At independence, Pakistan inherited many historical cities Lahore, Multan, and Peshawar, Hyderabad, Karachi, and dozens of new ones built by the British with colonial architecture, wide open roads, beautiful big gardens, and well-planned civil and military sections on the outskirts of the cities.
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From Old City Charms to Modern Splendor
The old cities were jewels in the vast agricultural country and these cities were a big attraction for visitors from within the country and for tourists from foreign countries. These were a beautiful combination of Mughal-era architecture dotted with forts, royal gardens, tombs, historical mosques, and ancient bazaars.
As time marched on, Karachi blossomed into a vibrant hub of modernity, donning the mantle of a metropolis that showcased architectural splendor. It was a city adorned with stately colonial buildings, bustling commercial centers, grand hotels, and meticulously designed residential areas, all of which could easily rival Bombay, its contemporary counterpart situated along the same coast to the East.
Cities Coastal Elegance and Modern Vision”
However, Karachi’s charm wasn’t just limited to its impressive urban landscape. The city was graced by the Arabian Sea, and its coastline boasted pristine beaches that not only added to its beauty but also provided a serene escape for its residents. This fusion of architectural elegance and the soothing presence of the sea made Karachi a true gem in Pakistan’s urban realm.
In stark contrast, we have Islamabad, the freshly established capital city, nestled snugly at the foothills of the majestic Margalla Hills. This city symbolized an era of boundless optimism, success, and rising affluence that characterized the 1960s. Islamabad made an indelible mark on the country’s urban landscape by introducing groundbreaking ideas in town planning.
Green Oasis to Urban Challenges
Islamabad’s visionary urban design incorporated generous green spaces, public parks, and the expansive Margalla National Park, which enveloped three sides of the city. These green havens served as the lungs of Islamabad, offering a refreshing sanctuary and striking a harmonious balance between city life and nature. In essence, Islamabad emerged as a living embodiment of modernity, seamlessly blending architectural magnificence with a steadfast commitment to preserving the natural beauty that surrounded it.
But unfortunately, the decline of Pakistan is not just economic, political, and social, it is total, and it strikes one when entering any small, medium, or large city, including the once ‘Islamabad the beautiful.’ In every city, traffic is a mess, there are encroachments on the roads, occupation of public lands and shanty towns, often on public lands, along streams, railway lines, and green areas.
Urban Decay in Pakistan
It’s disheartening to witness the deterioration of our cities in Pakistan. This urban decay isn’t limited to just one place; it’s a problem that’s spread far and wide. We all know the reasons behind this decline, whether we’re regular citizens or part of the wealthier, more influential class.
The main culprits here are those driven by an insatiable hunger for wealth accumulation. This group, made up of land developers, politicians, and bureaucrats, has transformed the agricultural lands surrounding our cities into housing colonies. It’s become a thriving business, often involving the use of “black money,” with little scrutiny about the sources of income, and many land plots remain anonymous.
Over the past four decades, vast sums of money have changed hands as housing societies have mushroomed, some even using the names of state institutions to gain public trust. Nowadays, it’s rare to find a state institution that doesn’t have its own housing colonies for the benefit of its employees, although many of these homeowners are actually second buyers. You can see a ring of haphazard and sprawling colonies surrounding every city, which not only dwarf but also suffocate the older parts of town, creating numerous traffic bottlenecks.
The old bazaars and colonial malls were never designed to handle the vehicular traffic we have today, and European cities planned their infrastructure over 200 years ago, making provisions for underground metros, subways, and wider roads for public transport. Unfortunately, whatever public transport we did have in cities was dismantled in the 1980s, as seen with the sorry state of Karachi’s circular railways and the encroachment on its facilities.
Segregation of the Rich and Powerful
The richest and most powerful in our society have segregated themselves by building their own colonies, hospitals, schools, shopping centers, and private entertainment venues. Meanwhile, civil society’s efforts to address issues like urban decay, plastic pollution, raw sewage disposal, and encroachment have often fallen on deaf ears.
It’s alarming that while cities expand outward in all directions, available space within city limits is dwindling due to population growth and the clustering of commercial centers. Finding parking in these areas is a daunting task, as shopkeepers and their workers occupy most of the spaces, effectively turning bazaars into makeshift parking lots.
In addition, corrupt deals between city bureaucracy and developers have led to the creation of new markets in residential areas, with little consideration for parking.
Regrettably, Pakistan’s rich urban heritage has deteriorated beyond recognition, and it’s increasingly difficult to imagine someone with the vision, leadership, and determination to restore our cities’ former glory or make them truly livable for everyone once more.