The Future of Karachi’s “PUBLIC” Spaces

Public space’ has recently become a buzzword in the world of urban planning. The term has also filtered into Pakistan although there have been individuals and organisations who have worked, against great odds, on the issue for decades without employing the term.

There are many types of urban space. One type is a part of a larger city or neighbourhood’s official plan, such as parks and playgrounds. In Karachi as a whole, much of this space has been illegally taken over for real estate development. Another type is acquired by communities for the purposes for recreation, entertainment and economic activity from ‘leftover’ spaces of official planning, such as wide pavements, around bus stops and formal markets. If such spaces survive long enough, they become an important part of community life. Yet another type evolves out of necessity and the absence of options, such as streets in katchi abadis where children play, women socialise and small neighbourhood businesses establish themselves. Very often, residents block through traffic from the lane, turning it into a protected public space.

This article is not specifically about these spaces or their origins. It is about how, in elite and middle-income areas, public space is being taken over from the public domain for the exclusive use of elite or middle-class functions. It is also about how, in the designing and redesigning of public space, government agencies ignore the functions for which the space was originally being used in order to reflect politicians’, architects’, or planners’ points of view of how such a space should be used. In the process, they invest in designs that are inappropriate for the public and which require huge maintenance costs, which are partly recovered by charging a fee from visitors. If this process continues, then very soon there will be no space for the poor in elite neighbourhoods, dividing the city further between rich and poor areas.


Pavement market for clothes in Saddar | Arif Hasan

For example, between Ghazi Abdullah Shah’s Mazaar and the Bahria Icon Tower, there is a lane that goes from the shrine to the sea. After visiting the shrine, people used to walk down this lane to the sea and, on the way, visit the aquarium and the Play Land, both of which had been in existence for more than 50 years but not anymore. Millions of Karachiites and visitors from other urban and rural areas of Pakistan have made this journey, because of which a well-organised market for food, seashell trinkets, art work and souvenirs developed along the lane. None of this now exists and you cannot get to the sea from this lane either. The lane now leads to the Beach View Park where you have to pay to get in. The exit from the mazaar to the lane has also been blocked.

As more and more spaces are lost to the public and are taken over for the exclusive use of elite and middle-class functions, what does it mean for the city? How can urban planners and policymakers avoid further dividing the rich and the poor?

With developments such as the Dolmen Mall, and related offices and car parking requirements, accessing the beach is becoming progressively difficult for low-income visitors. The hawkers of this lane have been scattered to different locations and they complain that their earnings have substantially reduced. Many of them have given up their traditional work and taken to selling food or getting jobs with contractors and as service staff to small businesses in the area. Apart from the economic loss, the death of the street market is also a huge cultural loss.

The Beach View Park obstructs access to the sea and is hardly used because of the fee that has to be paid for entering it and the fact that it does not open out on to the sea.


Women enter Burnes Garden | Photo by Tahir Jamal White Star

Next to the lane, the Bin Qasim Park has been developed within which is the listed heritage site of the Jehangir Kothari Parade. When the park was inaugurated, my office made a small investigation as to what the visitors thought about the park. The survey results showed that the people who visited it and the people of the area in which it is located simply adored it. However, males without an accompanied female could not enter the park and this objection surfaced quite strongly. The other group that was unhappy were children and young men who used this space for playing cricket and football. As a result of the park, they were forced to play on the streets surrounding it and were often censured by government agencies for doing so. The park consists of 150 acres; the young men argued that 10 to 15 acres of it could have been set aside for sports activities and benefitted hundreds of children and young men.

The trees in both the Beach View Park and the Bin Qasim Park had matured and by last year they were almost fully grown and they provided shade and a lush green environment. However, earlier this year, their size was reduced to about 12 feet and their stumps were pruned into a round shape. The shade they provided was eliminated. The reason given for this was that because of the trees, the visitors, especially young people engaging in ‘shameless acts’ could not be seen. There could not have been a more ridiculous reason. If authorities wanted to keep an eye on people under the trees, an appropriate lighting system could have been installed instead.

Not far from the Bin Qasim Park is Old Clifton. It got its name after the Jehangir Kothari Parade was built in 1919 and which came to be known as New Clifton. So Old Clifton is at least 100 years old. It was an open maidaan [ground] at a height and overlooked the sea and a part of Defence Housing Society. This was a place where young people played cricket and families and young couples came for an outing. Today, in the centre of this space, there is a concrete paved park with a steel fence around it. Its gates have been locked for the past many years. One reason is that someone in the neighbourhood has filed a petition saying that ‘anti-social’ people would come into this space in a ‘decent’ neighbourhood. According to another source, real estate development has been planned for this area. Whatever the reason, this space too in an elite neighbourhood, has been lost to the public. Fatima Jinnah’s house stands on the border of this space and legend has it that the Quaid used to sit at the edge of this ridge and watch the sunset.

With developments such as the Dolmen Mall, and related offices and car parking requirements, accessing the beach is becoming progressively difficult for low-income visitors.


Children locked out of the park in Old Clifton | Arif Hasan

Yet another case is Port Grand. It was developed on the first bridge that linked Keamari to mainland Karachi in 1854. It is a very positive addition as a place of recreation and food for the middle class. It is also beautifully designed. However, a very important activity on the bridge, before Port Grand was developed, was the performance of water-related traditional and religious rituals which consisted of feeding fish and birds, and depositing talismans into the sea. All this was accompanied by prayers and recitations from holy texts.

The activity also generated colourful economic activity apart from spiritual satisfaction and it brought people and groups from different classes and religions together. This activity — which according to Karachiites who are now 90 years old — has been going on for more than a hundred years and could have been easily integrated into the design of Port Grand in a way that did not adversely affect middle-class sensitivities. However, this activity is now performed in environmentally degraded conditions. Because of the unhygienic conditions under the bridge, the upper classes no longer visit the area. In addition, the eating space developed under the bridge which served the public was also demolished in the recent anti-encroachment drive. So, Port Grand has been developed to cater to the middle class at the expense of lower-income groups and communities.


Jehangir Park would have been a far more open space if it had been dissolved into neighbouring spaces | Arif Hasan

The city also contains a number of heritage parks, of which at least nine have heritage buildings or built components in them. In many of them, children play cricket and football against park rules, and hawkers sell food and sports-related items. Their case is illustrated by the rehabilitation of Jehangir Park. Loved by everyone from hawkers to transporters, the park has brought relief to the area and completely alleviated the environmental suffocation that the people in the area felt earlier. From a few of them, there are still some complaints. One is that food in the park restaurant is far too expensive for them and the second, that a space in the park should have been left for children and young men to play cricket and football.

But there are other objections from conservationists. They feel that Jehangir Park is not only a historic park that has a close relationship with the political history of Karachi but it is also the first and only designed gravel park in the city. In addition, it is also the space where well-known pre-Partition cricketers played and, after Independence, many well-known Pakistani cricketers also practiced in this park. For these reasons, conservationists feel that the design of the park should have reflected its history and that the aviary and the dinosaur park that it houses today are inappropriate. Similar objections by conservationists have also been raised on the work carried out by the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) in Burnes Garden which is listed as heritage site under the Sindh Conservation Act 1994.

The World Bank Neighbourhood Improvement Project is developing the space between D.J. College and S.M. Law College in Saddar. We do not know what the design of this space is since it has not been shared with the residents of Karachi. However, it has to be noted that, on Sundays and public holidays, this space was used by 10-15 cricket teams at one given time. If this space is lost to the young cricketers, they will have no option but to find other traffic-free streets to play on. Unfortunately, there are no traffic-free streets in the immediate area. I wonder if the planners of the space have thought of and catered to it by re-routing traffic on Sundays and holidays.

By re-routing traffic, such traffic-free streets can be created.


Residents of Karachi beat the heat at Seaview | White Star

The worst example of a takeover of public space from the people of Karachi is Empress Market, where over 1,000 shops of over 40 years old have been razed to the ground and about 4,500 hawkers have been displaced without being provided any alternative space for rehabilitating their businesses. Through a thorough reorganisation of space, these shops and hawkers could have been rehabilitated, overcoming the objections of their blocking vehicular and pedestrian traffic. In the process, Empress Market could have retained a number of markets that were closely linked to it economically, socially and culturally. The take-over of Empress Market and its adjoining areas has raised the cost of properties around it and the rents of shops as well. It has also raised bhatta (protection money) that hawkers pay to the authorities so that they can continue to occupy a small space on the streets around the markets. Since no project for the rehabilitation of the demolished shops and dislocated hawkers has so far been presented to them, there is a feeling of considerable uncertainty for the future.

The situation in Saddar seems to point to a beginning of gentrification of certain parts of Saddar which will drive the poor out of the area. Again, we do not know the future of Empress Market and its surrounding areas because this information has not been shared with the people of Karachi nor with the hawkers and the owners of the shops in the demolished markets.

Another manner of driving out the poor and lower-middle classes is by creating conditions which are inappropriate to their socio-economic conditions, such as the absence of affordable food, as was attempted by the Defence Housing Society when it removed all hawkers from Seaview and the only food available after this was in expensive kiosks and container outlets.

More recently, the shamianas (marquees) which accommodated the book market in Frere Hall were banned because their pegs damaged the tarmac on which they were installed. As a result, booksellers had to set up their shops under the sun. and due to the heat, booksellers and customers declined considerably. If this continues over time, it is possible that the book market at Frere Hall will disappear altogether. The proper solution would have been to create metal slots in the tarmac which could receive the marquee pegs. Similarly, the Sunday book market at Regal Chowk, which has a history of over 50 years, has periodically been disallowed instead of being promoted.

Parks and open spaces serve many other purposes which need to be understood. When there are power cuts in the summer, entire families come and sleep under the open sky in public spaces to keep cool. Also, after parks are closed as per regulations, homeless people, in large numbers, come and sleep in them. People living in the neighbourhood of such parks are not unsympathetic to the homeless; in fact, they feel that if the people are disallowed from sleeping in the parks, they would be forced to sleep on the streets in the neighbourhood and this would create greater social problems. How one deals with this is important. New public spaces are also developing under the flyovers that have been built. How does one make use of these spaces for public good, especially for the young, who desperately need space for sports and recreation?


Port Grand | White Star

A few recommendations emerge from the discussions above. One, where informal development has created public space which has served socio-economic functions for a long period of time, it should be regularised and, if necessary, reorganised. Second, for the redesigning of existing public spaces, their existing functions need to be understood and catered to. Meanwhile, in the designing of new spaces, what people want should be understood through surveys and meetings of the stakeholders.

A very important aspect of design is related to the future administration and maintenance of space. It is necessary that the design remain minimalist and that maintenance costs are also reduced to the bare minimum. The designing or redesigning of public space should also accommodate hawkers and performers who, at present, usually hang around at the gates of parks and playgrounds by paying bhatta to the relevant authorities. Heritage parks should be designed by conservationists or at least their advice in the designing of such parks should be solicited.

But how can one do all this in the face of a strong anti-poor bias in planning and policy, the cultural insensitivity of politicians and the megalomania and unethical practices of architects and planners? That is the real question.

‘Fewer visitors at the Mazaar than there used to be’

Khurram, a seashell vendor at the gate of Beach View Park, says, “We sold seashells in the street market, we had a fixed space. It was like home. My father also sold seashells before me. I grew up here. Because of the street bazaar, business was good. It continued till two or three at night. Now at eight o’ clock, we are asked to leave the area. If we do not, then we are pressurised.” There is a marked change in business activity in the area. Khurram recalls, “Business continued till late because from the mazaar all the visitors used to go to the sea through the street. This is not possible anymore. Most of them came because they wanted to go to the sea. Some went to the Play Land, some went to the aquarium which is now a ruin. It has no fish and it has been crumbling for many years. They say that there is a budget of two crores for its maintenance and there are 45 employees. I do not know what they spend it on or what the employees do. Now it is difficult for us [to] walk from place to place looking for buyers. Before, [buyers] came to us. The end of the market and the inaccessibility of the sea have also affected visitors of the Urs. They are now much less [in number] than they used to be.”

‘All of the people who sleep in parks are not homeless’

Mohammad Ashraf, is a painter, about 35-40 year old, who lives in Aaram Bagh (previously Ram Bagh). He says, “Yes, people do come and sleep in the park at night but all of them are not homeless. Some of them work in this area but their home is far away – say in Malir. So they save on time and transport cost. The park darogha [caretaker], sometimes with the help of the police, throws them out of the park. In which case, they sleep on the pavements in our neighbourhood.

The presence of unknown people outside our houses has sometimes created serious social problems. This is a serious problem for we do not like the homeless people to be around in our neighbourhood. But they are also helpless, and some of them are quite mohazzab [civilised]. I feel bad but we cannot do anything about it, the government should tackle this problem. Maybe they could arrange for some space which is reserved for these people and which could be used for sports in the daytime. I must also tell you about the renovation work currently going on. It is normal, it happens every two years for no reason – maybe you understand the reason.”

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 8th, 2019

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