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How can technology help plan cities better?

by Umair Rasheed

MIT Technology Review sat down with three urban policy and planning experts to discuss issues in sustainable development in Pakistani cities.

Mapping the fast evolving frontiers

Dr. Nausheen Hafiz Anwar

You have critiqued the methodology employed in the last census to categorize space as urban and rural, particularly with reference to the sprawling suburbia around Pakistan’s major cities. Please tell us how can a more accurate picture of our spatial configuration be arrived at, and do technological tools offer a solution in this regard?
The existing categories of the urban and the rural in official documents like the census are unable to capture the complex dynamics taking place on the periphery of metropolises like Karachi and Lahore. That is because demographers and organizations such as the Bureau of Statistics generally follow a conventional approach, that makes neat distinctions between  the urban and the rural based on straightforward interpretations of occupations and income generation activities and number of inhabitants. This  approach cannot capture the complex social and economic dynamics of fast-changing peripheral regions.  Think of it this way, if you’re driving along the Super Highway or the Northern Bypass, that take you farther away from the downtown of Karachi, you’ll come across myriad settlements that don’t fit the classic binary understanding urban or rural areas. For instance, in this region you will find conventional agricultural employment folded into  private real estate developments and informal industrial activities. You’ll come across a similarly diverse landscape along the GT Road while driving from Lahore to Sheikhupura, Gujranwala, and beyond. These peri-urban areas don’t easily fit the rural and urban categories through which government authorities classify space. This is important because the official classification has widespread ramifications in terms of allocation of development funds, and nature of politics etc.

Read more: Building Smart Cities in Pakistan

Importantly, there are technologies widely available now that are deployed across the globe to better understand the spatial dynamics of such fast-changing peripheral regions.  The geographic information system (GIS) and global positioning system (GPS) technologies are noteworthy in this regard. The good thing about these technological interventions is that they aren’t too costly. Also, we have the human resources required to put these technologies to good use.

The problem, however, is that the use of such technologies is needlessly regulated in Pakistan. First, the government departments concerned with data generation have yet to appreciate the efficacy of GPS and GIS technologies. Second, independent researchers who are well-versed in the use of such technological tools find it difficult to do so because of the regulatory regime.

Can you share some insights from your research on how technological interventions can help improve spatial management in our metropolises?
I can give you the example of the recent anti-encroachment drive in Karachi’s Empress Market area, and how the research conducted on it by my team at the Karachi Urban Lab has highlighted the underlying issue of inequality in the planning and management of urban spaces.

Our research shows that the vast majority of those displaced were the poor. The anti-encroachment narrative pivots on the issue of legality and illegality that is often deployed as a convenient tool for state violence.  In our survey, we have ascertained that the 5,000 hawkers displaced in the drive in and around Empress market, had leases issued in the 1960s and 70s by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, and they were paying rents on a monthly basis.  The leases require the government to give them at least a month’s notice before evictions. None of these procedures were followed in the drive that took place under the Supreme Court order. Moreover, it is unfortunate that the KMC never conducted a survey beforehand to ascertain the highly diverse nature of commercial activities and especially those of the myriad small-scale hawkers in the market. A survey with some GIS mapping would have helped the KMC officials to understand the uneven nature of commercial activities, and could have been used in a productive way to plan for the resettlement of certain populations.

Then, there was a hierarchy in the anti-encroachment campaigns too. Big businesses or commercial activities were impacted but, in most cases, they were compensated as well. Our work suggests that these comprised a fraction of the population displaced in the drive.

The problem with the anti-encroachment narrative is that it hardly ever takes into consideration the activities of elite or privileged groups.  It doesn’t pay attention to expensive commercial centers and gated communities that have been built on the basis of breaking laws at every step. If you think about it, nearly all of Karachi has been built through  encroachments processes. However, only the settlements and businesses of the least powerful, and most vulnerable get categorized as encroachments and are targeted in various drives. Those who are powerful, they get away with impunity. This becomes problematic when, on the one hand, the state insists that it wants to implement policies to lift people out of poverty,  but, on the other hand, its own policies, such as anti-encroachment drives, end up exacerbating poverty by making vulnerable populations more precarious as their livelihoods are decimated.

Dr. Nausheen Hafiz Anwar is an Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, where she runs the Karachi Urban Lab. She specializes in urban policy.

Mobility constraints and opportunities

You’ve done research on the efficacy of the metro bus system in Lahore. Based on your findings, please share how well-connected Lahore is at the moment? How do you compare the city’s transport system to that of other major cities of the country?
Large-scale spending and investments in road infrastructure suggests that Lahore is fairly well-connected for car users. While there have been investments in mass transit in recent years, and some improvements to the bus-based public transport network, a lot remains to be done to improve connectivity and accessibility by public transport. The public transport network is not well-integrated, and delays and crowding are common.

Fizzah Sajjad

The existing transport system does not cater to the needs of pedestrians, disabled persons, elderly, children or women. In effect, it is designed for able-bodied, male car-users. Household data for the Lahore transport master plan from 2010, for instance, shows that men and women’s travel patterns are distinct from one another, yet transport plans and policies have remained gender-blind. Similarly, the data also shows that the majority of trips in Lahore are made by walking. However, investment in pedestrian infrastructure, save overhead pedestrian bridges or underpasses, has been non-existent. Still, Lahore’s transport system fares better than other major cities of the country in terms of transport availability and quality.

Read more: Introducing Smart Policing

Regarding reduction of automobile load on intra-city roads, we require better management of transport demand. Cities, for instance, have experimented with congestion pricing and parking regulations to reduce congestion and traffic. Ultimately, however, we need to prioritize spending on public transport and non-motorized transport infrastructure, and simultaneously create incentives to shift from private motorized forms of transport towards public transport and non-motorized transport. We also need to rethink current forms of urban development that encourage sprawl, dependence on motorized transport, increasing distances and congestion.

How do you assess the role of technology in urban transport infrastructure in cities of Global South?
In my opinion, conversations on smart mobility and technology in urban transport infrastructure are important in so far as they prioritize and advance the interests of vulnerable groups of citizens, facilitating their travel experience. Given the current state of transport and deep class divisions in our cities, equity considerations should lie at the heart of such investments. However, implementation of such initiatives should be evaluated to better understand their impact on mobility and accessibility. Yet at the same time, it is critical to remember that technological solutions alone cannot adequately address and meet future mobility requirements.

Fizzah Sajjad is an urban planner with nearly seven years of research and project management experience. She has worked on affordable housing development, gender equity in transport planning, social protection, and displacement and resettlement issues in cities of the Global South.

Sanitation concerns

Dr. Waqas Hamid Butt

Based on your research, how do you assess the role of technology in waste management?
The specter of technology is nothing new for waste management. Since the founding of municipal governments in the 19th century, there have been multiple technological experiments to improve waste management.

In Pakistan, waste production in urban areas has reached a level that needs to be dealt with, and one important technological component of that management must be sanitary landfill sites.  However, these sites are not perfect: there are always leakages in the protective membrane that will pollute the land and water in the vicinity. Thus, this raises important questions about the location of these sites and the impact on surrounding communities.

In the case of Mehmood Booti in Lahore, which opened in 1997, those who were settled in the area tried to resist the government’s move, but they lost the legal battle and received no compensation for the impact of dumping activity on soil and water in the area.

Finally, landfill sites provide only short- and medium-term technological solutions. Reducing waste production is not as simple as promoting reusing or recycling; we must confront the fact that our economy is based on consumption of disposable commodities.

When we look at recent technological investments for solid waste management, at least in Lahore, we find that the focus has been towards monitoring and surveillance infrastructures directed largely at labor management. These technologies are not helpful in that they treat labor as just another technical component of waste management.

Whenever we consider the role of technology, we should be attentive to the presence of a massive force of workers who are the physical means by which waste materials are actually managed.

Please share your insights on how mechanization has impacted waste management systems in Pakistani cities?
Waste infrastructures, whether sewerage or solid waste, are part of the city’s built environment and governance institutions. For example, sewerage infrastructure is part of the street – whether running along its side or underneath – and households – moving inside and through homes. Similarly, solid waste is produced in households, shops, and markets. A primary goal of waste management, thus, is to move waste from certain spaces to others, and while mechanization may facilitate this process, it will always require different kinds of human labor.

Read more: Connecting the Unconnected

In the colonial period, experiments such as the refuse train scheme in Delhi were attempted, and in the years following independence, in prominent urban centers such as Lahore and Karachi, municipalities acquired vehicles such as lorry trucks to transport waste as these cities were expanding. And since the 1980s, when the populations of urban areas in Pakistan expanded considerably, there has been a greater demand for mechanization. In Lahore, for instance, World Bank funding starting in the 1980s helped to create a separate Solid Waste Department (SWM) in the early 1990s, and this department acquired its own fleet of vehicles to deal with solid waste. The SWM department had a limited number of garbage compactors, which compact waste as they collect it so that greater amounts can be transported. With the public-private partnership in 2010, a fleet of garbage compactors were acquired to improve transportation.

Importantly, mechanization is not separate from the human labor that is a key feature of waste management. In Lahore alone, there are nearly 10,000 sanitation workers, and this figure does not include the informal sector. While mechanization is important for urban areas, and with that, the building of sanitary landfill sites, it has not displaced the workforce that exists and has expanded across the country to deal with waste generation. Mechanization and human labor have been and will continue to be entangled in waste management systems.

Dr. Waqas Hamid Butt is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto. His doctoral dissertation is based on research on waste workers in Lahore.