, engineers, and urban planners to bring their skills, creativity and intelligence to making micro cities a reality.

Courtesy Khaleej Times.