Pakistan’s Urbanization

Pak Map

The Coming Big Challenge

“Rapid urbanisation is neither a crisis nor a tragedy. It is a challenge for the future.”
Dr Mahbubul Haq
in Human Development Report 1990

Pakistan, long a nation defined by its large rural populations and dominant agricultural industries, is undergoing a dramatic urban shift. A recent report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs entitled “World Urbanization Prospects 2014,” suggests that the country is urbanizing at an annual rate of 3% — the fastest pace in South Asia. In about 10 years, nearly half of Pakistan’s 188 million people are set to live in cities, compared to only a third today. Projections by the Pakistan government, using density-based rather than administrative definitions of urbanization, suggest that Pakistan’s urban population has already reached 50 percent.


Majority of the Pakistani population has traditionally been living in rural area. These were the localities where the agriculture sector was the main source of living. But, with a shift to industrialization and paced developments in this realm, the process of urbanization has got an unprecedented pace. Economic theory also suggests that structural transformation takes place when resources are reallocated from low-productivity agriculture to high-productivity industry and services sectors. Cities and urban areas are the magnets for location of these sectors which benefit from migration of the surplus and underemployed labour. Rapid economic growth is therefore associated with urbanization. The pace of urbanization is, in turn, accelerated with a larger response of migration.

Empirical evidence shows that no country has grown to middle income status sans industrializing and urbanizing. None has grown to high income without vibrant cities.


Urbanisation is not a new story in Pakistan. In 1947, the year of the partition, masses of Indian Muslims crossed the new border. Many of these refugees settled in urban areas in the eastern Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab. Additional migratory flows occurred in 1965 and 1971, when wars between Pakistan and India resulted in more Indian Muslims streaming into Pakistani cities.

In the 1990s, the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan spawned a new exodus into urban Pakistan. Scores of Afghans, most of them ethnic Pashtuns, crossed the Durand Line into north-western Pakistan; as early as 1992, nearly 4 million had arrived. Initially, they resided in border refugee camps, but because of economic struggles in these rural areas — the Pakistani government forbade Afghans to cultivate land — many ventured to the western Pakistani cities of Peshawar and Quetta.

The accelerated urbanization in last two decades has set Pakistan apart from its original roots. The gap between lifestyles of urban and rural populations is wider than ever now. Pakistan is set to continue on the path towards urbanization in line with global trends, with the country’s urban population on the rise.

Causes of Rapid Urbanization

There are various reasons why people are moving from the countryside to urban areas in droves.

1. Migration of Poor People

First and the foremost among them is to seek better livelihoods and access to relatively better services such as education and healthcare. Those migrating for these reasons tend to be poor and they, generally, work in professions hit hard by climate change — such as farmers and fishermen facing droughts and other water-loss problems.

2. Conflicts and Wars

The second reason is war and conflict. For decades, people have been fleeing war-torn rural regions — particularly the Pakistani tribal areas — to seek the relative safety of cities such as Peshawar, Quetta, and in recent years Karachi. Many of these migrating people are innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and uprooted from their homes. Unfortunately, in recent years, militants have blended in with these fleeing civilians and have settled in cities as well. This is why the presence of the terrorists has increased in Pakistan’s urban centres.

3. Natural Increase in Population

The third chief factor for Pakistan’s rapid urbanization is natural population growth. The country’s population size is growing at a rate of several percentage points a year. Rapid population growth triggers urbanization because the increased demand for jobs, housing, energy, clean water, food, transportation infrastructure, and social services, makes people pour into cities — the areas where these facilities are available.

Benefits of Urbanization

Urbanization, as the name suggests, is the process where people from rural or semi-urban areas move to metro cities in search of better opportunities for growth and income. Following are its major advantages:

1. Creation of Economic Opportunities

Urbanization helps in boosting overall economic development of a country because due to urbanization local talent gets chances whether it is in sports, business, entertainment. And, by using this talent many industries as well as companies are getting better and bigger which in turn is helping the country in achieving its target of economic growth and is also enabling the country to achieve a competitive edge in global markets.

2. Improved Standard of Life

People who are from rural areas are usually deprived of basic amenities like schools, hospitals, banks and so on. But, due to urbanization these people get these facilities and hence it helps in improving the their overall living standard.

3. Efficiency

Cities are often more efficient than rural areas. Less effort is needed to supply basic amenities to urbanites such as fresh water and electricity. Research and recycling programmes are possible only in cities. In most cities flats are prevalent. In flats, many people can be accommodated within a small land area.

4. Convenience

Access to education, health, social services and cultural activities is more readily available to the people in cities than in villages. Life in cities is much more comfortable, compared to life in villages. Cities have more advanced communication and transport networks.

5. Concentration of Resources

Since most major human settlements were established near natural resources from ancient times, lot of resources are available in and around cities. Facilities to exploit these resources optimally also exist only in cities.

6. Better Social Integration

People of many groups, ethnicities  and religions live and work together in cities, which creates better understanding and harmony and helps break down social and cultural barriers.


Although urban centres of population offer a lot of advantages to their residents, yet they are not free of disadvantages and problems. Some of them are as under:

1. Rise in Crimes

Due to urbanization many people benefit but not all get the opportunities which results in those people doing illegal things like robbery, kidnapping, murder and so on and thus one can say that urbanization is party behind the increasing crime rate in big cities.

2. Unhygienic Living Conditions

When people migrate to cities, it results in scarcity of houses which in turn results in development of slums and since in these slums many people live in small areas (in unhygienic conditions) it results in these people contracting many diseases.

3. Faltering Agriculture Sector

Urbanization leads to shift of working population from agriculture to industries and due to this there is fall in agriculture produce which results in fall in food production and that in turn results in inflation as there is more demand and less supply of food products.

4. Vulnerability to Natural Calamities

Metro cities, due to rapid urbanization, are not prepared to face natural disasters like flood, earthquake, tsunami. Such disasters can cause loss of both property and people.

It is to be noted that though the urbanization has got benefits as well as it has its limitations, the government can eradicate the disadvantages of urbanization by adopting pragmatic policies.

Main Challenges for Pakistan

The most daunting challenge for Pakistan is to provide services for so many new urban arrivals. Even today, it is difficult for cash-strapped and capacity-constrained city officials to provide water, energy, housing, healthcare and education to their growing masses. And yet with urban populations continuing to increase, this will become even harder to do — and yet the alternative is untold conditions of urban squalor, which could well lead to unrest and radicalization.

The second major challenge is security. With so many people in cities struggling to access basic amenities, and many unable to do so, the implications for stability are considerable. None of this is reassuring for a country with so many security problems to start with.

How to Cope with the Challenge?

Following are some basic measures which need to be adopted on priority basis:

  1. A credible and stable local government structure should be revived to enable urban dwellers and other citizens to manage municipal affairs.
  2. Credit towards access of land by the needy and the poor must be ensured to enable them to acquire land for effective and equitable utilisation.
  3. Effective checks must be applied to the snowballing rise in real estate development.
  4. Appropriate changes must be introduced in the zoning and building regulations to promote mixed land use in an effective manner.
  5. The old principle of cross subsidy must be re-introduced where land and housing prices for the poor may be partially subsidised by the levies on real estate enterprises.
  6. Pakistan must take ultimate ownership over urbanization. To its credit, Islamabad is starting to give the issue some attention. In 2011, the Planning Commission of Pakistan released a report proposing a new paradigm for economic growth, with urbanization a major focus. One chapter, “Creative Cities”, calls on the government to revamp city zoning laws to allow for more high-rises and mixed-use buildings.


While demerits of urbanization cannot be fixed overnight, activities in Pakistan’s cities should be governed by pro-commerce building and zoning laws, thereby creating economic opportunities for the rising urban population. The private sector and academia should also take lead in urban development. Sialkot is a key example of public-private partnership in that regard, where the business community committed one rupee towards various development projects against every rupee committed by the government. Of course, one cannot also discount the city airport, sponsored entirely by the local private sector. Similarly, every city with a population of over a million has a major university. The academia can come up with research-based models for urban design and development that can be used by the government in policy design.

The process of urbanization reflects multiple economic and social transformations, resulting from access to markets, geographic mobility, economic development, growth and prosperity. The urban lifestyle offers better opportunities in terms of education and literacy, health, access to social services, citizen empowerment, and political participation, aside from being part of the popular culture.

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