The fabric of South Asian cities is weaved across various subcultures and communities. The cities embrace diversity and pluralism, yet their elusive, subtle and ever-shifting dynamics are beyond anyone’s comprehension. During the British era the cultural, economic and social systems in colonial cities functioned through different dynamics. When the British left, confusion and anxiety took over the cities due to rapid cross-migration and urbanization. This resulted in the emergence of South Asian cities as multi-faceted entities.
In the age of neoliberalism, the forces in power and the subaltern forces are constantly trying to negotiate for space within the urban chaos—what can be referred to as a ‘bazaar-like urbanism’ which weaves itself through the city’s landscape. The elements within the city could be divided into two components: Kinetic and Static elements. Kinetic elements are ever-evolving and ever-shifting facets characterized by adjustment and local perspective. Static elements, on the contrary, are characterised by concrete structures, such as steel or glass. South Asian cities are shaped by the tensions between the kinetic and static elements.
The case of Karachi and other coastal cities of South Asia is very much alike—enveloping both the privileged and indigenous communities within their vibrant urban culture. Karachi is a nexus which shifts with the wind. Structures are built and demolished simultaneously. The ever-shifting social and economic landscape of Karachi since Partition 1947 has led to serious challenges to the cultural, traditional and historical frameworks of the city. The modern aspirations for city development are not sensitive to the local environment—geographically and environmentally sensitive materials and structures are perhaps seen as antithetic to the high-rise steel and glass structures developers want to build—these aspirations stem from an obsession to convert Karachi into a ‘smart-city’. However, a city like Karachi is a living breathing city in its own right, known by its locals and the informal public spaces they occupy. It brings us to the question: is our vision for a city like Karachi ‘humane’ enough, is it ‘accessible’ enough?
Architect and urban planner Arif Hasan draws a contrast between the designated spaces and spaces which become public spaces through ‘encroachment’ or public intervention. The designated spaces have their boundaries demarcated and mapped, however the latter type of public spaces cannot be formally mapped. Karachi’s Seaview evolved into a public space through intervention by the people of Karachi. Seaview is much like the city itself, absorbing everyone in it—counterbalancing the divide along the multi-ethnic and multicultural lines. This open public space caters to all classes and indigenous communities alike—it is representative of how different communities function within the urban chaos.
The development of coastlines takes place in multiple ways. It starts with the creation of a land, followed by its demarcation, which brings it into the fold of the official bodies. This is followed by commercialization of the ‘vacant’ land, which in turn leads to gentrification as corporate offices and recreational projects rush in to fill the vacuum.
Bordered by two parks, a three-and-a-half kilometer stretch of shoreline, known as Sea View beach or ghareebon ka sahil, has been hit particularly hard by this wave of ‘development’.
During the late 1900s and early 2000s, the government planned to attract foreign investment for real estate projects. Three mega projects were planned in collaboration with Dubai-based companies to develop the coastline in DHA and other areas.
In the wake of these developments, civil society began its protests on environmental, social and cultural grounds. According to civil society, these projects would not only affect the fishing community, but would impede public accessibility of the beach for recreation.
Due to these protests, the projects came to a halt and DHA beach was presented to the public as a ‘gift’ from the government of Pakistan. Despite this, construction kept increasing at a rapid rate in direct conflict with the KDSP Laws, plaguing the livelihood of the fisherfolk and other stakeholders.
In section 4.8 of the KDSP 2020 plan, “reclamation along any section of the sea front either on the landward side or the bordering sea would not be advised” and “for any development to be sustainable and acceptable, the historical rights of the communities of the sea and the coastal village land they occupy ought to be respected”.
The construction above is a clear violation of the permission grant states that only internal renovation can place. The constructions along the coastline seem to be expanding exponentially since the last few years. The architectural manifestation of these ‘development’ aspirations along the Sea View coastline exhibits a certain uncertainty. The desire to develop comes in conflict with the desire to control. Corporate towers of steel and glass rise up as harbingers of more such construction to come. Unlike with Karachi’s vibrant local-urban culture, shopping centers and food chains near Sea View are exclusive to a fraction of the public who can afford to access these spaces. This kind of architecture is devoid of a sense of place, and insensitive to the local climate, hence it requires immense amounts of power to air condition it. The idea that such projects symbolize progress, needs to be questioned as the city is much more than just its smallest fraction. What is progress, can it be measured, and is there a need to re-define it?
The satellite images at the top of this story show the extent of land reclamation that has taken place in the last three decades. Talking of progress, the beach is losing its characteristic of being a permeable zone since fences and barbed wires arise from the undulating plane. The creation of an enclosed, gated, and ticketed spaces within a public space seems counterproductive. The local authority had built kiosks for vendors to set up shop within them; in time eateries opened up, none of them have, however, lasted for long, unlike the multinational franchise on the western edge of the park. The reason for this franchise’s longevity being the much stronger internal infrastructure available.
Another, far more insidious force at play on the beach are the storm drains which are meant to direct rainwater into the sea, but instead, spew raw sewage from the city’s overburdened sewerage system onto the beach and into the sea. These streams of raw sewage are clearly visible in satellite imagery, the pungent smell arising from the pools and streams impossible to ignore on the ground. The unceremonious dumping of waste effluent onto the beach and into the sea where thousands of people bathe throughout the year, not only reduces the amount of accessible public space but is also a serious health hazard.
According to a study launched by the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in 2016, a disease-causing bacteria was found in the coastal waters in varying amounts. The study revealed that the untreated sewage that is being dumped into the sea is a major cause of sea pollution and skin diseases which come with it. There is a dire need for a paradigm shift in the narratives surrounding development and land reclamation. What is development, and who is it for? Are some encroachments more illegal than others, and is the law different for different sections of society? If we keep in mind the recent trends in architecture and city planning, we can ask what is the future of Karachi? As important it is to inquire about the government bodies which regulate city planning projects, it is also important to ask questions about the narratives around land reclamation and development.