Rights of Karachi: Heritage, Development & Humanity
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Rights of Karachi: Heritage, Development & Humanity

What is the relationship of a city with its citizens? The rights of a city vis a vis its citizens and the citizens vis a vis the city. Zain Mustafa opens the conversation through the lens of development and focuses on what was left ‘unseen’ and ‘unacknowledged’ in Karachi’s transformation over the years and identifies a humane attitude as salient to building relationships with and within Karachi. Mustafa begins the conversation by focusing on the humane as salient to building relationships within a city.

Today’s topic for discussion stems from science. It is often considered technical. And Tangible. But there is an artistic science to the intangible too. To explore the very real merger of science with art, I use this opportunity to share my thoughts on that delicate hybrid overlap between the two, for my city- Karachi.

Ecology deals with relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. An ecosystem is the community of these interconnected and interdependent lives of organisms; subsequently requiring a democratic balance where each existence and each voice is as important and as valid and valuable to the other, and the whole as a unit.

Our city, Karachi, is one such ecosystem. Born in the 1720s, the young city we know and love, with roots that can be traced back to the late Indus Valley civilization and to the port cities of Debal and Bhambore, is growing fast, with a population of over twenty million. It is part of a global family of twenty similar mega cities; Mumbai, Delhi, Dhaka, Cairo, Beijing, Rio, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, London, Paris and New York being some of its cousins. Like our Karachi these are all old, some even ancient, cities. Not to be confused with, or compared to, Dubai or Singapore, like apples and oranges.

Organic evolution and designed development amongst these cities is a language we can relate to; we can learn from its precedents and observe its patterns and use the knowledge to our advantage. To the benefit of our city— its people, its animals, its cultural, architectural and human heritage, its ecosystem —keeping all components in balance without stepping on toes or destroying one for the other is critical. We are all caretakers, and we are all guardians, of this massive, dynamic, mercurial, vibrant, yet fragile living urban ecosystem.

To better understand the multi-layered expansion patterns of a city like Karachi, we all need to study its cultural history and its past fifty years of urban development. Data for both is accessible and readily available in the KMC, Sindh archives, and the Urban Resource Centre. Vast bodies of research work have been done, collecting data and compiling relevant analyses on best practice-based proposals, to ensure that the rights of the city are not exploited. That we are together today, opening and engaging in this discourse, is reflective of a much needed, long awaited, participation from civil society in the future of Karachi.

Historically, worldwide over millennia, art has always been a great channel to expose the misgivings and political manipulations of any society by its governing bodies. The very same institutions empowered by society, often end up working against the needs of their city and its inhabitants— a breach of trust for the financial benefit of an insensitive and greedy handful within these administrative organizations. When members of a wealthy and powerful private sector pursue the same, under the guise of well-meaning intent for the mere superficial beautification of the city, it becomes a sentinel for civil society to wake up out of its past lethargy and get involved.

For art to come off its pedestal through the activation of public spaces, to be hosted by a diverse set of urban backdrops, heritage architecture, public spaces, parks and even contemporary gallery spaces makes the process and the exhibits dialogic. Engaging with an onset of grass-root level deliberations on the rights to and ownership of the city takes up an extremely powerful and poignant curatorial positioning—an alternative voice to speak about the politics of Karachi, as a complete ecosystem.

For now, let’s look briefly at the three iconic spaces viz., Frere Hall, Karachi Zoo and Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim. With a series of elastic similarities, each has its own separate history, relevance, character, needs and deliverables for its user— our society, civilians and our children and for our future generations.

There is no doubt that the neo-gothic, colonial, Frere Hall building needs some restoration work. Its library needs to be refurbished, with books, and reactivated. But! its gardens, without any external steroid-like imperialist input are alive, buzzing with recreational activity, a wonderfully diverse culture of people using it throughout the week, without imposing on each other or interfering in each other’s personal space. It is a warm and an effortless host. The gardens need to be maintained, watered, floral landscaping added to it for color, public restrooms and drinking-water fountains added for the ease and comfort of its public for free.

From being a romantic backdrop for wedding photos, to an academic subject for amateur artists, to serving as an open-air community center for small, medium or large groups gathering for some downtime from their hectic lives, to a casual meeting spot for young organizations, to serving as a play area for children, Frere Hall caters to everyone’s needs without barriers, without walls, fences or judgement. This spirit and functionality ought to be left untouched. There is no need for any public or private takeover or addition to the gardens other than the minimal support to the existing condition as mentioned earlier. At any cost it must remain so!

On the other hand, the dead one hundred- and thirty-acre Bagh Ibn- e -Qasim could be a multi-purpose recreational space with a cricket net, cricket pitch, a basketball court, a calisthenics jungle gym, walking, biking and running tracks, parkour and cross fit jumping, climbing sections, an urban forest, a vegetable garden and an oasis for the horticulture society alongside a variety of other landscaped areas to optimize the use of its space for families. Dog parks and feeding troughs for street animals and for beasts of burdens should be introduced in its expanse. Presently the formal, avenue-based design, without much use of the grassy lawns, with only benches to sit on, is a suffocating waste of public space. Like the gardens of Versailles, it is an acultural design for us, only decorative. Not functional. With a disregard for any community which may need to use the space.

It could easily be modeled like Central Park and many other parks all over the world. Our children, who play cricket on the streets, should be protected from the dangers of traffic by providing them with properly designed areas to enjoy sport within parks and throughout the city where space permits. The heavy concrete boundary wall is a barrier which should be replaced by a lighter wrought iron fence to have visual access and appeal for the park from the outside for its local community residents. No locked gates, no entrance fee. With the ancient Sri Devi Mandir, Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s Mazar and the Jahangir Kothari parade, it is a heritage site with plenty of educational value to its potential user.

When my eight-member team of architects and I started conceptual design work on the Victorian colonial Karachi Zoo of 1878, more than two years ago, we were told that the zoo was an educational experience for the less privileged enabling them to see animals which they would not be able to see in the wild otherwise. On the other hand, Zoos are being shut down world wide as being anything but educational institutions— they teach our children that cruelty to animals is acceptable, introducing them to neo-masculine toxic relationships instead of empathetic ones. The zoo thus becomes allegorical to the idea of making society believe that power over a voiceless being in a human world is appropriate.

Knowing that being displayed in cold cages with hard floors, no natural habitat nor room to move as freely as they would in their indigenous homes, we decided to embark on a course of crisis management and give these imprisoned innocent souls enclosures as close to a natural habitat as possible. Alongside, we introduced an enrichment program to keep them from being bored, depressed and going suicidal and stir crazy.

Animals are not lesser, they are not irrelevant, they are not our slaves, they are not criminals, they are not here for us to exploit, they are not here to serve us, to be our entertainment. The same goes for the poor of the city. They both have rights, a voice. Their needs cannot be ignored, they cannot be made to suffer under the umbrella of urban development and gentrification.

Needless to say, in a devolving value system globally, our children need to be aware of their roles and responsibilities in an ecosystem where they have the power of choice knowing how the right decisions can make others lives better, not worse. They must learn to share the earth and their city with other living beings different to themselves, other humans, animals or plants, to keep the ecosystem in balance and in harmony. These are the children of today who will be our leaders tomorrow. They will make decisions for the city tomorrow. Therefore, today they need to be taught to listen to the lesser fortunate, see the different, appreciate other species, embrace them, celebrate the diversity and provide the best quality of life for them all.

At the moment, we witness all around us how Karachi’s citizens, its animals, street dogs, beasts of burden, its children, its poor, its architectural and environmental heritage is all under direct threat of exploitation—all under the guise of development. Each one in this list has rights to a quality life. Being able to give them their rights to this life is the responsibility of those we elect to administer the operations of our city. To fight for the rights of our city, its inhabitants (citizens and animals alike) and its voiceless architectural heritage is our job. We need to be informed and aware of the city’s masterplan and development schemes. You and I have a voice we can raise. We can (and should) collectively demand transparency; hold our government, its associative private partners, local and international donors accountable for their expenditures across the city. We must raise our voice, time and again, to ensure that money is being spent in the best interest of the inhabitants and not just for the glorification and glamorization of their own portfolios.

If there is no civil society run organization strong enough, no law strong enough to defend the rights of Karachi, no law specified enough to protect our heritage architecture and its living human heritage from the corrupt capitalist greed of development vultures, raping the spirit of our urban fabric, there is no humanity. We need to come together and speak up for the voiceless poor who are forever getting marginalized and pushed deeper and deeper down, crushed and exploited. We need to speak up for the rights of captive and street animals, innocent dogs suffering cruel and inhumane culling. We must rise against the use of our heritage buildings as the front of a smoke and mirrors theatrical diversion for darker underlying self-serving commercial gains, for those pockets who should be giving back more than taking away.

Humanity and empathy need revival. You and I need to undertake this resurgence together, hand in hand. Our love and devotion to the welfare of Karachi’s ecosystem needs to develop into a structured legal organization—a movement! As members of civil society, we need to rise together to be the voice of, and stand for, the rights of our city. To take it back from those who have done it nothing but harm over the last few decades, and will continue to do so if we don’t start holding them accountable. It’s time we become active participants in the holistic humane design of Karachi’s masterplan. Today!


Zain Mustafa is an architect and educationist based in Karachi. He is also the founder of Cube Edutours – a unique heritage architecture education tourism initiative, taking learning about bio-regional shared history to heritage sites across Pakistan. An animal rights activist and empath, he is the President of SPAR and has designed the concept for the Karachi Zoo Revamp program.

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