By Naveed Iftikhar

The News: December 18, 2022

There is a need to understand the interdisciplinary nature of city management
Description: Why are Pakistan’s cities messed up


ities in Pakistan are mismanaged making them a centre of congestion, increasing urban poverty and a deep rich and poor divide – all with a cloud of grey smog hovering over. The impacts of urban mismanagement in Pakistan are visible in the form of crippling economy and poor quality of lives of the citizens. One of the crucial reasons is a flawed governance system under which the cities are operating. There are five major reasons for underperformance in cities.

First, Pakistan has inherited its city management system from its colonial rural administration. Policing and land revenue system are major legacies of this colonial system. It is important to highlight that it has deteriorated from its colonial origins. Most operations are run on an ad hoc basis. Local governments have not been allowed to function independently and consistently. Resultantly, citizen’s participation is absent from decision making processes; the state fails to provide effective and timely response to disastrous situations; cities are unable to collect taxes to fund public goods; safety and security is compromised; and basic amenities of water, sanitation and waste management are rolled out without any clear delegation of power and hierarchy.

Second, we have not realised the interdisciplinary nature of city management. The discipline of town planning has been dominating the discourse on urban management and development. Humans form and shape cities through their emotions, dreams, aspirations, relations, interactions and behaviours. However, city administration and town planning professionals have always considered cities as engineering structures. They have focused on cement, metal, glass and maximum square-feet accumulation in layouts. City administrations do not engage with social scientists who can formulate and help in drafting actions directed to create a pleasant, livable ecosystem for the citizens. Urban planners have focused on an impractical and archaic tool: master planning. Considering high urbanisation rate – of 3 percent – our cities need agile, flexible, adaptive and responsive plans instead of rigid and long-term (~30 years) master plans. Master plans and urban planning have never incorporated the changing demography of Pakistan: the needs of youth, women, senior citizens and differently abled people have not received any traction. A much better practice could have been a long-term vision supplemented by short to mid-term plans and strategies.

Description: Why are Pakistan’s cities messed up

City administration and town planning professionals have always considered cities as engineering structures. 

Third, economists have been dominating the national and sub-national policymaking in Pakistan. They have focused on macro indicators and sectors as units of analysis. They have rarely studied economies of agglomeration. Young economists are encouraged and incentivised to delve and pursue development economics instead of learning urban economics, economics of technology and economics of networks. Some have worked on agglomeration, but their focal point has only been agglomeration as industrial clustres. They have fallen short in discerning societal interactions and knowledge networks fundamental for economies. Cities are a hub of job creation and innovation. Due to vested interests of administrators, politicians, urban planners and economists, there have been no policies to target informal economy, domestic commerce and a startup ecosystem. Dr Nadeem-ul Haque, from the field of economics, has been an exception, steering the dialogue on issues of urban economy in Pakistan and inspiring young blood to research Pakistan’s urban economy.

Fourth, sustainability has not been treated as an urgent concern. Many town planners and city administrators appear not to even fully comprehend the concept. The focus seems to have been on political acceptability. Social infrastructure, including libraries and public spaces, has not received adequate attention. Many infrastructure projects have gone ahead without an up-to-date and comprehensive environmental impact assessment. Some have failed even to assess and document the impacts of construction on peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Public transport and pedestrian access have often taken a backseat. Traffic engineering has focused more on underpasses, flyovers, ring roads and signal free expressways to facilitate cars than on citizens’ convenience. No wonder then that air quality in every big Pakistani city has deteriorated to hazardous levels. Recent research has identified vehicular emissions as the overwhelming (30-40 percent) contributor to the degrading air quality. Sustainability and resilience are not being focused to protect our cities. While public transport systems like the Metro bus, Orange Line train and BRT have been introduced in some cities, incentives for their use and feeder routes have not come about everywhere. Most town planners have focused on separating economic activities in the cities instead of promoting mixed land use and density. This has resulted in long commutes and urban sprawl and marginalised sustainability goals.

Fifth, data does not get much traction in decision making. Cities generate huge amounts of data. There is, however, no institutionalised mechanism to collect and analyse it. The Pakistan Bureau of Statistics continues to organise district-wise surveys without focusing much on city-based datasets. Data science is key to making cities more livable. This, however, is still a distant dream for city management in Pakistan. Service delivery in water supply, sanitation and solid waste management sectors has deteriorated due to lack of transparency.

Urbanisation in Pakistan will remain chaotic and unmanaged until these flaws in city management are fixed and cities will continue to perform sub-optimally as dispensers of opportunities and engines of growth. The starting point for making the governance system better is to realise the interdisciplinary nature of city management. Engagement with citizens can bring greater transparency. Sustainability, walkability and mixed land use should be among top most priorities of city management. Data collection and analysis will lead to progressive ways of handling and managing city affairs. A new generation of city managers needs to be trained to take this agenda forward. Pakistan needs adaptive and resilient management of meso-, micro- and macro-level institutions to address its environmental, socio-economic and public health issues.