The Lahore commissioner recently announced reviving a project that entails converting the busy Main Market Chowk, Gulberg, into a state-of-the-art amphitheatre. It is expected to add value to the city’s status as the cultural centre of Pakistan, but will it?
Over time, urban Lahore has seen the development of important landmarks which hold immeasurable significance in the history of the megalopolis.
The second largest city of Pakistan, Lahore has a surveyed population of more than 11 million. Its growth is evidenced by the fact that the city’s population nearly doubled in merely 20 years, as reported by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (2018). Perhaps more alarmingly, between 2010 and 2017, the tree cover in Lahore fell by nearly 75 percent, largely due to massive infrastructure development schemes and the mushroom growth of housing societies in and around the city. Changes in land use under the guise of development reduced the already sparse urban spaces for entertainment and recreation.
There is no doubt that the grind of day-to-day urban life takes its toll on the physical, emotional and social health of young and old. For the past several years, the onset of the cooler months of October and November has been accompanied by a choking smog that heralds in respiratory illnesses, eye diseases and particulate matter — tiny solid particles that we breathe in and that poison our bodies. And while the long-term health impact of this outdoor air pollution remains to be fully seen, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says that the impact is likely to include increased risk of stroke, lung cancer and heart disease.
Public health practitioners around the world are collaborating with urban developers to pilot “green spaces” in densely populated areas. This includes the development of parks, vegetable gardens, playgrounds, and green belts on vacant or reclaimed urban land. One example of this in Lahore is the Miyawaki forest. The Miyawaki technique recreates self-sustaining, multilayered indigenous forests on degraded land with little to no human intervention. The goal is to restore forest ecosystems indigenous to the habitat by promoting natural vegetation.
Once ignored by urban planners, recreation sites and entertainment venues are now being reassessed as crucial creators of social value. The Lahore commissioner has recently announced reviving a project that entails converting the Main Market Chowk, Gulberg, into a “state-of-the-art amphitheatre” — that is, an open-air performance arena.
The project is expected to herald a new era in terms of urban design. Historically, amphitheatres were built as centres of entertainment in the midst of major cities in ancient Rome. The amphitheatre served as the heart of the community, where people of all ages would come together for recreation. Globally, urban developers have grasped the advantages amphitheatres offer, and consider them as catalysts for redevelopment. Community leaders who push for more business enthusiastically grasp these proposals for their potential to drive the demand for shopping and other economic activity.
The proposed amphitheatre should ideally be a multi-use venue that can host performers of various arts, and also act as an event venue when required. Above all, the core purpose of serving as an informal, flexible space for the public must be preserved and prioritised.
More importantly, perhaps, open-air amphitheatres offer cross functionality in terms of utility. In addition to serving as public arenas for performing arts, they can also function as flexible parks and safe recreational spaces which can also be utilised for other events, even outdoor dining.
The proposed amphitheatre should ideally be a multi-use venue that can host performers of various arts, and also act as an event venue when required. Above all, the core purpose of serving as an informal, flexible space for the public must be preserved and prioritised. Residents of surrounding areas, students from the educational institutes lining the Canal Bank road, and professionals and entrepreneurs from the many offices dotting Gulberg could find a welcome respite in this place.
One of the most successful examples of an urban amphitheatre is in the town of Seaside, Florida. This amphitheatre functions as a park, picnic spot, and sports arena in addition to hosting concerts, movie nights, weekly markets and theatrical productions. In other cities, amphitheatres include performance stages, play areas, fountains, trails, and digital screens for advertising or movie screenings.
It is crucial to point out that the design of the proposed amphitheatre on Lahore’s Main Market Chowk must incorporate resilient design components. This will ensure that the structure can withstand temperature variations, heavy precipitation, and urban flooding which can be especially problematic due to the sunken seating usually incorporated in open-air amphitheatres.
Moreover, city planners will have to ensure safe and reliable access to and from the proposed amphitheatre for pedestrians — Lahore’s new “signal-free corridor” approach to every conceivable traffic problem under the sun will certainly have to be re-evaluated, particularly in this area.
Another challenge will be accommodating the vehicles. If this amphitheatre is to become the centre of attraction, multi-modal access, or a pick-and-drop service from nearby parking areas will also have to be arranged.
Perhaps, the biggest challenges will be land allocation for the proposed site, and effective traffic management. Main Market, Gulberg, is a hive of commercial activity that is already overloaded with vehicles. Whilst the selection of this site is undoubtedly linked to its accessibility, the paucity of space and major overhauls of the traffic flow in the area must be of prime consideration.
Constructing a major project in the middle of this commercial hub will, for the time being, add to traffic woes. Additionally, city planners will have to ensure safe and reliable access to and from the proposed amphitheatre for pedestrians — Lahore’s new “signal-free corridor” approach to every conceivable traffic problem under the sun will certainly have to be re-evaluated, particularly in this area.
As the Romans demonstrated, amphitheatres not only bring communities together but also help uplift the local economy if they are properly designed and appropriately located. The prime location of Main Market Chowk, Gulberg will undoubtedly attract a multitude of users, amplify community events and add a brand new array of activities for visitors and residents of Lahore.
The writer is a development sector professional with over a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan