Thursday, October 20

Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi

Reading a book by an NPR host is a different kind of experience. So was the case with Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi. As Steve Inskeep shares his impressions of Karachi's explosive urban growth, I could almost hear the subtle enthusiasm in his voice over the crunches of granola in my mouth. Fortunately, his skill for parring down complex subjects into bite-sized remarks translates well onto the written page.


Something like a city-wide version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows up in various forms throughout the tale of Karachi’s growth. Faced with an ongoing tidal wave of immigrants from rural areas, urban planners and developers alike tried over the years to shape that growth into a desired form. However, in the absence of more basic government services such as security, sanitation, and public infrastructure these higher-level organizational schemes had no chance of actually working. If prospects did seem good for a moment, the regime would change and it would be all over.  In many cases, city officials and businessmen would import ideas from the West, often directly through global consultants, without paying enough attention to the very different political reality on the ground in Karachi.

The 50-year-old suburbs of Korangi and North Karachi are apt examples. Inspired by the West’s suburban expansion in the 1950s, Pakistan’s ruling general Mohammad Ayub Khan envisioned many of Karachi’s poor lifted into decent suburban lifestyles to the north of the city. With help from the Ford Foundation, the famous Greek planner Constantino Doxiadis was hired to create, from scratch, a self-contained community for at least a half million people. Doxiadis was careful to take design cues from local architecture and cultural preferences, but the design – and he recorded doubts about this in his journal all along– just could not be fitted to Karachi’s economic situation.

Although tens of thousands of families were relocated to these suburbs, problems arose immediately. First, the proliferation of privately-owned automobiles that made American suburbanization possible just weren’t there. Workers who had always walked now had to improvise bus services and pay to commute to their modest jobs across the city. Along with transportation, the residents just couldn’t pay for the houses they lived in, even with heavy subsidies. Without funds to continue, the city-building was cut short. Although Doxiadis had every intention of integrating rich and poor, the opposite happened. The suburb served as a mechanism for pushing the poor to the periphery of the city, which is how Karachi is arranged to this day. Finally, the carefully laid out designs eventually eroded away as unauthorized settlements filled in the open spaces and yards. The end result was the kind of informal settlement the entire endeavor was intended to alleviate - only now miles away from the center.

Other lofty goals were thwarted. A lavish casino had to be torn down before ever opening when the tide changed and the temptation that Muslims might gamble was no longer acceptable. A grassroots movement to save a national park from encroaching development ended with the assassination of two leading neighborhood activists. The essential functions of placemaking, whether from citizen-activists, developers, or planners, were all drowned out by the deeper needs of security and at least a certain degree of political stability. There is no use putting the cart before the horse.

1 comment:

heathertlc said...

I tend to really like books written by journalists - the good ones have an amazing ability to focus on the important details of a story while still giving a clear idea of the larger picture.

I'm glad you enjoyed this book. Thanks for being a part of the tour.