On integrated urbanism | Political economics

RWalking around big cities, you only see people and vehicles. Lahore, for example, once the city of gardens, has become a jumble where smog clouds make clean air a luxury. Data shows that Pakistan has the fastest rate of urbanization in South Asia, so almost 50% of the population is expected to live in cities by 2025. Analysts say the uncontrolled increase in the population and the constantly increasing rural exodus are two main causes of the high population density in urban areas.

This piece aims to highlight the need for innovative and adaptive solutions to deal with the disorder of urbanization and its growing impact on the general well-being of the general public.

Urbanization can bring both problems and opportunities. People move to cities in the hope of benefiting from better socio-economic conditions and an environment where upward social mobility seems feasible. Unfortunately, the situation is more complex than it seems. People aspire to diversify their sources of income or to move away from the conventional mode of remuneration. Some families and young people move to cities for the “quality” and a way of life offering more freedom. Academics believe that such goals can only be achieved if city-focused public institutions are active, urban governance effective, and the distribution of public goods equitable. Otherwise, urban inequalities continue to grow, making it even more difficult to provide basic amenities to those left behind in the midst of rampant urban growth.

In recent times, critics have paid more attention to the field of urban planning. In retrospect, the problems we face today emerged from the way cities were and still are planned, built and expanded. Lahore’s first master plan was designed in 1966. This made Lahore the first city in Pakistan to have an exclusive master plan. The city therefore had a history of large-scale planning before reaching the current Master Plan 2050, which is currently under consideration. Concerns about impractical plans and the lack of an implementation mechanism are justified.

Two possible solutions can be proposed at this stage. The first is to make the urban planning process more inclusive and coordinated. Cities cannot be seen as mere commercial hubs or residential areas. People-centred city development is possible when the voices of all stakeholders and social factions are part of the integrated planning process, achievable through improved information and communication technologies (ICT). Gathering ideas from people is not a difficult task in the age of social media. Exclusive public forums can also be created and efficiently managed (similar to the Pakistani Citizens Portal).

Human psychology dictates that individuals trust authorities more when they feel listened to. This elimination of the trust deficit between citizens and planning authorities among the various planning authorities/stakeholders can help to make the implementation of the final plan conflict-free. The use of improved communication technologies has the potential to make the planning process quick, cost effective and participatory. It’s more important than ever.

The other remedy is also related to the inculcation of technology in the management of the planning process. Urban plans can address fundamental issues of urban resource management, spatial mapping, and making urban spaces citizen-friendly when there is enough data available for informed decision-making. Some of the planning and management bodies (public and private) already rely on IT and relevant data collection mechanisms (including Safe City Authority Lahore, The Urban Unit and the Punjab Information Technology Board). Data sources can be further enhanced to study the pattern of citizen behavior and preferences, and to design plans with these in mind.

It is also high time to normalize the use of big data in urban research. The problem is not just about data collection. The real effort lies in organizing, integrating and analyzing the data in a functional way. The social activities of people in a particular neighborhood, the accessibility of various groups of people to basic facilities, and the patterns of their financial transactions are practical variables to study in mapping the basic needs of people living in a particular area. The data can then be integrated into the planning and management of particular areas of the city. This directs us to another approach, which is to plan different parts of a city separately. In the case of Lahore, this is quite feasible as different areas are already under different planning and regulatory authorities. Region/area-specific plans are more likely to establish people’s emotional attachment to their residential areas, which can lead to citizen empowerment and greater involvement of local communities in the management of the local area (such as multiple qualitative studies show).

Population density is increasing faster than ever in urban areas. Our cities are becoming more difficult to manage effectively. A major impact of this can be seen in the growing socio-economic disparities. In focusing on the management of cities, it is important to ensure that inclusiveness, coordination and relevance to the real needs of people remain at the heart of the planning process. This is achievable with the integration of ICT and big data into urban planning and research. However, it is crucial to invest time and resources in creating a workforce that requires a state-of-the-art skill set.

The author works for the Department of Governance and Global Studies at the University of Information Technology