Shared city

Published January 26, 2021
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.
The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

AT present, a number of grandiose plans and projects are being rolled out for facilitating urban renewal in Karachi. In September last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a ‘historic’ package for Karachi and some work has also started in this regard.

However, the fear is that these projects will fail to deliver the anticipated results as the city’s ‘architecture’ of urban governance, which is required to facilitate this investment, is broken. To quote the famous urban theorist and activist, Jane Jacobs, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody”. Karachi, sadly, is not a city “created by everybody” and its broken urban architecture is, in fact, a reflection of the city’s complex and multilayered urban fragmentation. Fault lines of conflict and contestation define the urban landscape rather than a shared vision guiding human and financial investments.

Noted French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre in the wake of the 1968 protests in Paris penned the social agenda of Right to the City which was later worked on in great detail by geographer and anthropologist David Harvey. The discourse on Right to the City brings out an understanding of what defines social justice and urban equity. A critical emphasis is on explaining that mere spatial transformation can never lead to urban inclusivity and sustainability unless it is complemented by social transformation in which all segments of society enjoy full citizenship rights, have an equal right to representation and accumulation, a say in decision-making and access to housing and basic services.

Karachi is not a city ‘created by everybody’.

At the core of Karachi’s long-standing urban decay is the fact that there has been an abject failure on the part of the state to structure and implement a viable social and political contract with citizens. Public policy has served limited interest groups at the cost of the vast, and increasingly, marginalised majority. This reality is further compounded by the fact that the political economy of decision-making forums has become fractured and faces a paralysis of action. At a macro level, Karachi shares with other cities in Pakistan the debilitating effects of a continuing imbalance in the distribution of powers, functions and resources among the three tiers of national governance; where the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ has never guided the contours of this division. In these continuing power games across governance tiers, cities have suffered the most. This is unfortunate as cities act as the engines of growth for any nation while their more ‘human characteristics’ and ‘financial muscle’ enable them to carve a space for themselves, not just on a national but at an international scale.

Unfortunately, for years public policy in Karachi has reflected party interests rather than the larger interests of the city, where critical civic service and infrastructure organisations have served as battlegrounds for power conflicts between rival parties, straitjacketing city growth. Sadly, this dysfunctional construct of public policy and power execution continues to this day at various levels of political identities. As a consequence, the mandate of civic services ends up being misplaced as associated powers and functions overlap, thus confusing and constricting space for action, with the result that we have a never-ending cycle of ill-directed and sunk investments.

When the limited interests of those in positions of power define actions on the ground then urban space ends up being commodified. Financial dividends rather than social benefits determine the use of land and resources. Karachi reflects these realities with its growing profile of urban inequity defining the contours of urban growth.

However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Other cities facing even worse political fragmentation have recovered to become resilient and successful cities. We can do it too, but for that we need to craft a new ‘shared vision’ for the city. Political interests always have a say in decision-making. Nothing wrong with that. However, there are ways in which political interests can dovetail with the execution of an agenda based on social urbanism. A broadening of the base of stakeholders engaged with the framing and execution of ‘Vision Karachi’ can open the doors of exciting collaborations and partnerships. A subtle shift in the understanding of service delivery can make this happen — where we say that the government is not the provider of all services, rather a ‘guarantor’ that all are provided for, and where the vast majority of the populace is given the dignity to claim their ‘right to the city’.

The writer is an urban planner and CEO, Urban Collaborative.

Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2021

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