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WHO BENEFITS FROM KARACHI’S ‘PUBLIC’ PARKS?

The state of Karachi’s parks is perhaps the perfect symbol for Pakistan’s perpetually distressed democracy.
Updated Feb 17, 2020 12:18pm

As more gates and gatekeepers appear at the city’s parks, these public spaces are becoming instruments for social segregation instead of inclusivity. Just how ‘public’ are our parks? A group of architects visited some well-known parks to find out. This is what they observed...



It is a late Saturday afternoon in October 2019 and Frere Hall’s iconic Indo-Gothic facade has transformed from a dusty brown colour to a shimmering gold. As the sun begins to set, an eerie shadow falls upon the 444 ground-level tombstone structures that artist Adeela Suleman has created for the Karachi Biennale.

The following afternoon the exhibit is forcefully removed.

As journalists, activists and visitors (mostly from affluent neighbourhoods) gather to observe and document remnants of this controversial installation, families visiting from afar remain unaffected, enjoying picnics in the surrounding gardens. Adolescents sit on the balustrades of Frere Hall’s outer podium and cheer their friends on as they make carefully curated TikTok videos; a Catholic couple has their wedding photographs taken in front of the hall’s arched doorway; and hawkers selling samosas, paans and other delicious snacks try to capitalise on the footfall.

Related: An exhibit at Karachi Biennale was forcibly shut down. Does public art not belong to the public in Pakistan?

The presence of individuals from all walks of life makes Frere Hall one of Karachi’s few remaining multi-class, accessible, public spaces. But alas! It may not be long before this social gathering is also disrupted.

The space may soon fall prey to another ‘development’ project, apparently aiming to sanitise the area, and in the process stripping it of the very characteristic that makes it such a treasured space — its inclusivity. The government claims that spaces such as Frere Hall need to be ‘protected,’ but one wonders who exactly these places are being protected from, and for whose benefit.


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This may be stating the obvious, but city parks and public spaces belong to everyone. Yet, with much frustration, the citizens of Karachi observe that parks are becoming instruments for social segregation. The corporate branding and private adoption of public spaces and parks in Karachi have transformed the relationship between citizens and community places. This ideological shift from public to private signals to women, individuals from lower-income groups and other minorities that their interests are secondary to the concerns of wealthier, mostly male users.

Frere Hall Gardens | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star
Frere Hall Gardens | Faysal Mujeeb/White Star

Robert Moses, the master planner of New York City, once called parks “the outward visible symbol of democracy”. Perhaps the state of Karachi’s parks is the perfect symbol for Pakistan’s perpetually distressed democracy.

Frederick Law Olmsted, widely regarded as the father of American landscape architecture, made the philosophical case for parks based on three moral imperatives: to use trees to combat pollution and improve public health, to facilitate interaction between individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds to combat urban and social degeneration, and to provide urban amenities for citizens democratically. Following these three imperatives, we — a group of architects — examined a few public parks in Karachi.


WALKS IN THE PARK

First up was Bagh Ibne Qasim. The park was built in 2007 in an attempt to transform the area around the historic monuments of Jahangir Kothari Parade and Lady Lloyd Pier. Its design was inspired by the iconic Mughal Charbagh. The 137-acre land certainly is grand. But like many grand structures, it is not meant to be enjoyed by the masses. The massive park is situated between two main roads and can only be entered from one controlled gate, making it inaccessible for most pedestrians. The park is surrounded by barbed wire.

Existing conditions of Bagh Ibne Qasim | Uzayr Agha
Existing conditions of Bagh Ibne Qasim | Uzayr Agha

Even after entering the park, one hardly feels welcomed. Bagh Ibne Qasim’s policies prohibit visitors from eating food, playing sports or even walking on the grass. The trees within the park are trimmed and provide little to no shade. This environmental inconsideration makes Ibne Qasim unsuitable, considering Karachi’s warm and sunny climate.

The good news is that the park has necessary facilities such as toilets. However, the plan is such that the toilets are at two opposite ends, with only one functioning gate. Bagh Ibne Qasim also houses an amusement park but that, too, is rundown and inaccessible.

Like Frere Hall, Ibne Qasim was another venue for the recent Karachi Biennale. The ‘family only’ entry policies, that disallow men unaccompanied by ‘family’ (women) were still in place when the public art festival was on. But the Biennale visitors could enter even if they weren’t accompanied by a ‘family’; all they had to do was inform the guards that they were visiting the exhibition. This clearly shows the uneven implementation of these policies. Furthermore, other than the rare times when larger ‘public’ events such as the art biennale are hosted at Bagh Ibne Qasim, the park’s function as a shared community space is minimal.

Frederick Law Olmsted, widely regarded as the father of American landscape architecture, made the philosophical case for parks based on three moral imperatives: to use trees to combat pollution and improve public health, to facilitate interaction between individuals from different socioeconomic backgrounds to combat urban and social degeneration, and to provide urban amenities for citizens democratically.

Unlike Bagh Ibne Qasim, our next site, Jahangir Park in Saddar, fits Olmsted’s three criteria (at least on paper). The area which was initially gifted to the public by Parsi philanthropist Khan Bahadur Behramjee Jehangirjee Rajkotwala in the 1880s, was formerly named after him and known as Behramjee Park. It is believed that many well-known cricket players practised in this park and Liaquat Ali Khan supposedly gave multiple speeches here. This renovated park now has educational and amusement facilities, such as a new library and dinosaur statues (that are curious fixtures in multiple parks across the city). The park also has an amphitheatre which, if utilised well, could be an asset to the people in surrounding localities.

Dinosaur statues are curious fixtures in multiple parks across the city | Tahir Jamal/White Star
Dinosaur statues are curious fixtures in multiple parks across the city | Tahir Jamal/White Star

Jane Jacobs, an influential urban theorist, called parks “real estate stabilisers or community anchors” and our third site, the Frere Hall Garden, is a unique example of such a space in Karachi. The easily accessible garden is built around the historical monument Frere Hall. The hall now features a library (the Liaquat Library) and a gallery (Sadequain Gallery). Of course, there are many things that can be improved at the Frere Hall. The park lacks necessary facilities such as toilets and proper signage. Even so, the space attracts a large crowd and is open throughout the day. Indeed, it is the only major park without a fence and gate — at least so far.

Frere Hall is also an interesting case study, as the heritage property has not been architecturally vandalised since 1865, apart from the relocation of large marble statues and fountain parts that can be easily rehabilitated. On Sundays, a book fair takes place in the gardens, where local vendors collect and cater to the general public. This informal gathering successfully brings people together and is an effective use of a public space.

Culture seems to thrive at Frere Hall, which is also home to a grand Sadequain mural. But the mural needs to be sensitively conserved and requires a rehabilitation plan that documents and preserves the artistic contributions of one of Pakistan’s most celebrated visual artists.

Any future master plans for the space must also take into account how Frere Hall has evolved over time. The space transformed from the original colonial-era master plan, that catered to the privileged classes, to a space that can be enjoyed by everyone. Besides the activities already mentioned, the park has also hosted significant public events such as the Aurat March and the Climate Strike in the recent past. Gatherings such as these must be protected and allowed to take place in Frere Hall’s future master plan as this space caters to the public for both educational and social purposes. One wonders why the book fair only occurs in parks such as Frere Hall and whether this academic and social activity will continue to exist if Frere Hall is renovated.


BARRIERS TO ENTRY

The next two parks, namely Zamzama Park and Nisar Shaheed Park (along with the aforementioned Jahangir Park) are similar in that there is an availability of essential facilities such as toilets, playgrounds and food stalls here. A parallel can also be seen in the design of these parks as they all possess functioning walking tracks. On the surface, all three of these parks fulfill Olmsted’s three imperatives as they improve public health, facilitate community interaction and provide urban amenities to citizens. However, some facilities at Nisar Shaheed Park and Zamzama Park, including the indoor gym, skating rink and amusement park rides, are expensive for lower- and lower-middle-class visitors. Rides at Zamzama Park vary from 25 rupees to 50 rupees per ride. These parks are also gated, with high concrete walls that add to their existing sense of exclusion.

Jahangir Park, which was recently inaugurated, is in good condition. It also does not charge an entry fee. But unfortunately, the master plan of the park and its design intervention is isolated from the general public and does not take into consideration the needs of nearby users. Nisar Shaheed Park and Zamzama Park have existed for some time and both have a strict ticketing system that provides funding for regular maintenance. The parks charge 20 rupees and 30 rupees per adult, respectively. One has to pay for parking separately. A ticketing system may help in sustaining parks in the long run, but it also makes the spaces inaccessible for many. While 20 rupees may not seem like a lot of money, for visitors with larger families of five or six, especially ones from lower-income backgrounds, the ticket prices add up.

Existing conditions of Mazar-e-Quaid parks | Uzayr Agha
Existing conditions of Mazar-e-Quaid parks | Uzayr Agha

Ticketing is not the only thing that stands in the way of making parks accessible. The Mazar-e-Quaid parks or Bagh-e-Quaid parks that surround the Mazar-e-Quaid stand between such narrow main roads that easy pedestrian access is next to impossible. Upon entering the parks one is likely to come across one of the multiple fountains which are either completely empty or choked with stagnant water. Moreover, while the park has been supplied with some necessary facilities, not all of them work. There is only one functional toilet for the 86-acre park, which is occupied by thousands of people on a regular basis. The design of the space aside, there seems to be no understanding of even applied graphic design for special occasions. On the Quaid’s birthday on December 25, 2019, for example, the beautiful white facade of the monument was completely covered by a massive projection showing a fist on a neon yellow-and-pink background. Under the image, the word “KASHMIR” was prominently displayed. One wonders how Jinnah, a suave man, would have responded to the design sensibilities on display.

Projections on the Mazar-e-Quaid on December 25, 2019 | Courtesy the writers
Projections on the Mazar-e-Quaid on December 25, 2019 | Courtesy the writers

Gulshan-e-Jinnah (which used to be known as Polo Ground, and should not to be confused with Mazar-e-Quaid parks) is another park that seems to pay tribute to Jinnah in name only. The park is a pre-Partition landmark located on Dr Ziauddin Ahmed Road, that has been renovated three times. The most recent renovation took place in 2019. In an interview before the inauguration, the mayor of Karachi declared that the park was equipped with walkways, benches and jogging tracks, and featured a musical fountain, flower beds, a lake and a wooden bridge. But despite these features, our visit to the park was not a pleasant experience. The park has five entrances, none of which were guarded or functional. During the first 20 minutes of our visit we were approached by security personnel (without any identification) who forced us to buy tickets that were mislabelled as tickets for Hill Park.

It is in Karachi’s nature to be welcoming. Yet, many of the city’s parks are anything but welcoming. They have exclusionary policies and feature single-storey-high sandstone fencing that keep some visitors out.

Maybe the mislabelled ticket was a sign for what our final site should be. We lastly visited Ahmed Ali Park, better known as Kidney Hill Park located in Kokan Society. We had heard much about what a beautiful place the park was. Even today, we can see why people remember the park so fondly. The amusement park and lake are in an appropriate condition. The park has recently been inaugurated after restoration efforts. The facelift was announced early last year. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) had started retrieving 20 acres of land around the park which had been encroached upon. KMC demolished illegal structures, including 17 bungalows built on the park’s land.

The park had remained inaccessible to citizens for over three decades due to encroachment. Speaking at the inauguration, Karachi Mayor Wasim Akhtar said that “Karachi contributes the huge sum of 350 billion rupees to the national exchequer, but still no attention is paid to resolving the city’s issues.” Lauding his team for “completing” this project in 80 days, he said that over 23,000 trees were planted in Hill Park.

One can see the kind of impact government interest in re-imagining these spaces can have on not only parks, but on the city as a whole.


TAKING OWNERSHIP

Karachiites often claim that Karachi is the mother that feeds all of Pakistan. Indeed, the city seems to be constantly expanding to house new residents. It is in Karachi’s nature to be welcoming. Yet, many of the city’s parks are anything but welcoming. They have exclusionary policies and feature single-storey-high sandstone fencing that keep some visitors out. There is inconsistent ticketing, poor pruning of greenery and intense surveillance. Often park funds are designated for constructing irrelevant structures rather than maintenance and intervention of designed systems.

In her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argues that public parks are volatile spaces which can either be a delight or a disaster. Karachi’s parks may not be disasters yet, but all of them are far from being a delight. Issues of shrinking urban space are exacerbated because our existing public parks are poorly maintained and badly planned.

Public parks must function as open spaces that bring communities closer together... There is little benefit to building a park if it is not used.

Public parks in Karachi are owned by different local authorities, depending on their size and location. The parks that have been discussed here fall under the purview of KMC, the District Municipal Corporation (DMC) and Defence Housing Authority (DHA). The subdivisions are relatively simple. KMC is responsible for large parks such as Bagh Ibne Qasim and Bagh-e-Jinnah, while DMC looks after smaller neighbourhood parks such as Jahangir Park and, finally, DHA maintains semi-private parks such as Nisar Shaheed Park and Zamzama Park. As different authorities are responsible for different parks, the amount of money allocated for preserving each park also varies greatly.


DESIGNING A MORE INCLUSIVE FUTURE

Public parks must function as open spaces that bring communities closer together. When government officials work with urban planners to create parks, they must take into account how people from all backgrounds will access these spaces and how these parks will integrate with the neighbourhood. There is little benefit to building a park if it is not used. It is especially unfortunate if existing communities and activities are disrupted to make way for new, unused gated spaces. Such was the case with the development of Bagh Ibne Qasim, that displaced many cricket enthusiasts who would gather to play their daily matches in this space. For a public park to be genuinely public, it must take into account the accessibility of communities from various socioeconomic backgrounds, gender and age.

Gender inclusivity is another overlooked design factor. Our communal recreational spaces internalise the values of the patriarchal society that we inhabit. Indeed, the social and environmental qualities of parks inform us how safe women feel in public areas. This is a global problem but, elsewhere in the world, much work has been done to design safer parks and spaces for women.

A basketball court at a public park in Clifton | Ghania Shams Khan
A basketball court at a public park in Clifton | Ghania Shams Khan

A research carried out in the United States, titled Fear Perceptions in Public Parks: Interactions of Environmental Concealment, the Presence of People Recreating, and Gender, provides some insights that can be applied in Pakistan. The researchers showed 732 participants (540 park visitors and 192 college students) 24 photographic representations of a community park. The participants were asked to rate their estimate of fear of crime. The study found that seeing people ‘recreating’ greatly helped put the participants at ease and made them feel safe. “These results suggest that social and environmental cues may jointly affect fear experiences and that the presence of other people recreating in a park environment and the gender of an individual may influence fear of crime when recreating alone in a park setting,” the authors of the research state. “Implications include design and management techniques that promote safe park environments.”

In a local context, for example, women will be reluctant to frequent parks such as Bagh Ibne Qasim if the only other people in the space are the entirely male maintenance team. A more nuanced approach is required to make parks feel safer for women. ‘Family only’ policies that keep ‘stags’ from entering many parks may help the parks appear safer for women and children, but they are not a sustainable solution. They are also exclusionary.

Most of Karachi’s public parks require sensitive, practical and urgent re-designing. Government officials and local stakeholders must intervene.

Thinking of women and children in Karachi, one is reminded of Azra Abbas’s book Mera Bachpan. Her 1997 memoir narrates the life of a rebellious girl growing up in the city. The writer is nostalgic about her childhood and reminisces about playing with other children on dusty pavements, flying kites, playing with marbles and renting a bike to ride for hours. The book is set in the 1950s and 1960s — a time when girls could ride bikes even in lower-middle-class areas. However, as the girl ages, grows and changes, so does the city. Abbas’s book highlights the transformation of the city and how there is a constant struggle to maintain a sense of safety in Karachi’s public spaces.

Most of Karachi’s public parks require sensitive, practical and urgent re-designing. Government officials and local stakeholders must intervene. For sustainability and ownership, the design mechanism must involve the neighbourhood and users of the proximity.

As a successful case study, we can observe the three-kilometre-long public park in Clifton (Block-2) that has been recently developed by KDA and sustained by local communities. This public park contains a family park, a woman’s park, a basketball court, a skating area and an area open for the general public. The plots have been layered so that there is a raised footpath and ‘kiyari’ (informal flower beds) surrounding each park. It is one of the only parks in the city without a gate or any fencing. It is also free for the general public and is open at all times of the day. Sustainable, inclusive public spaces such as this unnamed neighbourhood park are few and far between, but they indicate that all hope is not yet lost.


Header image: Bagh Ibne Qasim | White Star


With additional reporting by Javeria Taufiq and Arooma Naqvi


Published in Dawn, EOS, February 16th, 2020


Correction: This story previously misstated that a park in Clifton (Block-2) has been developed by DMC; it was in fact developed by KDA. The error is regretted.