REIMAGINING KARACHI’S CLIFTON BEACH

Published July 4, 2021
Karachiites swim and splash around at Clifton Beach during a pre-Covid-19 summer | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Karachiites swim and splash around at Clifton Beach during a pre-Covid-19 summer | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Karachi’s largest multi-class public space, Clifton Beach, is shrinking and becoming increasingly inaccessible. This truly awaami spot is being ‘developed’ without feedback from the very citizens who use it. How do Karachiites want the space to develop? A group of concerned citizens is trying to find out

“Karachi has the sea!”

Checkmate. A city-brag is won.

Clifton Beach has long been a source of pride for Karachiites. A truly awaami spot, it attracts scores of people on August 14, on Eid, on the weekends and every time it rains. This beach is not just an edge of land and sea, it is the middle ground, where people across the megacity’s tense socio-economic and physical boundaries and bridges meet.

There’s a shared memory that you will find in the old photo albums or camera rolls of everyone who has lived in Karachi: a still at Clifton Beach. The landmark is a fixture in paintings, dramas, poems, songs, postcards and family stories. From the imagery of lovers longing in Junaid Jamshed’s Na Tu Aayegi, to Christopher Lee’s solitary stroll in and as Jinnah, the seafront with its waves, colours and majesty is a visual of familiarity that connects urban dwellers.

A screengrab from Junaid Jamshed's 'Na Tu Aayegi'
A screengrab from Junaid Jamshed's 'Na Tu Aayegi'

The cultural and spatial importance of this space for the city cannot be overstated. However, we at Karachi, Public — a group of citizens focused on innovative and public-focused urban design thinking for the city — have observed that this natural blessing is not treated with the care that is rightly extended to other landmarks across the country and political sensibilities. The public, for whom this beach is meant, is systematically excluded from its stewardship.

In Karachi, ‘development’ being sold synonymously with concrete is an illusion of progress that is causing natural public lands irreparable harm. Our politicians, armed forces and influential real estate players are calling the shots on projects that significantly affect public interest, without direct public purview.

Karachi grew inwards until the 1980s, when the seafront began being developed for exclusive housing schemes. Unplanned growth inevitably contributed to negative livability | Courtesy Karachi, Public
Karachi grew inwards until the 1980s, when the seafront began being developed for exclusive housing schemes. Unplanned growth inevitably contributed to negative livability | Courtesy Karachi, Public

Planners, architects and engineers all work for these players to get approvals, even if it comes at the cost of appropriate development in light of the climate change emergency. Public hearings for developments are scheduled at inconvenient times and places for people to participate in. Indeed, sometimes, they’re completely bypassed.

In this condescending development process, the public is forced into a situation where, to be heard, they have to organise in the form of protests, petitions and court appearances. This is an uphill, time-consuming and costly battle, intended to tire even the most active citizens.

This year, a recreational park development at Clifton Beach is being petitioned because the developers, the Cantonment Board Clifton (CBC), bypassed due environmental process and failed to involve public opinion to build in a space that is meant for the public.

This was only the latest example. In the current system of development, the public is either silenced or remains unheard. Development does not have to come at the cost of public benefit, and this is why urban design advocates at Karachi, Public have assembled to conduct research and suggest alternative ways forward.

Courtesy the writer/Karachi, Public
Courtesy the writer/Karachi, Public

***

“I will not do projects that destroy multi-class public space...”

— Architect Arif Hasan’s oath oriented for urban design practitioners

We at Karachi, Public believe that we need to create a reality whereby the public’s voice is amplified first in the process, and not last at protests and the courtrooms. Our Envisioning Clifton Beach pilot advocacy aims to collect the public needs and desires for Clifton Beach, and distil those into tangible policy and design recommendations in a public trust document and website.

In the Envisioning Clifton Beach pilot, we engaged with more than 600 citizens who provided rich feedback for the space via interviews, discussions and drawings. We conducted a focus group with NOWPDP (an organisation focused on increasing opportunity for persons with disabilities), online and in-person surveys. Participation also includes discussions with young students from a Zindagi Trust school, and young adults from a NED School of Engineering class. Online surveys in English, Urdu and Roman Urdu have captured the opinions of people residing across the city. These have been carefully curated by urban design and engagement experts from Karachi, Toronto and Lima.

Due to Covid-19 distancing realities, collecting feedback online was initially the primary method. We recognised the limitation of not being able to reach folks with low tech-capacity, who also frequent Clifton Beach, and filled the gap by surveying folks directly at the beach after lockdown restrictions were lifted. It is important in any conversation about public interest to include citizens across Karachi’s socio-economic spectrum, not just the most vocal citizens who often tend to reside in higher-income neighbourhoods.

In this article, I will highlight some of the feedback we have received so far that is worth paying attention to immediately.

The following are the aspects of Clifton Beach that Karachiites want developed.

‘ACCESS, CLEANLINESS AND A SHARED SENSE OF COMMUNITY’

According to a young man, the above are the most important factors to consider when thinking of development at Clifton Beach.

Clifton Beach can be defined as the area between the port and Do Darya, including Bagh Ibn-i-Qasim and the Abdullah Shah Ghazi Mazar, which once was the only structure in the vicinity.

The beach can be accessed by the 16-20 million population of Karachi (disputed Census 2017 figure) via four main nodes and two stretches with views of the sea. These are (from west to east): the Clifton Beach parking lot, the Khayaban-i-Saadi intersection (between the Beach View Park and Dolmen Mall), the McDonald’s/A K Khan Park, the Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue/Sea View Road (between Nishan-i-Pakistan and the Captain Farhan Ali Shaheed Park), and the Seawall (between the Captain Farhan Ali Shaheed Park and Emaar Crescent).

In a utopian world, one would be able to walk over from these points to the sea. However, these spots are increasingly being marked by spatial and experiential elements of inaccessibility.

The points from where people access Clifton Beach | Courtesy the writer/Karachi, Public
The points from where people access Clifton Beach | Courtesy the writer/Karachi, Public

Clifton Beach can become the central anchor for a parks and heritage network, connecting the beach to key landmarks and places of leisure across administrative bounds between the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC), the Sindh Government and the Defence Housing Authority (DHA). However, currently, this continuity is yet to be imagined.

‘Public places’ are an amenity for the public, yet they’re not being operated as such. Fences and entry fees prevent access based on socio-economic backgrounds. For example, a 50-rupee entry to the Captain Farhan Ali Shaheed Park may not be much for a well-off individual. However, if one considers the families from low-income backgrounds that come here, then even a 50-rupee entry adds up. This effectively privatises a nearly six-acre ‘public’ space.

Seventy-six percent of the people surveyed believe that the beach should be freely accessible, without charge and entry restrictions. The argument that entry fees may be used to maintain these parks should be struck down, because it is the burden of the governing bodies to provide public goods free of cost and ensure inclusion of all citizens.

Other factors such as the lack of incentives provided in these parks (including shade via trees and gazebos, or washrooms) greatly reduce appeal and functionality. The second highest priority (50 percent of the survey responses) was to have amenities such as washrooms, that could help people stay and enjoy longer at the beach.

We are really only left with a truly accessible beach that is approximately a 0.5 square kilometre stretch. Theoretically, if every citizen from the 16 million population were owed space at the public beach, we would need 117 of these stretches!

This sentiment was especially held by young students (<15 years, female) from a low-income background. They expressed that they visit Clifton Beach ‘like it is a luxury, and washrooms and lockers are imperative to elongate their stay and make it easier for them, in lieu of being unable to afford and rent huts at private beaches,’ (paraphrased from a Zoom discussion held on April 9, 2021). In fact, these students prioritised amenities over cleanliness, the opposite of what adults expressed.

‘POLLUTION IS A MAJOR CAUSE OF FRUSTRATION’

Unsurprisingly, cleanliness remains a pressing concern for the public. A young woman from North Nazimabad said that the lack of cleanliness at Clifton Beach is a “major cause of frustration.” She added that, “The unsanitary water directly opens into the sea and has made it unhygienic and inaccessible.”

The number one matter of concern expressed by the public in our engagement is the pollution at Clifton Beach. It is a tragic reflection of infrastructural failure that Karachi’s main public beach is plagued with untreated sewage outfalls.

There is no shortage of news coverage highlighting how toxic this unprocessed sewage, that forms curvy streams and pools at the beach, is to animals and visitors alike. Yet, work to address this is slow or deflected by governing agencies.

A file photo of policemen patrolling Clifton Beach to enforce a ban on visiting the beaches during Covid-19 related lockdowns last year | Shakil Adil/White Star
A file photo of policemen patrolling Clifton Beach to enforce a ban on visiting the beaches during Covid-19 related lockdowns last year | Shakil Adil/White Star

Ninety-two percent of the people surveyed desired cleanliness (solutions for sewage, garbage, air pollution, etc) as their priority for Clifton Beach in the next year. An online survey response stated (in all caps, no less): “STOP THE SEWERAGE WATER FROM SURROUNDING AREAS GETTING INTO THE SEA WITHOUT TREATMENT!!!!” This comment is an apt representation of the frustration expressed by almost all the public that was engaged for this envisioning exercise.

Some of the people surveyed had concerns regarding garbage collection at the beach. When asked what she would do if she had access to unlimited funds to retrofit Clifton Beach, one young student said that she would put up many instruction boards regarding the importance of protecting the environment.

It is a prevalent feedback that the beach must be protected from individual behaviours/ polluters and that they can be impacted via instructions or fines. However, the scale of pollution at Clifton Beach is an administrative problem. And the responsibility starts with the major polluters, namely the industries, restaurants and governing bodies that are failing to manage appropriately. Then come the designers, who are missing the mark with incentivising people to dispose of litter in the right spots and, lastly, with the individual person who is polluting our shared beach.

Strategic initiatives, such as better garbage bin designs and clear signage placed at walkable five-minute intervals, could be appropriate solutions targeted at folks who litter. However, government intervention is needed for large-scale dumping of waste into the sea that waves bring back to shore.

‘I WISH IT WAS SAFER FOR WOMEN’

Unfortunately, as with most public spaces in Pakistan, Clifton Beach also remains an unsafe space for women. The woman quoted above, a young resident of Korangi, was far from the only one to express this sentiment.

Sixty-five percent of the people surveyed (86 percent of women; 100 percent of transgender and non-binary individuals) said that they only feel safe visiting Clifton Beach with company. Sidra Burney, a student at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, loves to wander at the beach, but her movement is hindered due to “safety reasons”. She remarked in a Zoom interview last year that, during the day, she can enjoy a 20-minute walk in isolation from McDonald’s to the Chunky Monkey amusement park. But if she is taking a stroll close to sunset, her mobility is restricted.

“In the daylight I used to walk (from McDonald’s) till Chunky Monkey but at night I would walk up till the places where there was light emanating from the McDonald’s, [and] where there were many people ... because I used to be alone and, obviously, I felt insecure,” she said.

Safety concerns, as they relate to harassment faced by women and families, is a recurring comment captured in the surveys we have collected. But it is not just the women who feel unsafe.

A majority of the women surveyed only feel safe visiting Clifton Beach with company | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A majority of the women surveyed only feel safe visiting Clifton Beach with company | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

Ali Nadeem, a male student, remarked that safety is a problem for him as well, as he fears getting mugged. Safety interventions, that improve the feeling of security at the beach without hyper-policing and targeting folks from lower socio-economic backgrounds, are a necessity. Only then will we be able to create a world-class beach for the world-class city ambitions.

Another aspect of safety is related to mobility and enjoyment at the beach. Forty-nine percent of the public surveyed prioritised safety (with additions such as lights, boardwalks for walkability, safe swimming areas, lifeguards, etc) as their most desired intervention at Clifton Beach, after cleanliness and amenities. This is a self-explanatory call for safety measures that would make enjoyment at Clifton Beach more than an experience at the sandy shore but in the water and waves as well.

‘KARACHI AIN’T NO DUBAI’

The above was expressed by a young man from Faisal Cantonment, who did not mince his words in the online survey. “It is the city’s heritage,” he said. “We do not want huge towers built upon the oldest beach in Urban Karachi. Karachi ain’t no Dubai.”

Speaking of safety goes hand in hand with speaking of gentrification. Privatisation along the public beach has given rise to hyper-policing that hinders access of the public elements and movement across the shore.

Rahat Niazi, an artist, lives close by in DHA but has been to the Clifton Beach only thrice in the last 22 years. She is wary of how the seafront is being made inaccessible by private developments. She cited experiences of men demanding to know her purpose for visiting the beach, west of Emaar Crescent Bay.

“They [men working for the developers] stopped me and said, ‘It’s not accessible... Who do you even want to meet?!’” Rahat shared. “What do [they] mean by that? Why is anyone policed from accessing the beach?”

The Doctrine of Public Trust principle (whereby sovereigns have a duty to preserve the sea and the shore for the benefit of the public) guarantees public access to beaches even if they are privately owned. “If you enter [DHA Phase 8, the vicinity of incoming private development] the police stops you for questioning,” Rahad added. “That’s how hopeless our people have become. The sea is assumed to be a dating spot, as if people don’t go there for any other reason.”

While these areas are not physically cordoned off, this kind of policing creates a perception of space that one is unwelcome at and alters the public’s pattern of movement. Gentrification of this sort is going to hurt the entirety of Clifton Beach.

White Star
White Star

‘AMEERON KA SAHIL’

Public wisdom has divided Clifton Beach into two categories: “Ghareebon ka Sahil [the shore for the poor]” and “Ameeron ka Sahil [the shore for the rich].” They believe areas west of the McDonald’s are for low-income folks and areas east are ‘reserved’ for the rich.

These spatial titles are a result of collective perception: small-scale vendors/carts were previously disallowed by DHA in Ameeron ka Sahil, which relegated a class of society to a smaller area. Policing of vendors has stopped today, however they’re required to pay daily fees to CBC to sell at the shore. Additionally, the Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue/ Sea View Road strip is actively being gentrified with upscale restaurants.

It is worth questioning if the public beach should be privatised like this for luxury commercial opportunities that could be accommodated elsewhere in the vicinity.

Public wisdom has divided Clifton Beach into two categories: “Ghareebon ka Sahil [the shore for the poor]” and “Ameeron ka Sahil [the shore for the rich].” They believe areas west of the McDonald’s are for low-income folks and areas east are ‘reserved’ for the rich.

Sixty-percent of the people surveyed access Clifton Beach from the Sea View Road strip and the Seawall. Fifteen percent access the beach from McDonald’s. That means 75% of the visitors access the beach through a stretch that is actively being ‘developed’ or privatised without any input from the public.

As urban designers and citizens, we are concerned that building across the strip on the beach and by the Seawall is going to negatively affect the people of Karachi. This is not prime real estate but an area of heritage and social importance, and must be developed with necessary care and purview from members of the public.

“Clifton Beach, approximately 8.5 kilometres of absolute public space of Karachi, is the most vandalised platform of power,” says Marvi Mazhar, a spatial heritage expert. “The heritage ecology of the coastal belt needs protection and rehabilitation.”

Another noticeable issue that concerns itself with the socio-economic status of the visitors to the beach is that of parking lots and cars. Calls for a pedestrianised Abdul Sattar Edhi Avenue are countered by people saying, “parking tau honi chahiye [there must be parking].”

This is a matter that must be dealt with with sensitivity and an intersectional analysis. Those calling for the pedestrianisation of Sea View Road tend to be from higher income backgrounds, living close enough to the beach to walk or bike to it. Meanwhile, visitors coming in from farther parts of the city, often in vehicles that they use to store towels, food and water, prefer that parking areas are close by.

This is where the expertise of urban designers can come in, as solutions have to be rooted in the greater public interest, without jeopardising the needs of the climate crisis or the most marginalised users of the space.

‘CLIFTON BEACH NEEDS CRITICAL CARE’

Development initiatives along the beach often fail to take into consideration its usage. Consider, for example, that Clifton Beach is the destination of choice for celebrations or for relief during heat waves that are becoming more frequent. This places much more significance on creating quality spaces, appropriately designed by experts, rather than slapping on generic designs that do not work for the public or the natural ecology.

“I could viscerally experience the rot of this futility,” shares designer and urbanist Gulraiz Khan, speaking of grass newly planted next to the Chunky Monkey amusement park. “It’s a toxic stew of manure and sewage so unpleasant, that most people were avoiding it.

“When you sit on the grass, there is a mound towards the sea that blocks the view entirely,” he adds. “Who thought people would come to Sea View to sit on a patch of stinking grass, holding on to its dear life, with no view of the water?”

“Urban forests, curated gardens are not the solutions,” Marvi Mazhar agrees. “Clifton Beach needs critical care, where human and non-human both are given the space to develop relationships and respect the ecological boundaries.”

We do not hold the opinion that development in the vicinity should be prevented. However, it should be focused on public and ecological benefit rather than profit. It is our vision to integrate the parks network in the vicinity and work across administrative boundaries to create beautiful continuous spaces that are walkable for the public of Karachi, a public that is perpetually starved for quality recreational areas.

Considering all the spatial elements along the beach, such as parking lots, sewage outfalls, luxury commercial outlets, parks that are fenced and impending development, we are really only left with a truly accessible beach that is approximately a 0.5 square kilometre stretch.

Theoretically, if every citizen from the 16 million population were owed space at the public beach, we would need 117 of these stretches!

“Much of Karachi’s coastline either falls within the jurisdiction of various state institutions or development authorities, thus severely limiting public access,” says Farhan Anwar, an urban planner and collaborator. “It falls short when viewed from the lens of a viable and sustainable public space.

“What is needed is a whole rethink on how best the coast can be made accessible to all — across institutional jurisdictions — where the richness and diversity of our coastal habitat is leveraged through innovative public space design interventions. And it needs to happen in an inclusive and participatory manner.”

LISTENING (AND RESPONDING) TO THE CITY

Sixty-two percent of the people surveyed expressed that they would like the opportunity to give feedback and participate in the design process of public projects in Karachi. This clearly shows that our public is willing to invest their time to partake in visioning and stewardship for public spaces, should they be given the right channels to do so.

Sixty-eight percent of the respondents said they feel a sense of frustration and/or loss regarding the evolution of Clifton Beach so far. But we can change this if authorities are willing to do so with us.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, folks were out biking at Clifton Beach and authorities were quick to provide a dedicated bike lane to accommodate them. We encourage this kind of intervention. However, we respectfully ask that authorities consider that they be designed and envisioned by the people and urban design experts. The public should be heard and centred always, not just when it is convenient.

Some students from low-income backgrounds shared that they have never been to Clifton Beach but would love to. This is cause for concern. We cannot keep idle while the city’s largest public space and natural treasure is becoming inaccessible to the most marginalised groups in our society. How could we do nothing while segments of the public cannot join the collective memory that connects us all in Karachi?

We are a city of brilliant designers, artists and tech nerds who are capable of creating innovative solutions for a citizen-oriented public space. We at Karachi, Public will build on the feedback we collected and collaborate with designers in the next phase of our project, to recommend sensitive urban design solutions that respect people, flora and fauna.

***

Courtesy the writer
Courtesy the writer

My mother always asked my two sisters and I to pray in gratitude every time we went to the beach and saw the ocean. The majesty of this natural space transcends its reduction to merely land for commercial exploitation.

We call on the public to participate in this envisioning exercise; folks in academia and the media to join and support us; and, on CBC, DHA, KMC and the Sindh and Federal governments to meet us at the table to design a better Clifton Beach. If this kind of radical collaboration between the public and authorities is possible anywhere in the world, let Karachi be a leader on that list.


Learn more about Karachi, Public or participate in the survey at karachipublic.com

The writer is an urban designer and planner who grew up in Buffer Zone, Karachi. She created and is directing efforts at Karachi, Public alongside a team of volunteers who love the city. She tweets @itsnotrida

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 4th, 2021

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