Dwindling public spaces

A lot many public spaces in Karachi have vanished away and succumbed to the pressures of elite-steered real-estate development.

The causes of the phenomenon are highlighted by civil society organizations and its impact has been studied to death by researchers, academics and urban planners.

However, another related phenomenon which needs in-depth academic scrutiny is the limited access to residual public spaces on the premise of cultural imperatives, security concerns and financial optimization of the available land. Before going further, public space is defined as the areas of the geographical environment that are accessible to and shared by all members of the public. Such spaces include streets, parks and wilderness, and by their very definition provide access to everyone.

It has been observed over the years that for the sake of cultural preservation and safeguarding morality, lots of public parks have been gender segregated or designated for married couples. Moreover, the security infrastructure takes its toll on the right of way (row) and limits access to footpaths and pavements by banks, educational institutions, religious establishments and embassies.

Further, authorization to businesses on public land is an attempt to make the most out of an otherwise financially unproductive space (perceived) by decision-makers. The line between what is considered true public space and what is publicly accessible space is getting blurred.

There is fear that if the trend continues unchecked, public spaces with restriction might exceed those public spaces that have free access. The lost street market between Ghazi Abdullah Shah’s Mazaar and the Bahria Icon in Karachi, the prohibition of unaccompanied (by women) men in Bin Qasim Park, the uprooting of vendors in the vicinity of Empress Market are only a few examples out of many that show how public space is reorganized to limit access of the public.

Places with no restrictions exhibit vibrancy as anything can happen there. Anybody can go in and come out of their own free will. There is always an intense energy in the air. With restrictions and the impression of a monitored and controlled environment and with the evaporated vibrancy come the psychological impacts – such as ‘Big Brother’ watching you, the denial of the basic human right to protest and photo documentation by guards.

Public spaces reflect politics and public debates between suppression, non-observance and direct reference to national politics. Ziaul Haq, the late dictator, had chosen public spaces for flogging political dissidents. And much before that Maulana Deen Mohammad Wafai used to hold demonstrations for the creation of Pakistan at Pakistan Chowk, and Liaquat Ali Khan celebrated August 14 of 1951 at Jahangir Park. All those events contributed to intangible heritage as heritage is much more than the arrangement of brick and mortar.

Cities are a complex mix of public and private property with one defining the other. The changes in our housing (a private enterprise) affect the making of public spaces. Increased dwelling in high-rise apartments and the reduced room sizes of houses due to pressures on land result in increased utilization of streets, footpaths, chowk and the ‘chabootra’ by the public. For instance, footpaths are used to play cards in Lyari, the streets of various neighborhoods are used by the children to play cricket and the ‘chabootra’ outside the house is used by men to gather around in New Karachi.

This redefining of any designated public place by public life needs to be understood and documented for figuring out how a public place could be made successful. And public life can be understood as social activities that take place in the public space, where people are able to create, observe, emulate, or react to the behaviors of other people. For thinkers such as Henri Lefebvre, public places are not mere places with objects but spaces filled with ideology, culture and aspirations of the public: form is a definite expression of function.

In the urban centers of Pakistan, the public sphere is increasingly seen as restricted, creating a sense of not-a-level-playing-field and a feeling of exclusion by some through power and authority. The real question, hence, is how to bring public spaces back to the public. The orientation of planners (pro-poor or pro-elite) and their capacity to negotiate with power quarters matters most. In their response lies the answer to the posed question and the future of Pakistani cities.

Published in The News By Mansoor Raza 10 February 2021

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