The city: An evolving organism

While cities need infrastructure and physical development they also need to be ‘liveable’ spaces where societies can thrive

The city: An evolving organism

Last weekend (November 10-12), as Lahore suffered through thick smog, a very interesting and relevant conference took place. The 8th THAAP conference focused on the city as an evolving organism. Indeed, we are seeing the evolution of our city, Lahore, in front of our eyes -- if they are able to clearly see without watering.

The city and indeed urbanism itself is a difficult phenomenon to understand and grapple with. While cities around the world have been centres of renaissance, they have also become hell for the millions living in slums and shanty towns. Where cities exhibit modernity and development, they have also become impersonal concrete jungles with little social interaction and cohesion. As the world, and indeed Pakistan, gets more and more urbanised, issues relating to the evolution of the city are becoming more critical and urgent.

The recent census results show that nearly 40 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives in urban areas, which even though most analysts think is an understatement, is still a very large number. Even by the government figures it means that nearly 80 million people live in urban areas in Pakistan. However, there is a distinct lack of planning and thought on how urban life needs to be developed.

While there are two huge clusters: rural and urban, a large part of our population also resides in small towns, which have different needs.

Scholars have identified a schema through which urban areas should be planned, called the ‘Interaction of the Social and Built Environment.’ This ISBE concept connects the ‘brick and mortar’ development with the ‘lived’ social development of a city. This means that while cities need infrastructure and physical development they also need to be ‘liveable’ spaces where societies can thrive. Focus on the former and disregard for the latter leads to unequal development resulting in class tension and social strife.

In the case of Pakistan, specific research on cities is a fairly new phenomenon. For a long time the cities were thought to be the preserve of ‘urban planners’ which basically meant architects, engineers and builders. How this aspect of planning meshed with the lived experience was an afterthought and often disregarded as sentimental and not worth engaging with. Therefore, the focus on cities by the THAAP organisation -- which is soon launching its own university, is a most critical and urgent endeavour.

Since its inception, THAAP has focused on the city and its changing character: the second THAAP conference in 2011 focused on the ‘Portrait of Lahore -- Capital city of the Punjab,’ assessing the city from various aspects; historical, sociological, anthropological, economic, religious and political. The third conference then moved away a bit from big cities and focused on how life in small towns has developed. This again is a very important topic, often missed in scholarly literature and government planning.

While there are two huge clusters: rural and urban, a large part of our population also resides in small towns, which have different needs. A focus on them is critical if we are to prevent overburdening of large cities, and underutilisation of resources in rural areas. THAAP again focused on the city in 2016, with its conference on the ‘People and the City’. This conference again pointed out the human aspect of the city, with problems ranging from vanishing footpaths, to the accumulation of rubbish and the very patent loss of green areas. Is development of cities people centric, this conference wondered?

Recognising the importance of a focus on cities, this year THAAP again chose the city as an evolving organism as its main theme. How a city grows, changes and perhaps even mutates, is a topic all social scientists needs to understand and analyse. From Rehana Lafont’s paper on how Jean De La Fontaine’s fables were illustrated so masterly and vividly by Imam Bakhsh Lahori between 1837-40, to how the ‘bazaar’ -- that open space abuzz with business activity but overshadowed by the more urbane and glitzy stock exchange, is an open education resource, as explained by Nida Manzoor, this conference looked at the broad canvas of a city’s development.

In terms of a city’s historical development, Ira Kazi and Farhan Anwar looked at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar and its social aspect, while Razia Latif assessed the walled garden of Shalimar. Building on this historical understanding, Dr Gulzar Haider, the Dean of the Beaconhouse National University Architecture School, wondered how one could evolve a ‘renaissance’ of Lahore through research on selected urban zones and how they can be influenced.

An interesting paper presented by Sami Chohan focused on how there is a need to rethink modern cities and lead urban revitalisation through public spaces. Similarly, Shanzay Salman focused on how urbanism interacts with the environment, weaving an interesting story of how trees and shrines play a part in this scenario. Dr Sheba Saeed then brought the subaltern perspective by assessing the nexus of begging and urbanisation and the ‘dream’ of coming to Lahore. Similarly, Ayesha Bilal investigated the often overlooked case of maids in a large city like Lahore and their identity.

A very interesting paper was presented by Dr Kanwal Khalid where she investigated Lahore through its most important archive: its people. In a tour de force, she traced the history of Lahore through its poetry, songs, and dialects, beginning with the Sultanate period and upto the present, sketching a rich mosaic of its richness, variety and affability. The paper vividly embraced the main theme of the conference and opened up a new vista for research, assessment and discussion.

Overall, this conference managed to present a very scholarly and lively presentation and discussion on several aspects of the city as an evolving organism. In fact, several sessions simply made the city come ‘alive.’ However, as Dr Mukhtar Ahmad, the Chairman of the HEC, said at the opening: "With this conference the work has just begun; now is the time to actually implement these ideas." While this was a noble comment, the real problem is implementation, as most such endeavours simply remain academic purists, mainly because there is no interest in the government or other sectors to make these ideas a reality. The job of an academic is to inform, warn and advise: action is not there preserve, and therefore the authorities responsible for it must spring into action.

As I write this article, the sun has set over Lahore, but instead of seeing the city lights, I only see a thick blanket of smog descending which is slowly, but surely, choking the city and its people. It is time we begin to start thinking and acting on the city as a living, evolving organism.

The city: An evolving organism