The suburban gated communities of Pakistan
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The population of Pakistan is rapidly expanding and so is the size of its cities. But the problem of Pakistani urbanization is that cities are expanding faster than the population. In other words, most of the new expansion is occurring in the form of low-density sprawl in the rural hinterlands.
Not long ago, Pakistani cities (and I presume those across South Asia as well) used to be walkable settlements where streets were narrow and houses generally small. Though laid out as a maze, streets were able to sustain day-to-day mobility and urban life. They did not overflow, nor were they under-used. Street junctions and corners were often meeting places for neighbourhood residents. Citizens rode bicycles and often used horse-driven tongas for reaching main highways located outside the city limits. Cities provided better economic opportunities, higher quality of life and a greater sense of community.
The current scenario is quite different. Cities still exert a pull when it comes to the rural population, providing higher education, healthcare and non-agricultural work opportunities. However, they have lost the unique attractiveness they once had. Continuous increases in urban population have ultimately led to overcrowding and given rise to an outward expansion of residential areas in an uncontrolled fashion. In the absence of effective urban management, cities are behaving just like rivers, taking their own course.
Cities have grown without ensuring optimum density levels, land use mix and physical accessibility. Old, narrow streets are no more friendly passageways, as most of the residents now own motorcycles to reach their destinations in the city. At the same time, urban highways often cut through residential areas—either because local roads have been widened to accommodate the “free flow” of urban traffic or wider roads have been developed in the suburbs for faster mobility.
In this scenario, urban residents now prefer to live in low-density suburbs with wider streets and larger houses so that they may park at least one car in their garage. It is not just their path dependency for American-style suburbanism alone, it has become a necessity for them because public transport systems do not exist.
The government has largely failed to cater to growing housing demands. Consequently, private enterprises are slowly taking on this burden. I call it “slowly” because their development projects usually take a decade from start of construction to habitation.
Private developers in the past three to four decades have almost always sold only one commodity to an ever-growing number of buyers: large-sized residential plots in exclusive residential gated communities on the city’s periphery. These communities sport wide road networks, perfectly harmonious plot shapes and a boundary wall that excludes those living across the boundary line from using or even passing through the community. While it is done in the name of security and privacy, gated communities have been accused of producing gentrification, consumption lifestyles and for not fostering a sense of community for their residents.
Due to high prices and the extravagant lifestyles of these new developments, they are often beyond the reach of the majority low-income population that has no other choice but to reside in the old city areas. The difference between the suburbs and inner city neighbourhoods is so stark that suburban residents often hesitate to visit or pass through main city areas due to fears of congestion and lack of mobility.
Large cities such as Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi all have at least 200 privately owned gated communities each. And medium-sized cities have such communities in the dozens. At least half of these gated developments exist without the requisite permissions from urban planning and public utility departments.
Planning policies and development guidelines have meekly favoured this consumption-based suburbia. For example, the amount of construction on most residential plots is restricted to a double storey, single housing unit structure. This results in lower densities that can hardly sustain local businesses or provision of public transport systems. Almost all the development agencies require a minimum street width of 30ft in gated communities. Pakistani experts often use the argument that cars cannot pass each other easily on narrow streets. If we plan our cities for cars, they will certainly come—and we will have no choice except to use them and allocate space for them. If these gated communities are the pieces of an urban landscape jigsaw puzzle, transport policy must provide the vision to put the pieces together. However, urban transport planning does not go beyond road width guidelines.
Urban development authorities often become more or less urban destruction authorities for gated communities without administrative approvals. Terming them unauthorized or even illegal communities, local authorities often resort to demolishing houses, downing boundary walls and destroying infrastructure in these “illegal developments”. Many argue that the development authorities play into the hands of larger urban development actors. Their selective justice often safeguards the interests of these entities whose projects are “legal” because they know what it takes to be in the good books of local authorities.
Not all is doomed in this suburban development race. The city of Karachi has shown the way by initiating the construction of higher density multi-storeyed gated communities. There are a number of medium-rise apartment buildings currently under construction in major cities like Lahore and Islamabad. However, the majority of these multi-storeyed residential communities are high-priced and primarily meant for richer buyers. Many suburban communities have started local public transport services to their main gates. Still, there is a long way to go to correct the mistakes of the past and preserve precious suburban agricultural land. Global practices such as transit-oriented development, mixed land use and facilitation of active mobility are crucial tools that must be adopted for sustainable urban living in Pakistan.
This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.
Muhammad Adeel holds a PhD degree in urban planning and currently works as research officer in LSE Cities, at the London School of Economics and Political Science.