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July 22, 2019

Contested public spaces


July 22, 2019

The present spell of rainfall in Punjab highlights how poorly developed our urban spaces are, and how this is intricately tied to the impact climate change has on our people. Central to the weak design of our cities is an elitist form of urban planning which pushes ordinary citizens to the margins of our cities, which in turn exposes the people to the risks climate disasters pose.

This marginalization of the poor comes to the fore every time a climate-related incident rocks cities like Lahore, and leaves them vulnerable on multiple fronts. First, less privileged dwellings are more exposed to the physical damage excessive rainfall and flooding incurs. This is evident in the lives that are lost as poorly constructed houses crumble.

Second, response time in more crowded, less affluent areas is also slower, which leaves residents more susceptible to damage and disease. Water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid are thus more common in such areas. People living on the fringes are also forced to commute long distances in the rain and in the standing water to reach work. This once again exposes them and their modes of travel to the elements.

Climate related events too, therefore, have connotations of class attached to them. Longer commutes for ordinary citizens, for instance, are a product of real-estate markets in urban areas, which push rent and land prices in city centers beyond the affordability of ordinary citizens. Individuals living on meagre salaries and incomes are thus forced to move to cramped, far-flung places on the outskirts of cities or to slums. Residences in these outskirts are also less developed and thus more vulnerable to damage from earthquakes, floods and other dangerous natural events.

The link between natural disasters and class thus poses fundamental questions in the present fight against climate change, and highlights how any effort to ameliorate the impacts of climate change is futile without assessing the class, gender and racial/ethnic dimensions of these impacts. This is an argument Swiss sociologist Razmig Keucheyan makes in his book ‘Nature is a Battlefield’, which argues that climate change disproportionately affects minorities, women and the poor. This is especially true in urban contexts, where the gentrified design of our cities exposes the poor to climate change and to the violence poverty perpetuates.

The classist dimension of climate disasters and its link to urban planning also highlight how the very concept of public space is a politically charged and contested concept, with seemingly innocuous measures such as anti-encroachment drives carrying significant socio-political undertones. Public space is in fact an arena where ideologies are contested, with these spaces then being shaped by dominant ideologies.

Nowhere is this more common than in Pakistan’s urban metropolitans, which increasingly embody an intense form of neoliberal planning. This planning rests on transforming Pakistan’s cities into hubs of investment and capitalist progress, which necessarily entails replacing old and traditional centers with ‘developed’ areas. The anti-encroachment drive in Karachi’s Saddar -- which seeks to transform this traditional commercial hub into a modern, exclusive, shopping center -- is the biggest case in point.

Decisions about climate change, urban planning and inequality are therefore highly political in nature, and thus require political input from all segments of society. The political origins of many of Pakistan’s problems, moreover, cast sharp scrutiny on the present obsession with technocrats in our country. This obsession obviates the political origins of our problems (thus also negating the need for politically charged discussions and public engagement) and instead claims that ‘neutral’ experts hold the solutions to our ills.

In reality, Pakistan requires a process of democratization which gives voice to the economically marginalized, to minorities and to all genders. These segments will ensure our policies are inclusive and cater to all.

At the same time, we must move towards a model of development and growth which puts the need of the common people above the avarice of the few. These models of development will in turn shape our cities and urban places, thus making it necessary that we find alternatives to the present neoliberal model of growth. There exists no other way to overcome the menaces of poverty and climate change.

The writer holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and History from Cornell University.

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