For many city-dwellers, urban green spaces, or the lack thereof, might only matter due to their role in beautifying the environment and providing sites for recreation. However, a lack of such spaces could have a cascade of negative consequences for human health that some urbanites might be incognizant of. The World Economic Forum recently reiterated the findings of a study that reveals the mortality burdens resulting from a lack of green spaces—street trees, general vegetation, community gardens, parks, sports fields, among others. The study, published in The Lancet Planet Health, covered more than a 1000 cities in 31 European countries and found strong evidence that up to 43,000 deaths a year could be staved off if cities followed the World Health Organization (WHO)’s guidelines on green spaces. For reference, the WHO suggests that ‘green spaces (of at least 0.5 hectares) should be accessible within a 300m linear distance of residences.’
However, the aforementioned study is not the only case in point. An ever-increasing number of studies have been issuing warnings regarding ramifications of the decrease in green spaces for human health and pointing to such spaces as an important resource in achieving desired health outcomes. These outcomes include, inter alia, lower rates of cardiovascular mortality and morbidity, diabetes and obesity, improved maternal health, or enhanced mental health and cognitive functions. In this context, decreased urban heat effect, improved air quality, enhanced physical activity, stress compensation, or greater social cohesion, among others, are considered the pathways underpinning the association between access to green spaces and the desired physical and mental health outcomes. The WHO has categorically acknowledged this important linkage and has been highlighting the significance of green spaces ever since.
However, while most of the available evidence on the subject is not specific to Pakistan’s context, it is unequivocal and holds important implications for the country witnessing an unprecedented rate of urbanisation and the concomitant demise of green spaces. Pakistan has the fourth-highest rate of urbanisation in South Asia at 37.2%. As a matter of course, land-use change and residential, industrial, and commercial developments have tremendously altered urban landscapes. In this scheme of things, green spaces have emerged as the losers.
Even cities that have been known for their rich green character are struggling from the challenges of fast-paced urbanisation, albeit to varying degrees. One study highlights a 51% loss of vegetative cover in the capital Islamabad between 2008 and 2017. With such fast-paced land-cover change, experts have warned that Islamabad could become a concrete city by 2030. Likewise, the Punjab Clean Air Action Plan (PCAAP) provides an eye-opening assessment of the land-cover change in Lahore, highlighting a 72% reduction in the city’s tree cover between 2007 and 2015. More alarmingly, parks covered a meagre 1.2% of the district area in the city as of 2019. Similar trends can be observed in other major cities as well. Thus, the fact that Pakistan has the second highest rate of deforestation in Asia should come as no surprise.
Rapid urbanisation has been accompanied by the poverty of urban planning, which further aggravates the situation. However, poverty in this context should not be understood as a complete absence of urban design plans. Instead, the existing plans also lack the required imagination and diligence. At a recent webinar, an expert argued: ‘If you talk about a master plan, try to look at developed countries’ master plans; you can’t call LDA a master plan, you can call it a land plan; you have the land, and you are authorized to make it residential, that’s it.’ This is perhaps true for many other urban design plans (with few exceptions). A drive around Pakistan’s cities would demonstrate what this has meant for green spaces. The cities today have networks of bazaars and streets developed at the expense of natural spaces. In addition, the existing green spaces tend to be unevenly distributed through the urban areas, and many open or barren spaces have been left unutilised or are inaccessible. These are stark manifestations of the country’s weak urban planning system.
Pakistan’s unplanned and rapid urbanisation and the resultant dearth of green spaces is undoubtedly an alarming phenomenon from a public health perspective. It is important to highlight that the country already lags behind the regional nations in terms of health indicators. Given this, reducing urban migratory pressures by investing in the development of the rural economy, restoring and preserving green areas, and providing accessible green spaces to all city-dwellers through strategic and diligent urban planning are urgent necessities today.
On a positive note, initiatives to restore deforested land and preserve existing natural spaces are already underway. In 2015, Pakistan launched the Billion Tree Tsunami campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. Having restored 350 million hectares under the programme, the KPK government in 2017 became the only sub-national entity to have reached and exceeded the Bonn Challenge milestone, which called for the restoration of 150 million hectares of deforested land by 2020. In 2018, the ‘Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Program’ (TBTTP) was initiated and is being implemented under the Ministry of Climate Change in collaboration with relevant provincial departments and has been called a ‘Global Leader Initiative’.
Under Phase I (2019-23), a total plantation target of 2.5 billion trees has been achieved. Similarly, after the successful completion of the ‘Miyawaki Urban Forest’ pilot project, 50 new forests are now being developed in densely populated areas in Lahore. Moreover, the government launched the ‘Protected Area Initiative’ in 2020, which targeted increasing protected areas to 15%. As of May 2021, the protected area coverage had increased to 13.9%. More recently, the KPK government declared 11 sites as ‘protected areas’, thus increasing their percentage in the province to 14.91% from 10.22%. Lately, the Ministry of Climate Change has also announced the National Parks Service to protect wildlife species and forest cover in 45 national parks.
While these initiatives are certainly laudable, they need to be accompanied by rigorous investment in strategic and green urban planning to have a far-reaching impact. This implies that the planning of all development activities must give due consideration to the provision of green spaces. Moreover, urban design plans need to ensure an even spatial allocation of green spaces in order to guarantee their equal accessibility by all city-dwellers. And with high demand for housing in cities today, urban planning will have to focus on creating new green areas by utilising lesser space or developing unutilised and barren pockets of land. This will go a long way in building healthier cities and a healthier society.
Zahra Niazi is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Image Source: US Forests Service, (2019, March 5), Urban Nature for Human Health and Wellbeing, https://www.fs.fed.us/research/urban/humanhealth.php