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  • Economic powerhouses with livability at the core

A variety of concepts come up as we discuss smart cities but the smart cities description lacks a single definition. Some speak to local issues and goals, others concentrate on the socioeconomic environment, while others are only socio-economic factors; some stem from the need to find answers, while others connect it to other fields of study, such as the climatology and cultural legacy. Few analysts have concluded that smart cities would be defined in a particular way by private partnership models for urban development.

If we look around almost 80% of the world’s GDP is produced by cities, which are regarded as “economic powerhouses” worldwide. Before a city to be considered economically productive competitive and smart, it needs to be favourable, energetic, effective, inclusive, and livable. The phrase “ease of doing business” is one we hear a lot, but we rarely consider the “ease of living” requirements for our cities, as only a sound, healthy, and contented community can be socially and economically effective.

The cost of living indicates whether a region can provide its citizens with the basic needs of survival such as safe and livable housing facilities, improved sources of water and sanitation, access to basic education and health facilities, etc. The question arises, are any of our cities included among the world’s most competitive, smart, or livable cities? There must be many causes for the lag, but the worst part is that the consequent sprawl is caused by inadequate urban management. Sprawl is infamous for leaving communities devoid of resources and uninhabitable due to environmental problems brought on by excessive automobile use. In addition, vast swathes of fertile land are being turned into cities and left fallow or underutilised for years, burying billions of rupees worth of lifetime savings from the poor where, large sections of 5 and 10 Marla “KOTHIs” located 20–30 km from the city center, needlessly widening roadways, impulsive stores, a lack of workplaces, a break from any public transportation hub, and a lack of room for worker housing are all indicative of sprawl in our cities. Every sprawl dweller is forced to give up four to five productive hours of their lives for their daily travels, breathe in toxic air, and withdraw from an active social life in which a sprawl allows land developers to quickly make 500% profit in a matter of weeks. This is accomplished by purchasing raw land for PKR 30K per marla and selling it for PKR 500,000. Because of our pro-sprawl urban laws.

Globally, suburban expansion is heavily criticised for making cities unsustainable because of its unrelenting land consumption, high greenhouse gas emissions from lengthier automobile commutes, and several other associated societal consequences. Spatial development prospects in the majority of our large and intermediate cities are utterly unsustainable. Their geographic footprints are expanding significantly faster than their rates of population increase.

If we go through our system then we conclude the fact that every aspect of our urban development, administration, and planning policies has been created with vehicles and sprawl in mind where big cities have mass transportation systems, signal-free corridors, and roller coaster rides have all cost billions of borrowed money to build. These projects will eventually transport everyone to the idyllic, expansive suburbs. Building two massively subsidized mass transportation lines was done mostly for political reasons, appealing to blue-collar workers. That would have been acceptable even if the authorities had taken into account the white-collar workers, who make more money and pay taxes but are nonetheless compelled to drive to and from work.

Recently, some excellent instances of urban transformation that occurred in the past few years include Bogotá, Curitiba, Medellín, and Barcelona, these cities are now mostly bike and pedestrian-friendly. While San Francisco has outlawed private vehicles on its biggest market Street, Dhaka has made its downtown car-free. To win reelection, the mayor of Paris pledged in public to make Paris a city where anybody could get to work on a bike in 15 minutes or less which is only possible through mixed development.

Lahore has the lowest air quality in the world, according to IQ-Air, with an air quality index (AQI) of “hazardous” 470. Delhi and Karachi have somewhat better scores, at 302 and 204, respectively due to a mix of industrial pollution, burning crops, and car emissions, the smog has gotten to deadly levels. The concentration of PM2.5, the most dangerous particulate matter, is more than 15 times higher than the WHO’s yearly recommended threshold for air quality but we as a nation (public and state) continuously ignore the wakeup call of nature by saying the simplest words of what can we do? The roads of Manhattan and Central London are scarcely wider than those in Karachi and Lahore, the sole utility under the roads are sewage, and telephone service has switched to wireless. In terms of social and cultural aspects, it is necessary to travel to the walled city and its environs to comprehend how families, groups, and individuals may coexist peacefully in tall, mixed-use structures while respecting one another’s privacy.

Immediate reply is required to answer the call of nature, let’s forget vehicles, and concentrate on creating sustainable and inclusive transportation solutions. The main issue facing municipal officials is how to shift funding from profit-driven plot development to vertical building. How would KDA and LDA manage this, given that they are the ones creating all this mess? Everyone in the professional and bureaucratic circles has a unique approach to managing cities.

Pakistan’s current air pollution control measures are insufficient to meet the country’s air quality standards, trends in air pollution can be reversed with advanced control technology and targeting the sustainable development goals but we must recognise the fact that urban planning and design is a highly specialised field that requires an inclusive and holistic approach headed by appropriate specialists to lead the process.

The Author is MD IRP/ Faculty Department of H&SS, Bahria University Karachi