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.

Sunday, October 16

Visions for an Urban National Park

I'll admit that I had no idea a reasonably large national park existed within the boundaries of New York City. Even after a short-lived but legitimate childhood obsession with national park trivia, and after having worked in a national park in Wyoming for a little while, this urban recreational area escaped me. That is until opening Gateway: Visions for an Urban National Park, a book recently released from Princeton Architectural Press. It catalogs the collaborative effort between the National Park Service and a host of designers, mostly landscape architects, in telling the story of this park while continuing to write it.

Maybe I missed Gateway, because it has yet to find a clear identity. As Alexander Brash, a director in the National Parks Conservation Association, writes "Gateway really has no clear thematic past, nor has an easily recognizable and unifying vision for its future been embraced."
  • Gateway is split in to three units: Staten Island, the Jamaica Bay section of Brooklyn, and Sandy Hook in New Jersey. There's no clear way to tie them together. 
  • Gateway's history is split between a location of early native Lenape trails, the site of NYC's first airport, and America's largest World War II naval base. Less glamorously, it contains a quarantine island that housed sickly immigrants, as well as the final and gruesome destination for most of the city's 19th century transportation system. 
  • Gateway is an important estuary for migratory birds, but also a grand experiment in the remediation of over a century worth of unmitigated pollution. 
  • Gateway also functions essentially as a regional park for seven million people a year, allowing many to benefit from a national park who may otherwise never visit one.
The park's complexity is what makes it such a compelling topic for the design competition. Some of the ideas generated can be more feasibly implemented than others, but, in this case, that's fine. The goal was never to select an out-of-the-box design to be built but rather to generate a host of concepts that could help re-envision the park's future. While the NPS will never actually construct thousands of hydroponic pontoons and push them off into Jamaica Bay, the picture of these floating pods underscores Gateway's need to adapt to the shifting interface between water and land after climate change. This was a major theme that many designers picked up on.

Others focused on the park's almost teasing sense of accessibility. While located very near millions of people, it's barely out of reach of the subway and planned ferry services throughout between park sites never materialized. Jamaica Bay became another of Robert Moses' victims when he cut off access from Brooklyn neighborhoods with the Belt Parkway (although, to be fair, Moses also oversaw construction of the popular Jacob Riis park in Gateway). Many proposals tie together ferry lines, subway extensions, multiuse trails, and even overhead cable cars to unify the park and the city.

Of all the parks features, by far the greatest attention was paid to the abandoned Floyd Bennett Field,  with its crumbling runways and nameless structures scattered around. This is a canvas to good to pass up. An editor of the volume, Kate Orff describes Gateway as "post-picturesque," in contrast to Olmstead's Central Park.
"Just as Central Park's construction sharpened our concept of 'the public realm' for an industrializing New York City, re-envisioning Jamaica Bay as a thriving cosmopolitan ecology would further evolve the concept of public space based on stewardship and cultivated wilderness for post-industrial contexts."
If the National Park System has traditionally evoked transcendence through spectacular natural beauty or historic narratives, Gateway could be something different. One of the designs had members of the public walking through each stage of a water treatment process. From the point where the effluent flows in, through a series of settling pools,  and into a restored marsh. At first, I was skeptical. I doubted that families would really bother to follow the informational signage through this seemingly mundane process. But why not? Where else is this kind of story being told?