Having explored in the previous post the abysmal state of air pollution monitoring and access to air quality data in Lahore, it was apparent how the urban poor were essentially excluded from such. But this was only the surface of how policies to tackle air pollution embody a middle-class bias, which can be better understood when exploring the city’s urban greening agenda.
Lahoris seems to have some kind of obsession with planting trees. Anyone you speak to about what needs to be done to tackle air pollution, whether it be a street vendor, student or celebrity, will suggest that the city needs more trees. And they’re not wrong in some sense. Over the past few decades there has been a enormous loss in tree cover due to poor planning and urban sprawl (Figure 1). The government’s response to population growth and increasing pressures on infrastructures included road widening and signal-free corridor projects to cater to new residential societies in the suburbs- resulting in thousands of trees being cut to make space for these developments. Such plans were indeed counterproductive in two ways: firstly, the development of these sprawling new housing societies were to host upper-class residents. Improving connections to the city’s peripheral areas does very little solve the problems of population growth or urbanisation. And secondly, expanding road space encourages more vehicle use which exacerbates the existing air pollution crisis. So objectively speaking, the city does need more trees. But is this the best way to counter the city’s air quality?
Over the last few years, there seems to be a substantial emphasis on tree-planting, even outlined in the The Clean Air Action Plan under Policy Measure 17: “Increasing urban tree cover”. Across the city, a range of initiatives and volunteering opportunities encourage citizens to plant trees, and this sentiment also reflects the “Billion Tree Tsunami” initiated by the Prime Minister in 2014. This attempt of ‘reproducing’ nature, reflects the reverting attitudes in how trees are perceived. From being deemed as an obstacle to the city’s growth and needing to be removed to accommodate for development, there has been a drastic shift back to realising the utility of nature in serving the citizens. From a UPE perspective, this reintegration of nature is far from “natural”, as it in fact artificially constructed to meet the demand of the city.
Urban greening is key for the healthy metabolism of any city as it can help correct any imbalances in the flows: Its helps to counter the urban heat island effect, reduces noise pollution and is a natural carbon sink to absorbs the CO2 that the city emits. Yet, the policies in Lahore that encourage urban greening disguise a deeply entrenched middle-class bias, and do not explicitly aim to tackle the city’s air pollution. Parks and green spaces in Lahore fall under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), which is where the problem lies as their mandate is not environmental. This can be reflected by PHA led plantation initiatives that replace indigenous tree species like the Amal Tas with faster-growing, invasive species such as the Paper Mulberry which can create problems to the local biodiversity. The PHA’s aim is solely to “beautify the city”, which is unsurprising as this has always been an underpinning concept for Lahore’s greening efforts since before the Colonial Rule. Rehman (2009) revisits in detail the rich history of how Lahore earned it’s name as a “Garden City”. From this, it is apparent that since the early 16th Century, urban greening efforts were in the interest of the city’s wealthy. In the Mughal Era, elaborate gardens housed the tombs of emperors, whilst during the British Raj they were designed for the British elite (ibid) and their recreational activities. Even now, beautifying the city is fronted as a “public interest”, but the reality has always been that it is deeply rooted in favour of the rich, and contemporary efforts are no different. Layering onto this is the fact that green spaces can lose their public good status. When the government fails to regulate these spaces effectively, the quality deteriorates. In response to this “regulatory slippage”, they sell green spaces to private parties in order to rid their responsibility entirely; thus making it an “elite urban common” as it becomes selectively excludable and rivalrous- reserving claims to these spaces for only those who have financial power (Alam and Lovett, 2019).
So although the current obsession with tree-planting is productive, it must be recognised that it carries an overtly middle-class bias. The city’s historic and current urban greening agenda has always focussed on beautifying the city for its middle class- and other benefits that this had were secondary. With growing demands and pressures to tackle the city’s air pollution, the already existing greening efforts have tactically been repackaged to bypass scrutiny that the government faced for not doing enough- which they aren’t. The most effective way to handle the air quality issues is to target key emitters in the transport and industrial sector, which is yet to be done. Increasing the city’s tree cover is a long-term strategy for improving air quality and the benefits are reaped once the tree has matured, which can take decades. Mainstreaming urban greening into air pollution discourses was an easy way to satisfy environmental activists concerns whilst still continuing to please the middle-class. If the legacy of being a “Garden City” had not existed and Lahore was free from its nostalgic impression of green spaces, it’s highly doubtful that there would be such an emphasis on urban greening today.
Alam, R. and Lovett, J.C., 2019. Prospects of Public Participation in the Planning and Management of Urban Green Spaces in Lahore: A Discourse Analysis. Sustainability, 11(12), p.3387.
Rehman, A., 2009. Changing Concepts of Garden Design in Lahore from Mughal to Contemporary Times. Garden History, pp.205-217.