A Pedestrian’s Saddar

Because of all these activities Saddar did not die after 8.30 p.m. when the shops closed. Life continued, and as traffic was not heavy and noise and air pollution not a deterrent, even outsiders came to Saddar to take a walk, meet friends and feel part of a bigger whole. There was no feeling of alienation, for Saddar was human. Saddar was fun.

But all this was more than a decade and a half ago. Today Saddar’s old institutions are no more. The city’s cultural centre is dead, clogged up with traffic, pollution and commercialisation. The cinemas have disappeared, to be replaced by multi-storey buildings which have introduced a new architectural scale that conflicts with the old. There are exceptions, of course, like the Yameen Abdullah Wala Building, which in spite of its glass front merges in scale with the old facades.

The coffee houses have also gone, unable to survive in a hostile atmosphere, and noise and air pollution make it impossible for Saddar’s educational and cultural institutions to function. One of these institutions, established in 1848, will be moving out soon, maybe making place for another plaza, and it is difficult to imagine an Easter Ball at the Goan Union, or a variety programme at the Sohrab Katrak Hall.

Offices, warehouses, garment factories and hotels have replaced the residential quarters, bringing into the area a new type of resident, a different nature of land use, and hence different architectural requirements which are reflected in the new buildings.

Meanwhile, the area around Empress Market has become one big bus terminal, and the stone troughs with Romanesque motifs, meant for watering animals, have disappeared from its wings. The gardens on either side of the building have been covered with shops, and the trees have become black with the exhaust of vehicles. No one can now even dream of going for a relaxing walk down Karam Ali Talpur Road to admire the Gothic tower of the market which forms its axis. James Strachen, who designed this building in 1889, must be turning over in his grave!

There are two primary causes behind what has happened to Saddar. One is that the post-independence city fathers and planning agencies had no love for Karachi and its history, holding both in contempt. The other is that in the absence of proper planning, Saddar became the transit area for a rapidly increasing number of vehicles and people moving from the newly established residential areas on its north and east to the business district and the port area to its west.

The city fathers’ lack of love for Karachi has led to the defacement of buildings, removal of monuments and citations; official permission for the establishment of encroachments in open areas, and change of nomenclature for roads, parks and buildings: nomenclature which is very much a part of the city’s history.

The choking of Saddar with people, vehicles, noise and smoke has in turn led to an exodus of people who had been residing here for many decades and were responsible for the creation and operation of its institutions. It initiated a change in land use and made the area suitable only for industrial and large-scale commercial activity. Land prices soared, and during the building boom of the ‘70s developers moved in to buy out old buildings and institutions. The concept of mohalla and community disappeared. Saddar became an overcrowded transit camp in the day and a graveyard at night.

However, the Quarter can be revitalised. The peace and quiet that once characterised it is essential for this revitalisation, and it could return, provided a change in the physical environment, leading to a sociological change, takes place. The most important step towards bringing about this change is a radical reorganisation of traffic in this area.

The recently implemented Saddar Traffic Scheme of the KDA’s Traffic Engineering Bureau does not create the conditions necessary for such a change, although it has helped considerably in improving circulation.

Two types of traffic come into Saddar: traffic that serves the area and traffic that passes through. The latter is far more voluminous and consists of buses, vans and trucks, in addition to cars. This traffic should be limited to the periphery of the Quarter (see road marked in red on the map) and by incorporating a part of Preedy Street, Sarmad Road, Strachen Road Mansfield Road should form a one-ring road around the area. No traffic should be allowed to pass through Saddar and all roads leading off from the ring road should be turned into carparks terminating in cul-de-sacs. The centre of the Quarter can then become a pedestrian area.

This scheme requires the acquisition of both cantonment and private owned land for the building and widening of roads. It will also be opposed by the developers and by shopkeepers’ associations, both politically powerful lobbies. The one-way ring road will decrease distances for the motorist and the advantages of the scheme far outweigh the disadvantages. Over 50 percent of Saddar’s total traffic and almost one hundred percent of its moving, noisy and smoke-emitting traffic will no longer pass through it. This will reduce noise and pollution to a minimum and, in the absence of through traffic, not only will space for car parking increase considerably but an atmosphere of security will be created in which Saddar’s old institutions and surviving residential  areas will once again be able to breathe and in this changed physical environment land-use changes will also occur and more of Saddar will be used for residential buildings. If bye-laws can effectively prohibit the amalgamation of plots in the area and limit not only the height but also the width of buildings, then the architectural scale can be maintained.

What is being suggested for Saddar requires an enormous amount of work. The correct position of the ring road needs to be finally determined, keeping in view road widths and the volume of traffic. The roads that are to be turned into carparks must be the appropriate ones and the movement of service and residents’ vehicles in pedestrian areas needs to be worked out. However, there is nothing new about this approach. It has been carried out in many cities of the world to protect history and preserve the centre.

The crowded, polluted and unhygienic world of Covent Garden in London, and Les Halles in Paris, controlled entirely by market forces has given way to a new and healthy environment. The new land-use patterns that have emerged are not only because of the removal of markets that existed on these sites but more so because of a radical reorganization of movement which segregates through traffic from local and vehicular pedestrian movement.

One Comment

  1. Najmi Zuberi

    Beautifully written

    Posted February 22, 2019 at 5:30 am | PermalinkReply

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