Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Hodgepodge Urbanization

In this urbanizing world, cities hold the key to achieving a sustainable balance between Earth's resource base and its human energy. Industrialization in developing countries has led to urban health problems on an unprecedented scale. Cities around the world affect not just the health of their people but the health of the planet. Urban areas take up just 2 percent of the world's surface but consume the bulk of vital resources.

The definition of an urban area, as distinguished from a rural area, differs from country to country. Whilst most demographers would accept that cities are large, densely populated, built-up areas, there is little agreement about how to define urban using objective measures. Most countries use a combination of criteria: typically population size, population density, and the extent of the built-up area. However, few countries use the same measurements. In the United States census takers regard urban areas as that with at least 2,500 people; in the United Kingdom the figure is 1,000.

Cities are home to more people than ever before. In 1900, only 160 million people, one tenth of the world's population, were city dwellers. But soon after 2000, half the world (3.2 billion people) lived in urban areas--a 20-fold increase in numbers.

The location of a city reflects the function of the original settlement. Similarly, street plan, pattern of land use, and architectural style result from the interaction of factors like site and history as well as function.

Many cities conform to a geometric plan that reveals a conscious decision to impose order on the landscape. The most common plan is the grid, in which streets run parallel to each other or intersect at right angles. Such a plan has endured since the time of the ancient Greeks. In the 16th century, Spanish colonial cities in South America were laid out in grid fashion according to a set of planning laws. Many US cities were originally laid out on a grid to facilitate the sale of land. This pattern was not confined to the countries of Europe and their colonies, 15th-century Beijing was laid out on a grid of streets that surrounded the Imperial Palace.

Other city plans, such as those of Paris and New Delhi, incorporate radial thoroughfares and the street plan of Moscow is a series of concentric circles. However, city plans are more than simple exercises in geometric order; they also reflect the values of those groups or individuals that are in a position to exert power over the urban landscape.

Cities that have developed within a common culture often have strong similarities. For example, the older parts of the Islamic cities of Cairo, Damascus, and Fès all share a number of physical features. At the centre of each stand the citadel, the chief mosque, the palace, and the main souk, or bazaar. The city is divided into distinct quarters that resemble villages. The ancient core of Damascus was divided into about 70 quarters. Meanwhile, the arrangement and dimensions of streets and the architecture and orientation of houses conformed to guidelines set down in the Qura’an.

Many people are ambivalent about cities, believing that they embody the best and worst aspects of civilization. On the one hand, the diversity of peoples and activities encourages innovation and creativity, which in turn create opportunities that attract still more people. On the other, problems of overcrowding, crime, poverty, and pollution may be severe. Cities, therefore, have come to reflect the hopes and fears of the modern world.

The urban population growth in Pakistan accelerated from 4.3 percent per annum in 1960-1992 to 4.6 percent in 1992-2000. With some ten million inhabitants, Karachi is one of the largest cities in Asia; in South Asia it ranks only behind Bombay, Calcutta and New Delhi. Karachi is one of the fastest growing megacities of the world and expected to rank 7th by the year 2015 with over 20 million inhabitants surpassing Calcutta and New Delhi it will be second to Bombay in South Asia; Lahore will rank 22nd internationally and 6th in South Asia with 12 million inhabitants, as many as Hyderabad (Indian), Bangkok, Osaka or Lima.

There is no policy for alleviating urban poverty in Pakistan. And there are only few economists, who think that poverty has to be removed directly. Macro economic policies of Pakistan need major revisions. The policies of growth without much regard to income distribution needs to be reconsidered with a view to eradicating poverty and unemployment problems.

The government is totally absorbed, politically, in its power struggle, and is financially impotent, due to vast outlays for debt servicing, defense, law and order, and a tendency to ad-hocism, it pursues a policy of laissez-faire, hoping for solving social problems by economic growth and leaving them otherwise to foreign donors and private charity.

With urbanization in Pakistan crime is growing even faster. Proud centers of commerce and culture are becoming armed encampments, unable to ensure the daily safety of average citizens. Crime is also a major impediment to development. If the security of cities cannot be guaranteed, Pakistan cannot be expected to move safely along the path of economic and social development.

Environmental health related problems, including drinking water quality, waste management, housing, air quality, health and welfare related issues including narcotics problems must top the list of to do items.

Unorganized, congested and unplanned, the hotchpotch situation of urbanization in Pakistan is not due to a day's or a month's neglect but the cumulative end product of the decades’ misguided actions. Its responsibility, too, is not restricted to any particular segment but to the overall attitude of shifting policies in decision making leading to inaction, indifference and unconcern. Unless we control rural exodus with employment opportunities, unless we add purpose to city planning, and unless we establish a sustainable balance between earth’s resources and city dwellers, we can’t put a tab on future urbanization. (