Ushering in the Vertical Developmental Trend in Pakistan

By Asad Haroon

In the past two decades, Pakistan has seen the population of its major cities rise exponentially. The 2017 national census saw the demographics of the country’s 10 major cities increase by at least 32.65% (in the case of Hyderabad). The same report recorded the highest growth rate for Lahore at 53.77%, followed by Islamabad and Karachi at 47.86% and 37.4%, respectively.

These developments, as could be expected, resulted in a rising demand for residential real estate options in the country. The governmental response to this burgeoning need, however, tended to focus more on horizontal construction and development. This remedial approach, in turn, saw both Lahore and Islamabad expand way beyond their former boundaries.

The expansion was also fuelled by the investments pouring in from overseas Pakistanis who were keen to maintain their own property back in their home country – particularly after the nativist, global uncertainties that started impacting their affairs following 9/11.

On the ground, however, and in a lot of cases, this expansionist drive caused heightened encroachment activity on important agricultural, industrial and protected, green areas. And to add insult to injury, the master plans of the major cities were not updated to tally with these renewed, ‘population explosion’ challenges.

The provision of basic amenities of daily living to the populace also suffered from a shortfall. In the cases of Karachi and Islamabad, the acute shortage of water that was witnessed thereafter was a case in point.

A case of the PM’s direct involvement…

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s current prime minister, started ‘preaching the gospel of vertical development’ (as one television commentator was recently wont to put it) as soon as he managed to get his bearings straightened earlier this year. His principle focus, back then, had been on Lahore and Islamabad; but in all fairness, he also advocated for the same with regard to the other parts of the country, including Karachi.

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The case of Pakistan’s premier port city, however, is unique in that its infrastructural expansion, out of necessity, organically resulted in the development of an apartment culture. But as has been the fate of many historical large-scale construction ventures in the country, the complaints of chronic mismanagement (which started pouring in soon after its operational commencement) associated with the initiative inevitably meant that the residents of the city’s apartment buildings had to put up with acute shortages of basic utilities.

Whatever the practical nature of these pursuits, however, it is still encouraging to note that the prime minister continues to exhibit a decided keenness to promote vertical development in the country.

In March this year, Khan said that his ‘vision for future cities was to allow buildings to rise vertically and ensure more green areas’ in Pakistan – in line with his recognition that the country faced a number of challenges to its environmental integrity. The expansion of cities (also referred to dismissively as ‘concrete jungles’ in the going, new-age urban parlance) has meant the encroachment of green protected areas.

A few days before the PM eagerly entered the arena on this front, the cabinet approved his initiative to allow the construction of high-rise buildings in the federal capital. Earlier, the Capital Development Authority (CDA) had only allowed a maximum height of 420 feet for any building in Islamabad. This convention has now been changed.

Just a couple of weeks later, PM Khan also directed both the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and the Government of Punjab to curtail Lahore’s horizontal expansion from progressing any further. He ordered them to focus, instead, on pursuing vertical developments and introducing new bylaws and regulations to facilitate the effort.

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Private developers join the fray

Now that the authorities are looking to change the laws, their instigations seem to have caught the notice of some of the top developers in the country. The expectation, of course, is that we will see a large number of these builders clamouring to follow through with all manner of vertical development gigs.

On this front, the Association of Builder and Developers (ABAD) has already expressed its interest in offering its assistance. Similarly, when Zameen.com – Pakistan’s most popular real estate listings platform – forayed into the domain of construction and development (through its sister concern Zameen Developments), it also focused on pursuing vertical developments. Zameen Opal and Zameen Ace Mall, two of the company’s flagship projects, are mid-rise buildings.

Other major national developers like Emaar and Al Ghurair Giga already have major vertical construction projects in the country. These builders, it comes as no revelation, have the required funds and expertise at their disposal to construct quality high-rise buildings.

The counter-argument

There have been some experts who have argued against the government’s pro-high-rise approach in this matter. They contend that this developmental orientation does not address the actual problem at hand.

A case in point is that of urban expert Kamil Khan Mumtaz, who, while talking to a national daily, recently stated that the issue – in the interests of attaining its resolution – required a fixing of its underlying, causative concern: population density.

By way of explanation, he notes that 90% of the developed areas in Lahore are occupied by only 40% of the city’s total population; while the remaining 10% space continues to be distributed among the residual 60%.

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Further, he also points to several urban development instances where high-rises have been known to cause issues.

As referenced earlier, Karachi’s disorganised development comprises one of these cases. In this particular example, construction mismanagement caused water shortages in the entire city. Not only that, the illegal connections installed in high-rise buildings meant that sewerage issues also arose due to a lack of proper arrangements for uninterrupted sewerage disposal.

And the retorts

Nevertheless, the development has been taken in a positive light by the majority of stakeholders. Moreover, several government officials have claimed that such issues would not arise in Lahore or Islamabad. To their credit, they have also been making efforts to update the master plans of both these cities. And with the government changing the construction bylaws and the private developers taking interest, Pakistan may likely be set to see significant changes in its skyline soon.