Walking is a fundamental human activity that has been around since the dawn of civilization. However, with the rise of motorized transportation, cities around the world have been designed to cater to cars rather than pedestrians, this trend has had devastating consequences for the environment, public health, and perhaps most importantly social cohesion.
In Pakistan, the negative effects of car-centric urban planning are particularly pronounced, since this has a social class dimension to it, add to this the presently rising petrol prices and the issue becomes even more imperative. The concept of walkable cities has yet to take hold in the country. Nonetheless, creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial for Pakistan’s sustainable development, and it is not too late to take action.
The concept of a walkable city is simple; it is a city where people can walk safely and comfortably, without facing any barriers. The idea is to create a pedestrian-friendly environment that promotes walking as a mode of transportation. The walkable city concept is not only limited to transportation but also encompasses other aspects such as accessibility to amenities, social interactions, and public spaces.
In Pakistan, the discourse on walkable cities as an urban development strategy is relatively little to zero. An observable manifestation of this can be seen in most of the real estate schemes that have popped up, and the pre-existing urban infrastructure, which seems to be developed to accommodate vehicle mobility rather than pedestrian. Moreso, this lack of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure could also be linked to class differences since most of the pedestrian traffic within Pakistan’s urban hubs comes from individuals of lower socio-economic standing, and often the owner of a vehicle is deemed to have a better economic standing.
What could be done?
The first step towards creating a walkable city is to assess the existing infrastructure and identify the areas that need improvement. Pakistan has a long way to go in this regard. The country’s urban areas are characterized by poor pedestrian infrastructure, unsafe roads, and a lack of accessibility to amenities. The roads are designed primarily for vehicular traffic, and the pedestrian’s needs are often ignored. Furthermore, this increase in vehicle use is often what contributes to traffic congestion and plays part in further degrading the air quality here. It is estimated by WHO that around 60,000 premature deaths occur in Pakistan every year due to air pollution and vehicular emissions are a major contributor to this.
To create a walkable city, Pakistan needs to revamp its infrastructure. The government should invest in developing pedestrian-friendly streets with dedicated sidewalks, crosswalks, and bicycle lanes rather than mega infrastructure projects –This as a consequence will do much to increase our public savings which could be directed toward developing pedestrian infrastructure and other projects geared towards community empowerment. The streets should be well-lit, and the footpaths should be wide enough to accommodate pedestrians and people with disabilities. The government should also prioritize the development of public transport systems that are well-integrated with the pedestrian infrastructure.
Another critical aspect of walkable cities is the availability of public spaces. Public spaces like public parks, and town squares are integral in encouraging greater social interaction and community building. Pakistan’s cities are marked by their lack of green spaces, parks, and playgrounds. The government should invest in creating public spaces that are accessible to everyone. These spaces should be designed in a way that encourages social interactions and fosters a sense of community. And importantly, are made safe for the use of women and children.
Apart from infrastructure, promoting walking as a mode of transportation is also essential. The government should launch campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of walking and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. The campaigns should target all segments of society, including children, women, and people with disabilities. As noted by the World Health Organization, 19 percent of deaths that occurred in 2016, were caused by heart-related diseases. Similarly alarming, is the number of adults (33 million) that are living with diabetes in Pakistan. Such chronic conditions are easily preventable if individuals engage in regular physical activity like walking.
A goal as such should not seem unattainable since across the globe, examples of walkable cities have illustrated persistently that policies that encourage walkability are met with success and cultivate a greater sense of well-being among its residents.
Walkable cities are the future of sustainable urban living. Pakistan has a lot of catching up to do in terms of creating pedestrian-friendly infrastructure and promoting walking as a mode of transportation. But this idea of creating a walkable city is not quite out of reach, we already have examples of these from the mohallas of Pindi or Androon Peshawar, or the walled city of Lahore, that have a rich history of pedestrian-friendly alleys and streets.
The government and the private sector should work together to invest in projects that prioritize walkability. In addition to investment, community involvement and engagement are also crucial in creating a walkable city. This can be achieved through community-based initiatives and grassroots movements that prioritize walkability and advocate for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, which is crucial since a substantial number of individuals’ primary mode of movement is walking.
Moreover, the involvement of women in these initiatives is essential to ensure that the pedestrian infrastructure is safe. Unfortunately, women in Pakistan are often subject to violence and harassment in public spaces, which makes them hesitant to walk or use public transport alone. Therefore, it is necessary to involve women in the planning and design, to ensure that it meets their needs for safe use.
Finally, creating a walkable city requires a shift in mindset and a change in urban planning practices. Instead of prioritizing vehicular traffic, Pakistan’s urban planners need to prioritize people and their needs. This requires a long-term vision that takes into account the changing demographics, tech advancements and global trends in urban planning. A walkable city is not only a more sustainable and inclusive city but also a more vibrant and livable city where people can connect with each other and their environment.