Lahore Needs Urban Forests
A cry of the city that has lost 70% if its tree cover
The city of Lahore, which once was called the city of gardens and trees, is now counted among the most polluted cities in the world. This is a dramatic change to which I and millions of other people are witness. Today’s Lahore is not the one we saw in our childhood and our elders would tell us, and our kids, the stories about. Terribly deprived of its lavish greenery, the Lahore city has now become a jungle of concrete; constructions have defaced it and eclipsed its natural beauty. The burden of an unbridled growth in population has radically changed the geographical, ecological, economic and social structure of this metropolis of Punjab. As a result, multipronged civic issues are on a trajectory to becoming a serious humanitarian crisis. Bad air quality, smog, fog, urban floods, extreme heat waves and other climatic episodes have already started affecting the civic life at different times of a year. And one issue, inter alia, is the city’s diminishing green cover. This grim reality has been highlighted in the data provided in a research paper titled as “Spatiotemporal urban sprawl and land resource assessment using Google Earth Engine platform in Lahore district, Pakistan” which was published last year. The paper says that between 1990 and 2017, the Lahore city lost its tree cover at an annual rate of 2.06 km2 and that ratio reached 3.07 km2 between 2010 and 2017. However, on the contrary, the city’s urban area increased at an enormous annual rate of 23km2 between 1990 and 2017.
This huge loss of trees, in spite of the fact that the city requires a lot more new trees every year to keep its climate suitable to humans, is a moment of reflection for all those institutions which are responsible for expanding the city’s tree cover and taking care of those already planted. It is a critical time even for those individuals who are breathing in toxic air, living in a hot climate, comprising on the declining water table of the city, becoming forgetful of birds chirping around them, and even to assimilate to the growing noise pollution and are ready to forego their right to having a green piece of land to jog and spend a quality leisure time but, unfortunately, not ready to plant trees in the city and protect and take care of the existing ones. It is due to this collective negligence and carelessness on our part that this city of gardens is now becoming a city of pollution.
Pakistan’s legendary poetess Parveen Shakir once wrote:
“Kal raat jo indhan ke liye kat ke gira hai
Chiriyon ko bada pyar tha is burhe shajar se”
When she wrote this elegy, trees were being mercilessly cut at that time just for the sake of wood to be used as fuel. But, the situation has not changed even today. However, it’s a bit different in big cities where to provide shelter to more and more people, cities are sprawling and every tree coming in the way is being fallen. The same is happening in Lahore.
The Lahore district, whose population has ballooned by 76% between 1998 and 2017, is being increasingly overburdened and the population of this city is estimated to be around 25 million by 2050. This necessitates the provision of housing and the related amenities for an additional population of around 12.6 million in the next 28 years. Although the smallest district of Punjab in terms of area, Lahore is the largest district of Pakistan in terms of population. Covering only 0.22% of the country’s total area, this district hosts 5.35% of Pakistan’s total population – and 15% of the county’s urban population. The population density here can be ascertained from the fact that one kilometre area of the city is populated by 6275.39 individuals, again the highest ratio in the whole country. Having only 0.86% of Punjab’s total area, it is home to 10% of the total population of the province – and 27.5% of its urban population.
During the period between the fifth and the sixth population censuses, the number of houses in Lahore district swelled by a whopping 98% and it is a manifestation of geographical expanse of the city. This sprawl is eating up the open spaces in and around the city where there are trees or they can be planted. Moreover, the increase in the number of houses is a prelude to the construction of other infrastructure, e.g. shopping plazas, shops, roads, schools, hospitals, marriage halls, places of worship, petrol pumps, etc. which means more space covered with concrete. But, what will happen to the trees coming in the way of this expansion? If we answer this question keeping in view the above-stated state of affairs, it would be: perhaps, not different from the past. In such a case, what will happen to the trees that come in the way of this expansion? If there is an answer to this question in view of the situation described above, it may be that what has happened to them in the past will continue to happen in the future.
What happened to Lahore’s trees in the past is an intriguing story and a horrible result of this has been aptly depicted through a research paper “Spatiotemporal urban sprawl and land resource assessment using Google Earth Engine platform in Lahore district, Pakistan,” an endeavour of five researchers from Pakistan and abroad that has been supervised by Dr. Hammad Gilani of the Department of Space Science, Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad. Dr Adeel Ahmed, the lead author of this paper, is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of the Punjab.
This author contacted Dr Adeel to dig deep into the issues discussed in the paper. When asked how he would rate the severity of tree shortage in Lahore, Dr Adeel said that it was “very high”. Explaining the results of his research, he said that between 1990 and 2017, a total of 55.48 km2 of Lahore’s tree cover was lost as it fell from 71.44 km2 to 15.96 km2 – a 77.7% decline. He further added that in 1990, 4.03% of Lahore’s total area was covered with trees but that gone down to only 0.9% till 2017. It is despite the fact that the total built area of the district increased by 621.09 km2 – an increase of 429.7%. At present, around 43.21% area of Lahore district consists of built infrastructure as against 8.16% in 1990.
Dr Adeel has warned that, due to this, the ecosystem and air quality of this mega city has already degraded a lot, and if these conditions prevail, it may result in a catastrophic great human tragedy.
Besides sprawl of Lahore, a rapid increase in vehicle and industrial emissions in urban and suburban areas has resulted in a number of environmental problems such as urban heat islands, smog, air pollution, change in precipitation patterns and health problems. The faster Lahore is spreading, the faster the number of motor vehicles plying in the city is increasing because the increasing distances within the city means a growing need for motor vehicles. Whether public or private, the number of motor vehicles in Lahore has increased by 535% between 2003 and 2019 which is far more than the increase in population.
At present, around 31% of the total motor vehicles registered in Punjab are in Lahore. Although they are playing a significant role in meeting the travel needs of the citizens, yet are resulting in more air pollution, especially in the form of smog. This is because sulfur dioxide emissions from vehicles and tiny solid particles are the main source of smog.
Another problem is the growing number of manufacturing industries; according to the Census of Manufacturing Industries 2015-16, more than 95% of industrial units are located within 2 kilometres of major roads and highways in Punjab, i.e. around the urban areas. The top four industrial districts (Faisalabad, Sialkot, Lahore, Gujranwala) house 62.42% of Punjab’s overall industry, thereby multiplying the problems of urban sprawl, environmental degradation and climate change.
Since forests play a vital role in regulating climate, storing carbon, removing air pollution, improving air quality, reducing urban-flood risk, and protecting food and water, the cities need them. Trees are nature’s powerhouses and an important means of meeting the world’s renewable energy demand. Trees not only provide shade and cooling effect but also reduce wind intensity, thus curtailing the air-conditioning requirements and keeping the temperatures temperate. In this way, they help reduce the urban energy consumption which, in turn, leads to less carbon emissions. In addition, they also help diminish the effects of severe weather.
Trees help improve the physical and mental wellbeing of the people. Forests not only add to the beauty of cities but also improve social cohesion, meaning thereby that they have a profound impact on improving living standards and public health by making cities more attractive and livable. Above all, trees are an important source of disaster risk reduction and an integral part of disaster risk management. Therefore, the presence of trees in and around the city is of critical importance and this can be achieved by an integrated system comprising forests and trees.
In order to alleviate the shortage of trees in Lahore, several policies have been formulated and a number of initiatives have already been started. But, pointing out the one aspect that warrants immediate attention, Muhammad Faisal Haroon, former Chief Conservator of Forests, Extension and Research Punjab, said, “Lahore is not within the purview of the Forest Department as it is the exclusive domain of Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) to look after tree planting and other related matters in Lahore city,” adding that “more space should be provided to the Forest Department for setting up nurseries in Lahore city because it has great expertise in this regard. People can buy a plant from such nurseries for a meager amount of only two rupees.
It is perplexing as well as unfortunate that the department, a majority of whose employees have degrees in forestry and are blessed with extensive expertise in this the fields of afforestation, tree plantation and all related technical matters, is not being utilized to make Lahore a verdant city.
To alleviate the shortage of trees in Lahore, Miyawaki forests are being planted at 50 points across the city. In addition, the world’s biggest Miyawaki forest, covering an area of 100 kanals and having 160,000 trees, was recently inaugurated in Lahore. To reinforce the importance of tree planting and green environment, the Lahore High Court recently directed the various departments of the Punjab government to update the existing laws to promote afforestation and deal with violations thereof. The court also directed the local governments, development authorities and all concerned departments to ensure that housing societies include tree planting in their allotment letters. The Secretary and the Registrar of Cooperatives were specifically mentioned as the agencies responsible for implementing this order.
In this regard, The Urban Unit prepared “Punjab Urban and Peri-Urban Forest Policy (Draft), 2019, wherein it suggested that Punjab Housing Societies and Land Sub-Division Rules 2010 draw planning standards for housing societies. The rules state that while planning a housing society, the developer has to reserve at least seven percent (7%) of its area for open space or parks. However this rule has no provision on urban forestation. This policy recommends that there is a need to update the existing housing society rules with the incorporation of 2.5% of area of the housing society (from within the 7% area for open space and parks) specified for Urban Forest, following the Rules under this policy for number and type of species and plants cultivated per acre, and their cutting and replenishing.”
Moreover, the proposed targets for Tree Canopy to be achieved by Departments and entities in their respective area include 5% on streets, 10% on roads in urban area and 15% in peri-urban areas. It asserts that the rule of “one tree per 10 metres” will be observed in city streets, roads, housing societies, and other facilities of public and private sector.
Besides, Lahore Development Authority (LDA) recently issued an invitation for opinions/suggestions/objections on Draft Master Plan for District Lahore-2050 and it has been clearly written therein: “Paying special attention to protecting the existing orchards/open spaces, a clear policy has been devised for future plans to increase parks/open spaces. In this backdrop, the mandatory provision of parks/open spaces in future residential projects and housing schemes has been enhanced from the existing 7% to 20%.”
This welcome decision by LDA is, admittedly, a pressing need of the hour but its positive effects can be enhanced manifolds if a clause to allocate a space for urban forests, as per the Urban Unit recommendations, is also included.
In order to alleviate the shortage of trees in Lahore at the earliest, various techniques are being adopted so as to accelerate their growth in the city. Miyawaki is one such technique. In addition, non-native plants, especially those which usually grow faster, are being planted. But citizens have serious concerns about some of these non-native plants and the discussion on native and non-native trees is gaining momentum day by day.
When we asked Bilal Akhtar Chaudhry, an expert in Miyawaki forest techniques, as to which plant species is better for Lahore, he said, “Nature has provided for the trees in an area in accordance with its environment and natural resources. So, when you plant a non-native species, you are interfering with that natural system. What happens then is that the non-native plants either die or native plants nearby impede their growth. They also use the share of water and food of the non-native species. Moreover, they have a variety of economic, environmental and human health effects. Since not much prior information is gotten before planting the non-native species, when the negative effects of such plants come to light, the problems start. For example, eucalyptus (Safaida) tree was introduced in the country for the reclamation of waterlogged lands – it sucks a lot of water from the earth and grows much faster than other plants – but today you may find it on many pieces of fertile land as well. The proliferation of such a tree in a water-scarce country is a matter of great concern. Similarly, Paper Mulberry tree is a major source of pollen allergy in Islamabad. In Lahore, you will find Conocarpus every here and there. But, it affects the foundations of houses and underground infrastructure (sewerage, water, gas, telephone, etc.) due to the spread and hardness of its roots. It is a non-native species and its leaves do not degenerate after falling from the tree because there are no bacteria in the soil that can decompose them. Birds also do not nest on this tree. Besides, it causes asthma and pollen and skin allergies. So, this tree is not suitable for the people with respiratory problems. In comparison, native trees increase soil fertility and keep the environment clean. Do not cause allergies. Above all, they are very important for the local fauna.”
At a time when extreme climatic events are becoming more frequent, there is a pressing need to formulate and implement disaster mitigation and disaster management strategies in cities so as to improve the capacity to deal with them. Urban and suburban urban forests are the key components of any such projects aimed at mitigating the effects of disasters and the ensuing damage, as well as the rehabilitation, reconstruction and resettlement of the resulting ecosystem. The multifaceted utility of urban and suburban urban forests makes it imperative that trees be considered in all action plans designed to mitigate the risk of disasters.
The writer can be contacted at: email@example.com
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