Sustainable urban planning

AS a matter of tradition and culture, Pakistani society is (or at least was) notable for its strong community and communitarian value system. Every cultural tradition in Pakistan inherently advocated and practised a communitarian pro environment lifestyle of conservation, recycling, and respecting the natural environment.

The built environment had also traditionally demonstrated the same concern for preserving both the natural environment and community values. Old mohallas in our urban centers tended to have an organic structure built around utilizing the topography and climate to organically mesh together the closeness of human interactions with preserving nature.

It was indicative of a strong sense of self and identity which emphasised the local and encouraged strong, tolerant communities founded on the principles and ideals of self-actualisation through mutual respect and respecting the environment, leading to out-of-the-box thinking and indigenous solutions for local urban issues.

When Sohni, for example, crosses the river in a matka, it was the original thinking of an individual going through the process of self-actualisation.

The traditional practices of conservation and recycling, a healthy lifestyle of walkable traditional cities, combined with the efforts to preserve family values, the use of natural elements and indigenously developed fuel-free or fuel-efficient techniques of construction for cooling and heating of homes and businesses, urban gardens for local fresh produce, local arts, crafts and artists employing local resources for local needs, all emphasise strong communities which in turn promoted healthy and sustainable natural environments.

This behaviour spoke of the sense of control, an ingrained and strong sense of self-worth and selfconfidence that looked inward for indigenous lifestyle choices, decision-making and implementation, instead of looking outward for guidance and culture. This, in a nutshell, was the core of the strength of our communitarian society — mutual respect and care for humans and non-humans alike.

The close-built houses, short distances, and mixed use development of the walled city of Lahore were not only operational in maintaining close communities by protecting them from natural and man-made disasters, but also discouraged sprawl encroaching upon the fertile agricultural hinterland, hence discouraging undesirable exploitation of the natural environment.

The same goes for the old Sikh mohallas of Rawalpindi, urban developments in Jacobabad, the woodwork-centred mixed-use planning of Chiniot, or the coastal communities of Karachi.

It was a culture of appreciation, acceptance, tolerance, and celebration of diversity of an open society that warmly welcomed all into its fold. It was a collectivist culture focused on gaining respect by respecting all and on maintaining a vibrant public community space which catered to the achievement of self-actualisation by all.

My longitudinal research on environmental planning in the US showed that communities that boasted of a large number of social services non-profits are more likely to demonstrate consistently more desirable environmental outcomes as compared to the communities that have smaller numbers of social services non-profits.

Situating this in the context of Pakistan, my hope was that although our formal social services sector is small, our informal sector is quite healthy, we traditionally have strong communities, our communities extend both horizontally and vertically across diverse socio-economic groups, information sharing within our communities is robust, and there is a strong element of mutual support within our communities, therefore, we should have strong environmental planning outcomes. However, this was not to be. It is apparent that in addition to the administrative structures, the social structures have also collapsed in recent times.

It is very possible that the loss of community life is linked to the degradation of the natural environment in Pakistan’s urban centres and its inability to come up with indigenous solutions to issues of urban amenities.

Loadshedding, water and power shortages as norms, air and water getting dirtier by the day, uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources, mountains being reduced to nothing to mine more soil to feed the kilns of the never satiated and unsustainable construction industry, the blind exploitation of gypsum for cement-concrete are all manifestations of social and valuechange leading to environmental degradation and lack of civic amenities.

The fact that our local urban centres and diverse societies are part of a donkey race that wishes to emulate the outward (and irrelevant) signs of some other culture(s) is a tell-tale and lamentable sign of replacement of self-actualisation by selfloathing. Suicidal terrorists are also the manifestation of this self-loathing society.

It is commendable to attempt to learn from the best practices of urban development around the world; however, a one-sizefits-all approach adopted from one country or the other is being applied to our urban centres to the constant enrichment of the contractors and the elites alike.

The sense of self, confidence and respect that led to our strong inward-looking communities has given way to a generation that is ashamed of the local, hateful of an individual sense of identity and wishful of adapting to a cultural image that it has not even observed or experienced first-hand.

Perhaps the solution is to be found in utilising the 12 months of sun for generating clean electricity by utilising indigenous technology to harness this free resource. Perhaps also, the solution is to be found in utilising wind energy using local technology. Perhaps the solution is to be found in local techniques of waste management. But most of all, perhaps the solution is to be found in a collective grounded sense of self of the society which looks inward for solutions to urban environmental problems, not outward.

Out-of-the-box thinking does not come naturally to those suffering from mental slavery. Perhaps one day soon we might be able to discover and recover our strong, tolerant communities and the vibrant natural and built environment of our urban centers.

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