Urban Renaissance

There should be footpaths with environment that is conducive to walking in our towns and cities. Heavily trafficked streets are stripped of life by noise, congestion and fumes and it becomes difficult for pedestrians to walk along city roads. Sadly, footpaths are continuously diminishing every day making towns and cities all over the country more and more unlivable.

Footpaths (also called sidewalks or pavements) are paths designed for pedestrian traffic and often run alongside roads. Footpaths are more common in modern urban areas and are sometimes separated from the roads by tree lanes or flower beds (depending on available spaces and prior urban planning).

In developed world, some paths are shared by pedestrians and cyclists. This can be expressed by saying that bicycle travel is allowed on the sidewalk, or that pedestrians use the bicycle path, since there is no sidewalk. In the areas in which car traffic is intense, a growing trend is to create dedicated bicycle paths for cyclists, either as a lane on a sidewalk, a lane on the road itself, or another separate path, in order to let them have a safer, distinguished space. In some countries, sidewalks are often the responsibility of the adjacent property owners. In our towns and cities, however, there is only one path and bicyclists usually have to use the road. At most places even that does not exist or if there, it may be being used for purposes other than walking.

Now imagine this: The road network in a majority of our towns and cities is characterized by narrow carriageways, poor surface quality and absence or inadequacy of footpaths. Most of the network has also not been provided with footpaths in the first place. Even the limited road capacity is further reduced by way of on street parking, encroachments by hawkers and shopkeepers on carriageways and footpaths, lack of parking or terminal facilities and existence of mixed slow moving traffic comprising motorbikes, animal-driven vehicles, rickshaws and hand carts. Unless remedial measures are taken this situation is expected to worsen in the years to come.

“There are powerful forces creating vehicular dependency,” says a sociologist Dr. Muhammad Anwar Khan, “considering the attitude of the people, particularly effluent class, towards ownership and use of vehicles, it is highly unlikely that provision of safe footpaths can stop this dependency but walking friendly routs along roads and streets can slow down the trend and allow health conscious residents to take a chance by foot.”

In cities and towns that are distinguished by fast pace of life, walking is a socially beneficial activity because it is cheap; it allows people to appreciate their local environment; it promotes social contacts; it is non polluting and environmentally sustainable and it is healthy, and most of all it can contribute to the Urban Renaissance. Footpaths (also open spaces) are a good proxy measure for urban health. Ideally, each road must have a safe, convenient and comfortable footpath for pedestrians. But trip hazards on footpaths are a key concern at all times.

Who is responsible for this neglect? “Municipalities have the main responsibility for land-use planning and for developing and managing the physical environment of urban areas. But city and town development is a complicated process where a number of stakeholders often have contradictory interests. The municipalities are dependent on close co-operation with the private sector, public and private developers and national authorities of various sectors in order to create a comprehensive approach, co-ordinate efforts and balance out different interests,” says Abbas Kazimi, a Civil Engineer engaged in town planning. This vital cooperation seems to be lacking at all levels.

Most challenges related to land use and town planning in urban agglomerations stretch across several city development authorities with no central agency to overlook and coordinate. Land use and town planning is of great importance for choosing health-enhancing lifestyles in town and cities. More concentrated city-structures and better conditions for walking and biking will increase the levels of physical activity and general health of the residents.

In the short term, cities and town should be made walking friendly by measures such as prohibition of parking on footpaths, removal of encroachments, segregation of fast and slow moving traffic on roads, promotion of priority to public transport modes like buses over private modes through physical, fiscal and other measures, traffic inter-section improvements and lane disciplining. In the long term, every new road should necessarily have safe footpaths all the way. Besides highway department and municipalities, the private sector that has contributed to urban sprawl, through rapid developments of new localities, should be bound to do this.

Existing footpath maintenance should be carried out in response to problems faced by footpath users. Where a footpath is hazardous to users (potholes, blockades) emergency measures may be taken to provide a safer surface. Temporary repairs and damaged sections of footpath may e replaced with new material during the routine maintenance. New footpaths should be built where possible.

Brick lining of the footpaths have been replaced by asphalt and tough tiles but attitude of commuters towards pedestrians have not changed a bit. Sajida Javed, a housewife living in Defense Housing Society says, “It is a free for all society when one hits the road in any of the cities in the country. In the absence of safe footpaths, people driving in our crowded habitats should be more courteous towards those walking on roads. Otherwise women and senior citizens will always be afraid to come out of homes on foot.” That too makes a difference.

“The decline of safe walking facilities along the roads in cities has severely disadvantaged those without cars. Improved public transport is not the whole solution. Opportunities for increased walking and cycling (such as footpaths and cycle lanes) are essential. It is vital that the need to travel is reduced,” says Professor Dr. Norbert Pintsch, a German volunteer living and working in Pakistan. The quality of life in urban areas is closely bound up with the way they are managed and maintained. Everybody should feel safe and at ease, both in the streets and in public places. Who is to ensure that?

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