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Currently, a number of grandiose plans and projects are being launched to facilitate urban renewal in Karachi. In September last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a ‘historic’ package for Karachi and some work has also started on this.

However, there is concern that these projects will fail to deliver the expected results because the governance ‘architecture’ of the city, necessary to facilitate this investment, is damaged. To quote the famous urban theorist and activist Jane Jacobs, “Cities have the ability to provide something for everyone, only because and only if, they were created by everyone”. Karachi, unfortunately, is not a city “created by everyone” and its ruined urban architecture is, in fact, a reflection of the city’s complex and multi-layered fragmentation. Fault lines of conflict and contestation define urban landscapes rather than shared visions that guide human and financial investment.

The eminent French philosopher Henri Lefebvre after the 1968 protests in Paris wrote a social agenda for Right to the City which was later worked out in great detail by the geographer and anthropologist David Harvey. The discourse on the Right to the City raises an understanding of what defines social justice and urban justice. The critical emphasis is on explaining that spatial transformation alone will never lead to urban inclusiveness and sustainability unless it is complemented by social transformation in which all segments of society enjoy full citizenship rights, have equal rights to representation and accumulation, said in decision making and access to housing and basic services.

Karachi is not a city “created by everyone”.

At the heart of the long-standing destruction of the city of Karachi is the fact that there has been a major failure on the part of the state to draw up and enforce proper social and political contracts with citizens. Public policy has served limited interest groups at the expense of an increasingly marginalized majority. This fact is exacerbated by the fact that the political economy of the decision-making forum has been divided and faces paralysis of action. At the macro level, Karachi shares with other cities in Pakistan the debilitating effect of the continuing imbalance in the distribution of power, functions and resources among the three levels of national government; where the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ never guides the contours of this division. In this continuing play of power across all levels of government, cities suffer the most. This is unfortunate because cities act as engines of growth for any country while their ‘human characteristics’ and ‘financial strength’ allow them to carve out space for themselves, not only on a national scale but also on an international scale.

Unfortunately, over the years, public policy in Karachi has reflected party interests rather than those of the larger city, where civil service and critical infrastructure organizations have served as battlegrounds for power conflicts between competing parties, stifling urban growth. Unfortunately, the dysfunctional construction of public policy and the exercise of power continues today at various levels of identity politics. As a result, the mandate of the civil service ends up being misplaced as related powers and functions overlap, confusing and limiting the space for action, leaving us with a never ending, unfocused, sinking investment cycle.

When the limited interests of those in positions of power determine action on the ground, urban space is finally commodified. Financial dividends rather than social benefits determine land and resource use. Karachi reflects this reality with a growing profile of urban inequality that defines the contours of urban growth.

However, this challenge is not insurmountable. Other cities facing even worse political fragmentation have recovered into resilient and successful cities. We can do that too, but for that we need to create 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 align with the implementation of an agenda based on social urbanism. Expanding the stakeholder base involved with framing and implementing ‘Vision Karachi’ can open the door to exciting collaborations and partnerships. A subtle shift in understanding of service delivery can make this happen – where we say that the government is not the provider of all services, but the ‘guarantor’ of all that is provided, and where large portions of the population are given the dignity to claim their ‘right to the city’.

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

Published in Dawn, January 26, 2021

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