City Planning As A Real Estate Entreprise And The Promise Of Lahore’s Master Plan 2050

City Planning As A Real Estate Entreprise And The Promise Of Lahore’s Master Plan 2050
City planning  is a public practice meant to promote order, livability and equity  in the provision of  infrastructure, housing, environmental and community services . Overall, city planning is meant to focus on the common well-being. Pakistan’s city planning has the vocabulary of these goals but practically it has turned into a machine to produce plots and lay the ground for real estate development .

Lahore’s new masterplan 2050  is the latest example of this duality. Although the full draft of the plan has yet to be released, a summary of  its objectives and proposals, including a map outlining the future development of the city, has been put out as a public notice inviting comments.

By the news accounts,  the Chief Minister of the Punjab has already approved the plan, though it is still being worked on. The Chief Minister has grasped the ‘real’ promise of the Plan.

The plan is stuffed with almost every cliché and policy notion of  contemporary western city planning. It has the motherhood statements of a vision for the city, promising a vibrant environment, sustainability, balanced economy etc. It proposes a transit-oriented form of development , a new City Centre, densification  and mixed uses among many other such desirable objectives. Yet all this seems to be a façade, as have been similar proposals of the previous four master plans.

The ‘real’ master plan shown in the map sets aside a vast area for the expansion of the city forming a semi- circle in the south-southwest part of the district. There are also proposals to form a new city centre, in Gulberg on the vacated lands of the former Walton flying club.

Perhaps the most fantastic proposal, despite the threats of unpredictable rains and floods signalling the changing climate, is the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project  meant to create a lake and train the river to support a town of high-rises in the flood plain, Dubai style. These proposals will create thousands of plots and building sites to further fuel real estate speculation.

How the speculation of plots is distorting Lahore’s housing and land markets is evident in thousands of vacant but fully developed housing lots and  their stratospheric prices. Areesha Gul and others  observe that in “49% of housing schemes in Lahore, 50% of plots” remain vacant. The same article reports that in BahariaTown, a 500 sq, yards plot changed hands 4.5 times on average before being built over. Speculating in plots is how many have become rich, while millions were priced out of the housing market.

A look at the map of Lahore bears out the outsized appropriation of land by influential groups. It is dotted with neighbourhoods with names such as WAPDA town, CSIR Colony, Revenue Officers society, Engineers Co-operative society and all the Askari (military) colonies and the vast swaths of the DHA estates. Military  and civilian officers along with politicians had first dibs on plots

The effects of speculation on the prices of plots and housing costs are socially catastrophic. A 500 sq. yards plot in the phase -9 of the DHA sells for  about one crore (10 million) and more, which is about 10 annual incomes of a university lecturer or software engineer. Smaller plots of 125 sq. yards fetch prices in the 50-70 lakhs range. Building a house on a plot, costs an additional 3-5 times the land price.

The results of this form of city planning are evident in the skyrocketing housing prices, strong-armed displacement  of  farmers and villagers whose lands  fall within the  development schemes,  wasteful sprawl, unruly traffic, depleting aquifer and sinking water table, untreated sewage dumped in the river Ravi, streets flooded with rainwater and rotting waste by the roadsides. Lahore is among the top three cities in the world for poor air quality. Yet the trade in plots of the Master plan’s proposed developments is already brisk.

Low-income households are driven to the informal subdivisions in the flood plain of the west and the north as well as crowded in the older and congested parts of the city.

The  condition of the city’s housing  is  observable from the 2017 housing census. About 25% of housing units were one room dwellings, out of which half were owned, perhaps those were quarters or squatters. These are not all  free-standing structures, but include units carved out of the existing homes.

The fragmented city is the outcome of years of city planning. Another approach to city planning is called for.

City planning in Pakistan  should aim at ‘leaping over’ the 20th century planning approaches and technologies. It should use the information and bio-engineering technologies, instead of the mega civil works as the bases of urban development. Furthermore, large cities should be organized as relatively self-contained communities linked together by overarching political institutions and necessary regional infrastructural systems. Specifically, Lahore should be conceived from the  bottom-up rather than the top-down perspective. The following are a few policies that could bring an alternative form of planning.

1). It should basically focus on producing  public facilities and services for  the common good, and not be just a control and administrative service.

2) As a decentralized activity, it should promote self-contained union councils/ towns for sewerage treatment, and drainage management by creating biologically sustained wetlands, ponds for holding, cleaning and injecting harvested rainwater in aquifers.

3) The local/Mohalla communities should be organized for self-help to meet common needs.

4) Curbing plot speculation by giving titles to those who actually come to live there. Khuda Ki Basti projects have successfully demonstrated this policy.

5) Master plans, zoning, density standards should be transparent and the process of their amendment equally visible.

6) The discretionary powers of the planners, administrators and politicians should be hedged by answerability.

These are pointers towards the form of city planning that may be relevant. There can be many other proposals, but the point is to stimulate discussion about alternative forms of planning. In Karachi, the Urban Resource Centre has both advocated and demonstrated the relevance of the suggested approach.

Mohammad Qadeer is a professor emeritus of urban planning at Queen’s university, Canada. He is the author of the book, ‘Pakistan: social and cultural transformations in a Muslim nation’ (2006) and his forthcoming book is entitled, ‘Lahore in the 21st century’.

Mohammad Qadeer’s recent book, Lahore In The 21st Century, has been published for Pakistan by Vanguard Books.