Karachi Needs Active Public Spaces More than Ever

The third most populous city in the world, with an average population of 20 million, and with urbanization at its peak; KARACHI.The largest city of Pakistan, the highest revenue generating city.

Every other day a new building is torn down, empty, vacant grounds are occupied with steel and iron. Banks, software houses, multinational companies, shopping malls are found in big numbers here. But just like any other growing big city, Karachi carries its own baggage of mess.

The rise in air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, garbage disposal management, shortage of resources, inflation, and the list goes on.

Now, these are by far and large colossal issues and need immediate attention. Another major problem due to rapid urbanization is that we are losing the public spaces at a much higher rate than expected.

According to satellite imagery, the total share of green space in Karachi has fallen from 4.6% in 2001 to 3.7% in 2013, and has been decreasing ever since.

Now just think of this, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) every city should have a minimum of 9 square metres of green space per person.Which is around 200 sq feet, almost the size of a very small studio apartment.

As for Karachi, since we are already chopping down trees, and demolishing parks, one can imagine how much green space does an average Karachiite owns?

According to many people here, a public space is a shopping mall. But is it really so…

According to UNESCO, a  public space refers to an area or place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level. These are public gathering spaces such as plazas, squares, and parks. Connecting spaces, such as sidewalks and streets, are also public spaces.

No doubt Karachi has many malls and plazas big and small, but are they really serving the purpose of an active public space?

From a general point of view a public space (park, community center, squares, sidewalks) may seem just well-designed locations. But deep down they serve a much bigger and vital purpose i.e they are areas where communities come alive, where people connect with their neighbors, and where people of a locality learn to take ownership of their area.

Many public parks conditions have degraded over the period of time, and are converting into food streets or adventure lands.

Active public spaces not only provide a platform for environmental and economic sustainability they also make a powerful impact on the social well being of a society.

According to a research conducted by Karachi University and Panjwani Centre of Molecular Medicine, 35.7% people of Karachi suffer from depression. This is absolutely no kidding. Almost half a population of a city is depressed.

Social isolation is one of the main reasons for depression. Also since most of the people are living crammed in their rooms most of the day, they need an open environment, to ward off depression and stress.

Although there are many non-profit groups and NGOs working towards this initiative of restoring and creating more public spaces for the residents, people also need to develop a sense and culture of engaging in public space.

Not every public space has to turn out to be a food street or shopping district.

World Bank approved a package of $86 million to the Karachi Neighborhood Improvement Project (KNIP) in 2017.

The promises of this project are that it will help improve the safety, accessibility, and attractiveness of public spaces in Karachi, such as streets, parks, city squares and pedestrian areas.

It’s been almost a year since this package has been approved, but we haven’t seen any progress.

In a TED Talk, by Amanda Burden, the former director of New York City Department of City Planning explains how her team converted a sandy landfill area near Hudson River into a public space filled with green parks and tree-lined paths. This space is thriving today and it also has a transport system running through it.  When you create an inviting space, the public will come.

Another problem running side by side with the decreasing public spaces is of encroachments. Sidewalks, corners, squares become occupied by people and if not by people they convert into a big garbage dump.

Only if a few dollars from the KNIP project could be used to clear off that dump and renovate a landfill into a cleaner, greener, pavement with some trees and few benches. This could be ideal.

It’s not always about the big bridges, new roads or megaprojects, sometimes, it’s the innovations and creations of a much smaller scale that make the deepest impact on a society.