NationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 42

Reimagining urban development: Focusing on small cities and towns

Currently, Pakistan is grappling not only with deep-seated political instability but also the most severe economic crisis in its history. This dual challenge has multiple underlying causes, and it coincides with a significant societal shift in Pakistan. This transformation involves the gradual abandonment of rural-agrarian settings and the conversion of a substantial portion of formerly designated rural and remote lands into makeshift towns.

Regrettably, this process is erroneously labeled as ‘urbanization’ in Pakistan, which is fundamentally misleading. True urbanization typically implies a planned, disciplined, and stable progression from rural-agrarian settings to industrial-urban environments. In contrast, what is unfolding in Pakistan is the haphazard and undesirable proliferation of these shabby towns, lacking any semblance of planning.

It’s evident that the transformation of rural-agrarian areas in Pakistan has been involuntary, resulting in an unstable and problematic transition fraught with civic and social challenges. In contrast, genuine urbanization can yield significant economic, educational, and democratic opportunities, making cities the engines of economic growth. However, in Pakistan, the focus of governmental authorities, including Planning and Development Departments, Local Government and Rural Development Departments, municipal bodies, and provincial and federal governments, has primarily centered on managing, rather than developing, existing megacities such as Karachi, Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar. Sadly, little attention has been devoted to enhancing living conditions and civic standards in smaller towns and emerging cities. This policy bias toward urban development has inflicted irreversible harm in the form of unplanned rural-agrarian transformation.

Consequently, residents of these emerging towns face miserable living conditions and a plethora of problems, while the constant migration from these areas to larger cities has exacerbated numerous issues. This demographic trend has led to unsustainable population growth in major cities, resulting in colossal civic, political, economic, security, and social challenges. Consequently, the lives of urban residents have become increasingly burdensome, while conditions in emerging towns undergoing rapid rural-agrarian transformation have deteriorated further.

Fortunately, in recent years, there seems to be a growing awareness of this situation within the corridors of power in Islamabad and the provinces. Consequently, several significant urban development initiatives have been introduced. For instance, the PTI government in Punjab had undertaken a plan to develop 154 small cities within the province. Similarly, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has initiated the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cities Improvement Project (KPCIP) with financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to uplift key cities. Both of these projects are in their infancy, but if managed effectively, they have the potential to bring about a substantial transformation in the lives of the province’s residents.

The significance of these projects lies in the fact that a majority of the population in Punjab, KP, and even Sindh no longer resides in rural, agriculture-dependent areas. Instead, they are either urban dwellers or residents of semi-urban small cities and towns. Consequently, it is imperative that policies focus on the development of these non-rural regions and localities. Historically, Pakistan has predominantly concentrated on uplifting rural areas, particularly by improving the agro-based economy, or on the development of large cities and the federal and provincial capitals. This approach has led to the implementation of projects like the Orange Line and Metro Line in Lahore, Multan, Rawalpindi, the Bus Rapid Transit in Peshawar, and more recently, the Green Line in Karachi, over the past decade or so.

The urgent need to shift policy focus toward the development of relatively small cities and towns cannot be overstated. It’s worth noting that while the provinces of KP and Punjab have initiated projects for these areas, Sindh and Balochistan provinces have yet to follow suit. Balochistan faces substantial financial and capacity challenges in undertaking urban development projects, while Sindh, for its part, has shown limited interest in this regard. A recent statement by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-Ul-Haq Kakar, who hails from the Killa Saifullah area of Balochistan’s Pashtun belt, underscores the unfortunate reality that regions often receive development attention only when their chief ministers or prime ministers come from there. This political bias is regrettable, as it hampers equitable development.

Sindh’s disinterest in urban development can be attributed to the fact that the long-ruling PPP has its political strongholds in the rural areas of the province, failing to secure significant support from urban centers like Karachi, Hyderabad, and Sukkur over the past decade. Consequently, the PPP has not prioritized the development of cities and towns in Sindh for political reasons, despite the clear need for such development over the past decade.

Regarding the project aimed at uplifting 154 small cities and towns in Punjab, the provincial Local Government department had initially planned to prepare master plans for these urban local governments, excluding major cities like Lahore, Gujranwala, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi, and Multan, which already have existing master plans. The current status of these plans remains uncertain, but in 2021, it was decided that relevant provincial departments and the Project Management Unit would ensure follow-up, monitoring, and plan implementation within three years. Hopefully, this timeline will be adhered to for successful implementation.

It is worth noting that the Punjab government had no pre-existing policies or plans for most of these 154 cities and towns, which has had disastrous consequences for their development. This lack of attention to urban development has resulted in only horizontal expansion without proper planning.

In KP, the proposed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Cities Improvement Project aims to enhance the livability of cities by investing in water, sanitation, solid waste disposal, infrastructure, and green urban spaces. Additionally, it seeks to provide institutional support to improve service delivery and the performance of municipal entities. This project will benefit approximately 11 million people in the five target districts, with the urban population projected to reach around 11.0 million by 2035. Notably, KP lacks major cities, including its capital, Peshawar. Therefore, all the cities included in the project, apart from Peshawar, can be considered small cities. Urban development is especially critical in KP to stimulate economic growth, improve living standards, and enhance the quality of life for residents in a province that lacks significant urban areas.