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Uncertain city life

June 19, 2017

IN Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, he describes the city of Octavia, which comprises a net dangling over an abyss between two mountains. Residents’ lives, livelihoods and belongings dangle from the mesh in a perpetual state of precariousness. But in the deft turn of analysis that makes the book a masterpiece, Calvino suggests that the lives of Octavia’s residents are less uncertain than in other cities because “they know the net will last only so long”.

The idea of Octavia resonated strongly last week as I watched the reaction in London to the horrifying fire at Grenfell Tower. There are unprecedented levels of shock and outrage that such an incident could occur, and be followed by a lack of state responsiveness, poor coordination of relief and rehabilitation efforts between the city council, government and charities, and no immediate accountability. The incident and its aftermath are dominating the news cycle and national politics, more so than the recent spate of terrorist attacks. A woman at the bus stop told me she was too scared to sleep in her apartment that is owned by the local council for fear of another planning lapse with fatal consequences.

As a Karachiite, I am struck by this reaction. A similar incident at home would lead to some sensationalised media coverage of the blaze, misreporting of casualties, and perhaps an announcement by a local politico of paltry compensation to be offered to victims’ families. No one would offer anything further and no one would expect more. The broader public’s sense of fear or vulnerability would not be compounded as no one in Karachi labours under a false sense of security.

Rather than cast the Karachiite’s response as a form of resilience, we should recognise it as resignation to systemic failures of governance and service delivery. A recent report from LSE Cities, which aptly begins by evoking Calvino’s Octavia, discusses this resignation through the language of uncertainty.

No one in Karachi labours under a false sense of security.

Urban Uncertainty: Governing Cities in Turbulent Times argues that it is impossible to predict the trajectory of cities owing to the myriad unexpected events and dynamics — ranging from political turmoil to pandemics and climate change — that make urban futures uncertain. The report calls for greater recognition of urban uncertainty, and the reaction of state institutions as well as a city’s stakeholders to that uncertainty, in determining how cities are inhabited, planned and governed. Karachi and London differ in the extent to which their inhabitants acknowledge, and embrace, the level of uncertainty that urban life entails.

There is no paucity of factors producing uncertainty in Karachi. In recent years alone these have ranged from familiar issues such as ethno-political violence, land mafias, energy shortages and terrorism to fears of earthquakes and floods, brain-eating amoeba and even possible nuclear fallout resulting from an accident at the planned Chinese reactors. The host of issues the city faces — and the fact that we cannot rely on institutions, regulations, data and technologies to predict or manage the issues — explains why most Karachiites would be largely nonplussed by a tragedy the scale of Grenfell.

In her contribution on Karachi to the report, Sobia Ahmad Kaker takes it a step further to make the point that many of the informal ways in which citizens deal with uncertainty in the absence of a strong state may compound the problems. She uses the example of Askari III, a military-owned enclave that offers solace from the madness of Karachi, but in creating that safe space produces more challenges in terms of unequal access to resources and inclusivity.

Kaker also talks about other ways in which attempts to cope only exacerbate the sense of uncertainty — for example, sharing information about a security threat over social media or consuming sensational media coverage of violent incidents and political instability (participating in a 2014 workshop related to LSE’s Urban Uncertainty project, I discussed how media coverage of sectarian violence, for example, can drive the cycle of tit-for-tat killings).

The difference is that while Karachi may face more uncertainty, London, and cities in the so-called Global North, expend more resources planning for unexpected events. The reaction to Grenfell, and the analysis presented in the LSE report, should provoke a rethink of how our government responds to the challenges of rapid urbanisation. The current emphasis is on vanity projects that symbolise progress — the ‘Dubaification’ aspect of urban planning — rather than genuine responses to the reality of our urban environments and the ways in which we have adapted to survive them. It is only by taking a more nuanced look at how we live and what we fear that we can begin to demand better state responses to the uncertainties that shape our lives.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

huma.yusuf@gmail.com

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017