The smaller catching up with the bigger
Atlas of Urban Expansion defined the extents of cities by the limit of its built up land – an approach originated and practiced in ancient Rome. This approach may be appropriate for cities that sprawl outside their administrative boundaries, but it does not suit our large city districts where most of the land is still undeveloped
Pakistan is the most urbanised country in South Asia. While the official figures rather undercount the level of urbanisation in the country, the current share of urban population is estimated around 40 percent of the total population. It is not only our cities and town that are expanding continuously and rapidly, our rural settlements are also growing in size. Most of the discussion on Pakistan’s urbanisation is based on population size. The actual geographical area of the cities is almost always ignored in this debate on urban growth. The spatial characteristics of cities are little discussed because of the general lack of appropriate data — and enthusiasm of analysts — to do so. Being an urban researcher and spatial analyst, I am quite curious to learn about the way our cities spread on ground and how they compare with each other.
Three months ago, in November 2016, a team of researchers from the New York University, Lincoln Institute of land Policy and UN Habitat presented a global analysis of the urban expansion in cities at the Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador. Their work, Atlas of Urban Expansion, measures the historical growth of built up area in a global sample of 200 cities. The atlas covered three Pakistani cities Karachi, Lahore and Sialkot. The study found that in a space of 22 years, from 1991 to 2013, total built up area of Karachi grew from 18,057 hectares to 45,327 hectares, i.e. by a factor of 2.5. For the same period, size of built up area in Lahore increased from 11,518 hectares to 35,018 hectares i.e. by a factor of 3. Similarly, Sialkot expanded from a mere 2,038 hectares to 9,620 hectares, by a factor of 4.7. What is more impressive here is that, in a span of twenty-two years, Lahore and Karachi added a combined urban area of around 50 thousand hectares to their size. In other words, an area roughly five times larger than present day Sialkot city was added in Lahore and Karachi in the last two decades.
Atlas of Urban Expansion defined the extents of cities by the limit of its built up land – an approach originated and practiced in ancient Rome. This approach may be appropriate for cities that sprawl outside their administrative boundaries, but it does not suit our large city districts where most of the land is still undeveloped and a number of small suburban settlements exist away from the main city. In short, the results of the Atlas of Urban Expansion ignore a considerable size of built up land being used for urban development at the city district level. Also, for current year 2017, the numbers should be slightly higher because more urban area has been added since 2013.
To get more complete and recent figures, I decided to map the urban footprint with the latest data from NASA’s freely available Landsat satellite. I covered entire district areas for this analysis so that the results may be comparable at the administrative level. Results from this exercise are quite revealing and thought provoking. Lahore city district has an urban footprint of approximately 63,800 hectares. As the official total area of the city district is 173,700 hectares, it means that around 36 percent of its land is occupied by some kind of urban development such as buildings, roads, urban parks, etc. On the other hand, city district Karachi has an urban footprint of approximately 74,000 hectares. With a total city district area of 365,000 hectares, urban development in Karachi city district covers around 18pc of its total land.
Horizontal expansion demands more infrastructural resource and thus becomes less efficient when resources are scarce and contested. Without any visible signs of actions taken to stop this low-density sprawl, it seems that more productive land will fall prey to the residential development.
Two conclusions can be drawn immediately from these figures: First, that at city district level, Lahore is more urbanised than Karachi in terms of percentage area being used for urban development. Secondly, it shows that Lahore is not far behind Karachi in terms of total area of urban development as well. Difference between both districts is only around 10,000 hectares and who knows how long it will take Lahore to cover this gap? Keeping in view the scale of recent infrastructural and industrial commitments, it seems realistic to say that in a decade or two, Lahore’s urban development area might surpass that of Karachi, potentially making it the district with largest urban area in Pakistan. A review of the old data would shed more light on the rate at which urban development occurred in both city districts.
Provincial government statistics referred to above show that city district Karachi has an estimated current population of around 9.5 million whereas city district Lahore has a population of 6.5 million. If we calculate population density in the areas of urban development only, we find that Karachi houses approximately 135 people’s per hectare of built land, while for Lahore these figures reach merely 102 persons per hectare. These statistics show that that land consumption might be more efficient in Karachi than Lahore.
These urban patterns and differences are not without underlying causes and consequences. A significantly lower (by one third to be precise) built up population density in Lahore is an aftermath of choices its city managers and developers have made for the city over decades. Lahore’s urban development is often criticised for favouring low-density sprawl and not allowing high-rise development.
On its causes, it can be said that Lahore has benefited from stable geopolitical and economic circumstances. It has enjoyed greater political stability and a better urban governance over the last few decades. It was also successful in reaping the benefits of classical urban giantism theory that explains how large cities prosper by getting bulk of the public resources. Lahore has enjoyed a strong presence of urban-villages in its economic and geographical hinterlands. These villages have also grown in size along with the city, resulting in the agglomeration and conurbation of settlements in the city district.
On the other hand, Karachi scored negative on the same points on which Lahore prospered over the years. A volatile political climate, poor urban governance and sever security environment meant that the benefits of urbanisation were not fully realised in Karachi.
This ongoing process of continuous outward expansion provides an opportunity and a threat for both cities. There is good news in the sense that being the second largest city in the country, Lahore, can now easily boasts its status as being the most urbanised city district in the country. On the negative side, Lahore should be worried about its low-densitysprawl, which is engulfing its vast agricultural lands. Horizontal expansion demands more infrastructural resource and thus becomes less efficient when resources are scarce and contested. Without any visible signs of actions taken to stop this low-density sprawl, it seems that more productive land will fall prey to the residential development. Gentrification and exclusion of local residents from the area when new gated communities suddenly emerge and stop the ‘outsiders’ from mixing or enjoying their neighbourhood, should also concern our social scientists and government departments. Good news for both cities is that a vast portion of their area is still undeveloped. They can learn from each other’s past and improve their future course of actions to materialise the dreams of a more sustainable, loveable and prosperous society.