City Of Lahore Essay Examples

First of all, I would like to apologize for the inconsistency in the guest writers essays’ schedule. After a long period of time without them, they are now flowing in the blog’s editorial choice; soon enough we should be back on a rhythm in which you will be able to read one per week.

The essay City, Space, Power:  Lahore’s Architecture of In/Security, written by Sadia Shirazi is a brilliant mix of personal observations and thorough analyses of the current use of architecture in the city of Lahore (Pakistan) as a securitarian weapon. The notion of security is cleverly played with in Sadia’s title here, as her texts illustrates how Lahore’s inhabitants’ daily lives are subjected to the paradoxical violence of processes of securitization. Far from the evanescent spotlights of the media that cover consistently the terror attacks with no further perspective, the “architecture of in/security” is experienced every day by millions of people who are affected by it. Through a cartographic assignment Sadia also exposes how this same architecture, despite its effect on everyone, is implemented mostly in favor of the higher social classes and, ultimately participate to the literal fragmentation of classes within the city.

The Funambulist Papers 36 /// City, Space, Power:  Lahore’s Architecture of In/Security

by Sadia Shirazi

Temporary police checkpoint on Mall Road. Photographer unknown.

The High Court bomb aftermath that targeted police stationed there prior to a lawyer’s protest; the General Post Office (GPO) in the background is across the street from the courthouse. Photograph by Max Becherer/Polaris.


Lahore today looks like a city at war. One of the greatest unacknowledged casualties of the United States’ “war on terror” has been the cities — and citizenry — of Pakistan. The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban from power in response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.[i] In 1985, sixteen years prior, President Ronald Reagan equated the Taliban mujahideen who had defeated the Soviet’s in Afghanistan as “the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.”[ii] This presidential stance has obviously changed since. In 2008 the US committed another surge of troops to Afghanistan due to the continued presence of the Taliban in the region. Pakistani military operations were waged in parallel in the northwest regions of the country bordering Afghanistan. Since then Pakistan has seen a particularly stark backlash within its borders as a response to its continued collaboration with its close ally.[iii] Militants within Pakistan have retaliated by targeting police and security sites in cities throughout the country. Lahore is just one unsung casualty of this war that links Lahore and New York City across disparate geographies through the legacy of US policy and Pakistani collaboration during the Cold War.[iv] As Eqbal Ahmed presciently said: “These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost.”[v]

Lahore is renown for its food and its inhabitants’ penchant for pomp. It has been described as “the city of people who love unconditionally, without reserve, the ‘heart of the Punjab.’”[vi] Unlike Karachi, its more populous southern rival, it is neither regarded as particularly violent nor cosmopolitan in the popular imaginary.[vii] The writer Mohammad Hanif describes: “Half a dozen people are killed on an average day: for political reasons, for resisting an armed robbery, for not paying protection money, and sometimes for just being in the wrong spot when two groups are having a go at each other. If the victims don’t belong to your family or your neighborhood, or if you are not carrying out the killings, you are not likely to hear the gunshots. On television, you’ll catch a glimpse of ambulances…and you’ll thank God that it was a relatively peaceful day.”[viii] Lahore has not historically experienced such incidences of daily violence and was instead wearier of attacks on its religious minorities that intermittently punctuated its past.

Beginning in 2008 Lahore experienced a wave of retaliatory attacks that were both unprecedented in scale and frequency.[ix] The attacks were in response to Pakistani military operations that were perceived as occurring at the behest of the United States. The seemingly incessant bomb blasts that escalated form 2008 through 2010 gave rise to a public discourse of fear, anxiety, and paranoia, with a sense of incomprehensibility as to the reasons for the chosen sites of violence and dismay at their human toll. The repercussions of these blasts are now so interwoven into the daily experiences of the city’s inhabitants that youth particularly, cannot remember – nor imagine – the city otherwise. The attacks have given rise to what I describe as Lahore’s architecture of in/security, which is reshaping the contours of the city as well as the way its inhabitants thread through it. This has continued despite the fact that since 2010 these attacks have abated. Bomb blasts today are no longer perpetual and yet in effect they persist in the urban psyche and endure through the markers of securitization that populate this considerably altered city. It is increasingly difficult to gauge safety in Lahore, to situate the reality of lived experience against the symbols proliferating in the city that continue to mark it as unsafe.[x] The Lahore High Court in February of this past year even ordered the provincial government to remove security barriers and apparatuses that are obstructing the flow of traffic in front of administration and police headquarters throughout the city. The police and senior officials have refused this request and barriers remain in place.[xi] Residential areas are another issue altogether.

 Police outside Qaddafi Stadium after the strike on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Liberty Chowk. Photographer unknown.

Police barricades outside their headquarters. Photographer unknown.

Construction workers dig a trench for a wall on Queen’s Road leading towards the Punjab Assembly, visible in the background. Photographer unknown.


I am interested in the emergence of Lahore’s securitized zones and the way power inscribes itself in urban space through architecture. Parallel with this is my interest in using cartography as an analytic tool to interrogate processes of securitization. By architecture here I mean conceptual approaches to space, following Eyal Weizman’s definition of it in his workon Israel’s architecture in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: “On the one hand, the book deals with the architecture of the structures that sustain the occupation and the complicity of architects in designing them…On the other hand, architecture is employed as a conceptual way of understanding political issues as constructed realities…[where] the occupation is seen to have architectural properties, in that its territories are understood as an architectural ‘construction’, which outline the ways in which it is conceived, understood, organized and operated.”[xii] Normative discourse responding to the bomb blasts in Lahore attributes the rise in securitization as an effective response to the attacks and also considers the city as a whole under siege. My focus in this essay is two-fold, one is investigating the process of securitization and its architectural effects while the other is creating new representations of the city that allow us to queer our understanding of it. [xiii] By queer here I mean to see the city otherwise, to defamiliarize and consider it against its popular semantic registers within Lahori public discourse.

I treat the city of Lahore as an “elastic geography” a dynamic entity that is both a physical site and imaginary construct.[xiv] I am particularly interested in the relationship between visual representations and our image of the city, and in using cartography as a tool to understand the way in which the securitization of Lahore manifests itself spatially.[xv] New means of representation can create alternative images of the city and my hope is that this provokes and challenges us to reconsider and ultimately transform the relationship that we have to space and power. From Henri Lefebvre’s writing on the “right to the city” to David Harvey’s insistence that “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”[xvi] It is a markedly different thing to say that the attacks post-2008 in Lahore were primarily targeted at police and security services than to say that Lahore is being indiscriminately bombed. It is even more striking if this is supported by visual representations that aid in our analysis of security issues.

In Lahore securitization has become a primary method through which certain regimes of control are legitimized, which is what I refer to as Lahore’s architecture of in/security. This most visible manifestation of a regime of control is legible in the preponderance of security measures distributed throughout the city – walls, barriers, gates, and checkpoints. These objects and apparatuses — some cropping up overnight others calcifying over time into permanent structures — are found throughout the city in residential areas, religious spaces, governmental and police zones. They delineate boundaries, block vehicular and pedestrian access, restrict entry, and alter the city’s urban fabric. In civic spaces barriers and checkpoints effectively shrink civic space and encroach upon the rights of citizens. In residential blocks they indicate a family or larger community that is fortifying its boundaries. Parts of Lahore look like the city is at war because spaces are dominated by the presence of these objects and concomitant processes, which are the artifacts and performances of its in/security. This is further legitimized through a discourse of in/security by its multiple agents, state and non-state alike.[xvii]

University of Punjab and its boarded gates on Mall Road.
Photograph by Tahir Iqbal.

National College of Arts (NCA) with its security gate and boarded gates on Mall Road. Photograph by Tahir Iqbal.

Let us begin with Lahore’s walls. Walls are interesting because they, at the most basic level, block you from accessing spaces physically but also deal with vision: they keep your eye from seeing through spaces. After the 2008 bombings the city issued an ordinance to public institutions recommending that they increase the height of their walls from 6 to 8 feet. Residential quarters took note and did the same. It is inconceivable that two additional feet of brick, sheet metal, concrete block, or barbed wire are increasing anyone’s safety but the symbolic gesture of securitizing space is the more valuable one. If you look closely at the city’s walls, the brick and mortar betray their age and you can read the line at which the additional increment begins. This horizon line is legible throughout the city — a horizon denoting fear. The result of higher walls and the placement of boards to cover what was visually permeable before  (the perimeter gates bounding Punjab University or National College of Arts) has been that if you are driving or walking along Mall Road, space has become flattened. It has no perspectival depth. This obliteration of transparency is a newer strategy of control that is moving from the physicality of the body to that of the gaze. Citizens are effectively cordoned off from using and even claiming these civic spaces now that they are no longer visible. Mall Road has become a purely symbolic space of power, evident during the spectacularized displays of fervor exhibited by “political” protestors who crowd the street much to the chagrin of drivers since all other spaces are barricaded.

The counterpoint to the fixity of walls in Lahore is the movable barrier — the checkpoint.  Checkpoints have a ghostly quality in the city and can appear and disappear, expand and contract through the day and night. They exploit this architecture of impermanence and are perceived as temporary objects, which, if they are present in excess of years, they are not. Checkpoints unlike walls, barriers, and the like, engage the social realm instead of simply blocking access to space or delineating boundaries. Checkpoints exclude, produce hierarchy, and restrict access. They also empower security services who monitor social behavior and control flows of circulation. Security details at checkpoints in Lahore routinely harass and demand bribes from drivers, discriminating based on class, likeliness of alcohol consumption, and perceived occupation of the driver. The public discourse on safety considers the bomb blasts as the result of actions of people from outside the city, non-Lahori’s, but through the infrastructure of checkpoints this is collapsed onto tensions regarding class that arise from within Lahori society.

Entrance to Karbala Gamme Shah with security barriers and police.
Photograph by Julius John.

Datta Darbar (Datta Ganj Bahksh) fortified by concrete barriers and barbed wire and heavily staffed by police. Photograph by Julius John.

In the residential area of Cantonment, for example, checkpoints are now veritable tollbooths, with automated service lanes for residents. What was a temporary structure put in place after the spate of bombings is now concretized into a fixed entity. Defence Housing Authority (DHA) is another case in point. This residential development is owned and managed by the military and has checkpoints, guards, and barriers placed at points of entry between it and Charrar Pind, a village that predates the construction of Defence that is now strangulated by the constructions encircling it. Charrar’s inhabitants are now monitored as potential threats. The arrangement of concrete barriers forces people and vehicles to navigate around them at a clipped pace; the checkpoints here are slow spaces of compression that filter movement in one direction only. The residents of Charrar are defacto criminalized and scrutinized since any departure from their settlement necessitates that they travel through Defence, which surrounds them and in which many of its residents are employed as domestic labor. In these sites of securitization the threat is perceived from within and elsewhere. Charrar is elsewhere in a sense but within and outside of Defence. These checkpoints are only visible to Lahori’s who live or travel within this residential development and are targeting class difference exclusively, which distinguishes them from the temporary checkpoints that surface on Mall Road leading towards its civic spaces in colonial Lahore. The checkpoints in Defence and Cant. are not part of public discourse on the rise of securitization after the pervasive bomb blasts. The larger discourse on securitization elides this internal friction between class and caste, a village and military developers. The response from a perceived threat from inside is justified by focusing on threats from outside.

Map by Sadia Shirazi


It was in response to heated arguments with my mother regarding whether and how safe Lahore actually was that I began a research and cartographic project about the bomb blasts.[xviii] I wanted to make sense of the paradigm of in/security and began to consider ways to visualize information regarding the blasts. First I combed through publicly available information on bomb blast sites, casualties, and perpetrators; I assembled the data into a table from 1997 onwards. In the span of ten years, from 1997 through 2007, I saw that there were only two bomb blasts in Lahore, both targeting the minority Shia community. These attacks occurred in 1998 and 2004 respectively. There were no attacks from 2004 through 2007. Beginning in 2008, Lahore experienced a series of high intensity bomb blasts concentrated in the colonial city at targets such as the High Court, Police Headquarters, and Federal Investigative Authority headquarters. None of the 2008 attacks targeted minorities. It was clear to me after completing the table that in 2008 the character, location and intensity of the blasts altered considerably, which corresponded with the U.S. surge in Afghanistan that same year and military operations conducted in coordination by Pakistan. Each subsequent year has resulted in an escalation of those attacks, from five in 2008 to ten in 2009 to fifteen in 2010 after which attacks subsided with three most recently in 2012.[xix] Most high impact blasts were claimed — by militant groups ranging from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan to Lashkar-i-Jhangvi — others, such as the horrific attack on Datta Ganj-Baksh, also known as Data Darbar, a shrine revered by Sunni’s and Shia’s alike, are still unaccounted for.[xx] A series of low intensity copycat bombs,[xxi] usually targeting cultural sites such as music halls and theaters, have also occurred that are usually unclaimed. Visualizing the information made many things legible that were otherwise obscured.


One of the most striking things to emerge out of the articulation of the cartography of Lahore’s bomb blasts after 2008 was that most of the attacks in Lahore were targeting security outfits — the police, army, and security personnel. The first spate of bombings in 2008 hit police and security outfits distributed throughout the city. The bomb blasts from 2008 onwards were also primarily concentrated within the colonial city – built by the British – since many governmental sites and police headquarters are located there. The blasts that occur far from the colonial city are targeting security outfits that are located in residential areas, as well, so civilian casualties are collateral damage. The reason for high civilian casualties in many bomb blasts is due to a number of factors. One is the fact that the colonial sites are densely populated, so civilians are literally everywhere and rarely travel alone but at a minimum in pairs. Another factor is that security outfits now have satellites in residential areas, where their presence imperils civilians as they attempt to gain cover by inserting themselves within residential and commercial areas. The 2008 bomb blast in K block of Model Town, a prosperous garden-town inspired suburb of Lahore, was aimed at a Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) facility that also housed a US-counter terrorism unit. It was not a random blast in a residential neighborhood that includes the enclave of the PML-N Sharif family.[xxii]

The map also proved that the checkpoints that have arisen post-2008 have no correlation to the frequent sites of attack but are instead demarcations of elite residences and neighborhoods. The resultant fortification of parts of the city only protects a small percentage of the population from threats. The fortified enclave of the head of the PML-N itself has caused consternation amongst the public as it extends outwards and blocks public streets at the periphery of their land, guarded by heavily armed police and private security forces with the additional deterrent of a brightly painted tiger replica that sits atop a column. Security checkpoints indicate rarefied spaces or crudely convey the exclusive nature of the spaces and the people’s status that they demarcate. As noted above, the checkpoint in Cantonment is now a tollbooth for which residents purchase a pass that allows them through an automated fast lane. Securitization is shifting from a focus on citizens and terrorists to include the security of upper echelons of society from the lower, women from men, villagers from suburban residents.

Concrete barriers and new concrete wall outside the FIA headquarters on Temple Road. Photograph by Sadia Shirazi

Multiple layers of security barriers creeping onto Mall Road outside the entrance to the Governor’s House. Photograph by Sadia Shirazi.

Barriers outside National Bank of Pakistan in a commercial area of Lahore. Photograph by Sadia Shirazi.

One morning this past year right before the Monsoon rains as I drove to work, a route that used to take me five minutes took me forty minutes. This was due to a combination of security barriers and construction projects that were causing vehicular mayhem. I remember sitting in traffic livid, cursing and enraged, to little effect. At that moment I felt with overwhelming clarity that both security measures and horrifically planned civic “improvements” had similar aims – they inconvenienced exactly those individuals who they were symbolically intended for. Leaving aside construction projects, one has to question whether securitization processes indicate a safer city or one that is made all the more threatening through these devices. It is also crucial that we tease apart just whom the city is protecting itself from. I began this essay by writing that Lahore looks like a city at war. After having described both the increased securitization measures alongside the deductions I was able to make based on my mapping of the bomb blasts, the question that remains is — who exactly is the city at war with?

[i] This essay is not an inquiry into the invasion of Afghanistan or its efficacy —it is now the longest ongoing war in American history — but is focused on the effect it has had on one particular city in Pakistan.

[ii] President Reagan actually hosted the mujahideen in the White House where he announced to the press with the men standing before him their likeness to the founding fathers by saying “These are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.” Metaphorically speaking of course because they were dressed much as the Taliban dress today – vintage mujahideen.  Eqbal Ahmed, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, Speech given at University of Colorado Boulder, 12 October 1998.

[iv] Eqbal Ahmed on this topic: “The reason I mention it [jihad] is that in Islamic history, jihad as an international violent phenomenon had disappeared in the last four hundred years, for all practical purposes. It was revived suddenly with American help in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan, which borders on Afghanistan, saw an opportunity and launched a jihad there against godless communism.  The U.S. saw a God-sent opportunity to mobilize one billion Muslims against what Reagan called the Evil Empire. Money started pouring in. CIA agents starting going all over the Muslim world recruiting people to fight in the great jihad. Bin Laden was one of the early prize recruits. He was not only an Arab. He was also a Saudi. He was not only a Saudi. He was also a multimillionaire, willing to put his own money into the matter. Bin Laden went around recruiting people for the jihad against communism.” Eqbal Ahmed, Terrorism: Theirs and Ours, Speech given at University of Colorado Boulder, 12 October 1998.

[vi] Ismat Chugtai, “Lihaaf,” City of Sin and Splendour, (India: Penguin Books, 2005), 174.

[vii] It should be stated that these two things are not necessarily related. Despite the increase in violence, Lahore has not become more cosmopolitan.

[viii] Hanif continues: ““And just like any corner shop owner or cab driver, a writer needs a bit of peace and quiet to keep working.” Mohammad Hanif, “The Good Life in The World’s Most Violent City: Sweet Home Karachi”, The New Republic, 14 September 2012.

[ix] These were in retaliation for Pakistan’s anti-Taliban military operation in Swat and other provinces that is perceived as occurring at the behest of the United States. “Taliban Commander Hakimullah Mehsud said the Wednesday morning attack in Lahore was payback for the ongoing military offensive in the northwest part of the country, which has become a haven for Islamic militants.” Mehsud declared that “If the government continues to carry out activities at the behest of America, we will continue to hit government installations.”

[x] It is the least safe city for its police and security officers whose presence imperils the lives of the rest of Lahore’s inhabitants and who are lonely in public spaces since no one likes to stand near them particularly during festivals, processions, or protests.

[xi] The Lahore High Court issues this directive after hearing a case of a woman’s death due to a traffic jam.

[xii] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, (Verso: London, 2007), 6. Italics added.

[xiii] I consider my use of queer here as opening up an avenue to rethink the urban expansively and not only in regards to sexual orientation. Queer is used here as a political category, a “disorientation device” that arose out of queer studies and is influenced by Sarah Ahmed’s work on queer phenomenology. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[xiv] The “elastic geography” that Weizman writes about also applies to Lahore, where borders are neither rigid nor fixed but elastic and in constant transformation. Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, (London: Verso, 2007), 6-9. On the “urban imaginary” see Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) and Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987).

[xv] I found the conversation between the Visible Collective and Trevor Paglen useful as a way of thinking through the perils of “mapping” and considering cartography as an analytic as opposed to authoritative tool: Visible Collective and Trevor Paglen, “Mapping Ghosts,” An Atlas of Radical Cartography, (Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press: 2008).

[xvi] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” New Left Review 53, September – October 2008, 23-40. See: Henri Lefebvre, Writing Cities, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1996).

[xviii] All work that I do on Lahore is inspired by my mother, Sakina Ramzan Ali, and in honor of my grandfather, Doctor Ramzan Ali Syed, who, after seeing me when I was five, presciently told my mother that I was trouble. His hospital on Temple road was damaged in the two consecutive bomb blasts that targeted the FIA headquarters further down the road in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

[xix] Blasts from 2009 onwards did target minorities particularly Shia and Ahmadiyya communities.  The attack on minorities is a serious issue in Lahore and Pakistan at large. By focusing on the shift in violence in Lahore towards citizens and sites which are not religiously motivated, I do not mean to gloss over the importance of sectarian violence, but am interested in the way in which this violence has shifted and also entered into the everyday experience of all Lahori’s.

[xx] The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) vociferously deny any hand in the attack claiming that they do not target public spaces and only police, army and security outfits.

[xxi] These are also called “cracker bombs.”

[xxii] Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the head of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).


Historical Table by Sadia Shirazi

LAHORE: Environmentalist and author Z B Mirza remembers a very different Lahore. Growing up in the 1960s, when he lived in Lahore’s Model Town, he recalls wider and emptier streets; there were more trees and less high-rises. Water didn’t come in plastic gallons, but was extracted through hand pumps. It was a simple process, since the water was only 35ft under the ground. Today, it is below 200ft.

When he steps out, Mirza no longer sees the familiar streets of his childhood: instead of lush green trees lining the canal, the city’s forest cover is being cut down to make space for cars and roads. The Mughal and Sikh gardens he used to visit as a child have been destroyed.

There are hardly any ring-necked parakeets wandering about the city, and fruit trees like mulberry, guava and mango are decreasing. Instead, Lahore has transformed into concrete jungle: development projects do not factor in environmental concerns, and bridges, flyovers, brand new housing schemes are sprouting up everywhere.

“Lahore is going through a severe environmental crisis,” says Hammad Naqi Khan, the director-general of the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan). An overpopulated, urban city like Lahore cannot survive rapid and unsustainable development, which exerts enormous pressure on existing natural resources, leading to water problems, pollution, and changes in the city’s temperatures, he says.

Also read: Sink or swim— Who will save Pakistan’s drowning farmers?

Unsustainable development

While the city has seen a surge in development projects, they are usually implemented without factoring environment concerns. One such example is the Thokar Niaz Baig flyover, which was built to ease traffic congestion. According to Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, surveys have shown the road is not being used to its full capacity.

The Jail Road underpass is a similar case. During a public hearing, a consulting engineer of the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) confessed that the underpass was ill-planned and should be dismantled; a new underpass based on rules and regulations should be rebuilt. He suggested the project’s chief engineer be penalised for allowing construction on an incorrect course and wasting millions of rupees spent by the government.

With Lahore’s population increasing by the day, housing schemes have become a necessity. But these grand construction plans reduce the amount of land that could potentially be used for planting trees. Since there is no law which stops conversion of prime agricultural lands for housing or commercial purposes, the loophole is widely exploited by land developers. One must not ignore the fact that when unplanned housing schemes are constructed, the cost of building roads and other infrastructure is once again dumped on the government’s shoulders.

Medical practitioners have also testified that an increase in the number of concrete structures leads to an increase in temperature, causing sun strokes among pedestrians and motorcyclists during the summer.

Dr. Farzana Anees is a senior medical officer at Gulab Devi Chest Hospital. “We have noted many cases of sun stroke and dehydration in June and July, because of less shade in the city,” she says. Temperature rise is not something people associate with concrete footpaths, but like other development measures, environmental degradation directly affects human health.

There is an immediate need to develop tier two cities to reduce migration to the provincial capital, and to shift our focus from constructing housing schemes to developing green zones.

Green havens during heatwaves

Lahore has only three per cent of green area, which is continuously being paved to make room for roads and buildings. “Our government gives the lowest priority to urban green spaces,” complains Lt. Col. (R) Ejaz Nazim, a senior landscape designer and an environmental activist.The world standard requires a minimum of 25 to 30 per cent of green open space in urban areas—cities like Berlin boast upto 45 per of urban forest cover.

Unpaved green belts also fall under green areas across the city and have great environmental importance. They help in storm water drainage and act as recharge zones for groundwater replenishment. Today, when most green belts have been turned into concrete, groundwater recharge is affected and is witnessing a sharp decline. This may hold little importance for city dwellers travelling in air-conditioned cars, but for less privileged members of society like pedestrians, vendors and cyclists, it is a matter of great concern.

Some delicate trees are planted to monitor levels of air pollution in urban areas, while others help mitigate the negative impacts of air pollution. It is important, therefore, for trees to be planted with awareness of their purpose and function (or lack of).

The ignorance of the connection between climate change and urbanisation has already resulted in damage. In Karachi for example, the 1,500 deaths caused by an unanticipated heat wave could have been prevented by the presence of more parks, green belts and urban forest cover in the city.

Greenery and trees help to absorb much of the heat, and establishment of green zones can improve a city’s micro-climate, lowering its average temperatures.

The destruction of gardens

The garden of Mirza Kamran, built by the Mughal of the same name, was once a fantastic sight next to River Ravi in Lahore. Today the garden lies in ruins. If the Mughals were alive, they would be disappointed by the renovations and encroachments that have destroyed their majestic legacies.

The Shalimar Gardens located northeast of the city are also severely affected by development projects. A flyover being built right above the gardens threatens to encroach upon its space, and poses dangers to the centuries’ old gardens.

Then there are the lesser-known gardens left behind by the Mughals and the Sikhs: the Garden of Mahabat Khan, Naulakha Garden, Bagh-e-Dara, Anguri Bagh, Gulabi Bagh, Badami Bagh, Gardens of Raja Teja Singh in Chah Miran, Garden of Raja Dina Nath on Shalimar Road, Garden of Bhai Maha Singh near Shah Alam Gate; all of these have been lost because of unsustainable development. The blame lies squarely upon the government.

During the British era, gardens like the Lahore Zoological Gardens, Anarkali Garden, Manto Park (Iqbal Park) were added to the city. These sites too, are undergoing constant alteration, and are under threat.

Environmental degradation at the Canal

The Lahore Canal road, which stretches over an area of 1,000 acres, is a hotspot for traffic jams. The government’s friendly attitude towards the automobile industry (i.e. less taxation) has led to a surge in vehicles, especially in Lahore and Karachi. In the absence of an efficient public transport network, this has resulted in a population to vehicle ratio that is going out of control. To make matters worse, Lahore’s air pollution levels are already disastrously high, since automobiles lead to an increase in hazardous elements in the atmosphere.

Naseem ur Rehman, the director of the EPD, testifies that air pollution is caused by traffic congestion, which increases particulate matter in air beyond the limits prescribed by WHO. “We need to control the number of automobiles on our roads,” Rehman recommends.

In 2012, a JICA transport study conducted for the government of Punjab over three years found that there were 350,000 automobiles and 850,000 motorcycles in Lahore. It found that 40% of Lahore’s population walks to work; 20% uses motorcycles, 22% uses public transport and 8% uses cars.

The following year, the Canal was declared a protected area under Section 3 of the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act. The Act banned all construction, clearing, removal, and damage of trees along the canal’s length, but repeated violations of the Act have resulted in extreme environmental degradation.

In a supposedly ingenious move to solve the traffic congestion problem, the government decided to widen the roads along the canal, and cut down the trees. National Engineering Services Pakistan (Pvt) Limited (NESPAK) did not recommend going ahead with this plan, since road-widening is a temporary solution; it may ease up traffic along the Canal briefly, but with the increase in vehicles and poor traffic regulations, a more sustainable plan is required.

Cutting trees, planting trees

“Lahore was once known for its lush green gardens,” says Ijaz, a concerned citizen. “But is now known for its maze of underpasses and overpasses.” Ijaz feels the surge in developmental projects, especially road widening, has taken a toll on the city’s tree cover. The reduction of tree cover around the Canal, specifically, has removed the habitat for many species, including feral cats, small Indian mongoose, Indian monitor lizards, butterflies, fireflies, grey hornbills, yellow-footed green pigeons, white breasted kingfishers and purple sunbirds.

Chopping down trees to widen roads affects both Lahore’s scenic beauty, and the city’s carbon sink, which is a natural or artificial reservoir that helps in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But instead of planting more trees to replace the old ones, what little is left of the green belts is being converted into a display of exotic plant species that have less foliage, host no biodiversity, and have little or no shade. On top of it all, they require more attention in pruning and watering, which adds to the burden of the provincial budget. According to a 2007 report by World Bank, unsustainable development and the cutting down of trees is costing Pakistan Rs1 billion rupees every day.

“This was back in 2007,” Nazim observes. “We should think about how much environmental degradation is costing us now.” Nazim, who is also the president of Shajardost Tehreek (Friends of the Trees), does not believe in opposing development plans, but he feels they must be “balanced, sustainable and equitable.”

An exotic, futile hobby

The government’s new hobby to plant exotic species rather than indigenous ones has proved counter-productive for the ecosystem. Exotic plants have little ecological importance for Pakistan since they are alien to the country's climate; unfamiliar species create complications and some prove to be invasive in nature because of their high survival and germination rates. Meanwhile, indigenous species of plants help the ecosystem since they host biodiversity.

“In order to mitigate urban forest cover loss, the government should plant indigenous species of plants,” Z B Mirza recommends. Jaman (black plum), mango, lasura (gum berry), papal and safeeda (eucalyptus) are excellent options, because unlike exotic species, these plants are certain to thrive.

In order to justify their unsustainable development methods, the government has traditionally argued that three times as many trees will be planted to balance out the losses. What the government fails to realise however, is that small exotic plants do not have significant ecological value when compared to large native trees.

Saplings emit less oxygen, have a low survival rate and cannot provide habitat to any species of birds for roosting and nesting. Most importantly, this results in a declining of Lahore’s water table.“Paving green, soft, permeable soil prevents natural recharging of our underground aquifers,” Nazim explains.

Drinking arsenic

Lahore’s groundwater is replenished by River Ravi and rainwater, but the river is already polluted by industrial and municipal waste that contaminates the underground water table. In a report, WWF-Pakistan highlights Lahore’s poor management of Lahore’s water resources. Lahoris, it recommends, should make their water consumption patterns more sustainable, and promote rainwater harvesting—a technique used by several countries to conserve rainwater and its benefits, but one that is unknown in Pakistan.

Rainwater could help raise city’s water table, but most of it goes to waste. Normally, it seeps through vegetation and unpaved areas, recharging the aquifer. But reducing green zones to increase concrete structures means that there are more drains than vegetation, and the rainwater flows into them.

Water samples taken from Jamiya Mosque Haloki, Anwar-e-Madina reveal that water contains twice the minimum arsenic level recommended by the WHO. Government authorities are responsible for the water supplied to these mosques, which is apparently also infused with human waste. This means that safe drinking water – which is a basic human right – is not available to all of Lahore’s population. Medical experts discourage using tap water for drinking purposes since it contains harmful pollutants like lead.

In response to the water crisis, WWF-Pakistan has teamed up with Coca-Cola to install 15 water filtration plants in low-lying areas of the city which lack access to the basic right of clean water supply.

Growing horizontally, not vertically

“Pakistan needs to rethink how it develops its cities,” says Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, the CEO of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan and director of Asia, Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN). He feels the problem lies with development taking place “horizontally” rather than “vertically” – which increases the country’s carbon emissions, leads to a loss of fertile land and increases commuting time and cost.

“Cities grow vertically to respond to such challenges,” Sheikh explains. “Lahore is not entering the 21st century [properly]… it is turning into an overgrown village.”

Sheikh says the growth of industries has led to the construction of sprawling industrial zones in sites which could have been growing basmati rice. “We are compromising our food security by vowing for unsustainable development,” he adds.

Lawyer Ahmed Rafay Alam has some viable solutions. In the absence of sufficient urban forest cover, Alam says the government is destroying the city’s natural environment by building on green zones. “Building new roads might not help reduce traffic, but reducing cars can be the right move,” he suggests. “Meanwhile, we have to stop horizontal expansion.”

For Alam, sustainable development is “low rise, mid-density, mixed-use” and has less harmful impact on the environment. Pakistan, for example, could pick up a few lessons in city-planning from Latin America, where countries have paid the price of unplanned urbanisation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, rural populations rapidly demanded more and more service land, and the planning and development sectors could not deliver. Informal land dealers and developers found an opportunity to expand and grow in the absence of a framework. Cities then grew unplanned, creating issues like traffic congestion, inequality and loss of productivity. It was later proved that the cost of improvement programmes in unplanned urban areas is between three to five times more than the cost of urbanising unoccupied land.

An integrated approach

Our government has become savage and reckless when it comes to protecting the environment. With every tree that falls, every new car emitting carbon into the atmosphere, and every species losing the battle to maintain diversity, our ecosystem is getting weaker. If we are harmed by heat waves, smog, declining water levels and urban flooding, then we are also responsible for it.

We must decide whether we want to protect the environment and lead a healthy lifestyle, which includes healthy food, clean drinking water and refreshing air; or if we want to continue harming it. Cities and urban spaces are centers of development challenges—they might create new opportunities, but experts say the battle against economic collapse, climate change, poverty and health will either be won or lost in cities.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is an environmental writer with an interest in climate change, deforestation, food security and sustainable development. He tweets @SyedMAbubakar

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