Urban sovereignty

Published December 30, 2019
The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

IT has been a decade since the balance tipped, and more humans began to live in cities than in rural areas. Those curious about mankind’s urbanisation should study Karachi. After all, the city’s past offers a glimpse into the world’s future.

This will matter in 2020, a year that will be preoccupied by a reconsideration of the city’s political role. The distinctions between urban and rural areas the world over have been crystallised through repeated elections and referendums. The global wave of populism can be reframed as a reaction against rapid urbanisation. And while Boris Johnson may ‘get Brexit done’, the fantasy of an independent London city state will linger.

Indeed, we now see cities fight back. Think of Hong Kong, currently a swirl of tear gas and fear, as protesters refuse to back down from their five demands. The protests began with an extradition bill, but are driven by anxiety about the city’s status post-2047 when its autonomous status is set to expire. China is warning against separatism, but Hong Kong’s citizens are not ready to give up their freedoms of speech and assembly or their independent judiciary.

In the US, cities are leading the charge on climate change, even though the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement; 138 cities are committed to renewable energy, while more than 438 city mayors have joined an alliance for climate progress at odds with federal policy.

Karachi is the dystopia that other world cities will want to avoid.

In mid-December, mayors of eastern European capitals Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava signed an anti-populism pact signalling a joint political vision that contradicts the deepening nationalist sentiments of their respective countries. They have called for the EU to bypass central governments and fund cities directly so that they can pursue progressive agendas on climate change, inclusion and innovation. It is a not-so-veiled call for urban sovereignty.

Expect such trends to continue as the share of the world’s population living in cities rises up to 70 per cent by 2050, and cities continue to dominate the global economy (at the start of this decade, just 40 cities were responsible for two-thirds of the world’s economy). Such dizzying numbers provoke two contradictory visions for the urban future.

In a 2011 McKinsey report, Parag Khanna gushed about a future in which cities rather than states would rule the world. He offered a utopian future in which cities lead the charge on innovation, resource efficiency, effective governance and social transformation, and are connected to each other with high-speed rail links, creating the new super power.

Khanna’s vision contrasts with that of Robert Kaplan, who in a 1994 Atlantic article described a world of precarious cities, hit hard by environmental degradation and overwhelmed by migrants. He feared endless slums overpopulated by jobless youth driven to conflict along ethnic lines (though it could be racial, sectarian or class-based too). For Kaplan, the futures of cities and conflict were intertwined. Does that sound familiar?

It should, for Karachi has already endured Kaplan’s forecast. The city has a unique migration story — created through an act of mass political migration during Partition, its population fuelled by internal economic migration from northern Pakistan through the 1960s, Afghan conflict refugees in the 1980s, and a wave of climate migrants adding to the city’s mix following flooding and drought in Sindh around a decade ago. We all know how endemic and horrifying the resulting urban violence was, further stoked by militant and sectarian groups taking advantage of the city’s sprawl and resources.

Karachi did not respond with progressive, data-driven governance and inclusive policies. Today’s tentative semi-stability has been enforced through a paramilitary crackdown, extrajudicial killings and the criminalisation of Afghan refugees. The multifaceted division of the city along ethnic, sectarian and political lines endures. There is no monopoly on violence; the police are perceived as merely another armed urban group. There is no centralised governance. Metropolitan authorities have been disempowered and stripped of service delivery responsibilities. There is no meaningful political representation at the provincial assembly. No one collects the trash.

Karachi is the dystopia that other world cities will want to avoid. And in this bleak realisation there is an opportunity. The fact is, the world is grappling with similar problems: climate change, wealth inequality, political polarisation. The challenges are equalising and unifying.

If we had any sense, we would throw open our cities’ doors to innovators, development economists, climate pilot projects. Let the experts in to test ideas, and help us find the way forward. However, to do this, we would need to embrace critical thinking, transparency and accountability. Sadly, that, rather than conflict-prone urbanisation, is the real challenge.

The writer is a freelance journalist.


Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2019


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