Local government’s attempt to gate-keep Frere Hall draws civil society into action
alls and fencing under consideration by the Sindh government to ‘protect’ the large recreational swathes of Frere Hall from the people of Karachi have recently drawn serious flak. From dusk till dawn, large groups have been making their way to the site for recreation.
Arif Hussain, poet and editor, says he could care less if Frere Hall were demolished. “I used to take idle strolls there. If it is closed or starts charging visitors, I will keep my peace with our collective fate that lies in the hands of whimsical officials,” he says.
Hussain finds poetic inspiration in nature. However, he keeps his work to himself, saying it is for his own contentment and peace of mind. “We, the hapless masses, cannot do anything. We are stuck in a colonial-like security state that does not care if its actions do not find favour with the people,” he laments.
Oonib Azam, a journalist, often visits Frere’s, particularly when he hits a writer’s block. “When I run out of ideas and feel low, I sit there to clear my head. One day, I drove to the park and was surprised when asked to pay a parking ticket,” says Azam.
For 150 years, Frere Hall has done without fencing. The city administration’s initiative to enforce various charges and build walls came out of the blue and was seen as an attempt to segregate those who can afford to pay from those who cannot. It was presented as an attempt to create a safer ambience, prevent theft and keep out vandals and those who harass women. The arrangement would also raise money for the maintenance of the park.
Earlier last month, architect Marvi Mazhar used social media platforms to announce that gated structures had already been built around Frere Hall.
This prompted the civil society into action. Later, the Sindh High Court ordered immediate demolition of the gates. It also served a show cause notice to city administrator Murtaza Wahab for carrying out the work on a public heritage site. The High Court called it an “intolerable” violation of the citizens’ rights.
“They have millions of rupees to spare for the construction of gates that would selectively bar people from entering a space that has entertained them for decades. Yet they have trouble allocating funds to the right expenditures,” Mazhar tells The News on Sunday.
In her suit against these gated structures, Mazhar contended that the construction violated Rule 8(1) of the Sindh Cultural Heritage Property (Identification, Enlistment and Protection) Rules, 2017 introduced through Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994.
The counsel for the city administration pleaded that the measures were meant to beautify the park. Mazhar says the arrangement was clearly meant to privatise and gentrify a site that everyone living in the city can turn to.
“Look at Jane Jacobs’ studies on parks,” suggests Mazhar, adding that we should look to parts of the world where serious thought has gone into maintaining public spaces and parks.
“They have millions of rupees to spare for the construction of gates that would selectively bar people from entering a space that has entertained them for decades, yet they have trouble allocating funds for the right expenditures.”
“Too much is expected of parks,” writes Jacobs in her critical works on the state of urban planning and design in the mid-20th Century United States. She argues that shallow expectations lead to disappointment. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs slams the science-fiction “nonsense” that parks are the lungs of the city. Such false aspirations, she says, defeat the real purpose of such spaces and reduce them to some aesthetic for people who command more wealth and control.
She says the parks need people to accept and grace them; it is not the other way around. People can “withhold use and doom parks to rejection and failure”, she adds.
Keeping in view Jacobs’ understanding of parks which reflect the general behaviour of the society they belong in and whose success depends on people visiting them or not, it may be pointed out that few parks become as successful as Frere Hall has been.
Architect and urban planner Arif Hasan writes that better surveillance of the park and judicious use of anti-vandalism measures can, for the most part, resolve the issues raised by the city government. He also suggests that the ever-present hawkers and vendors can be registered by the park authority so that their activities can be monitored and their profits taxed. “Gentrifying the park and reserving a space for a cafe will mean death to the sustenance of a large number of vendors and hawkers,” he says.
In response to the government’s concerns about budgetary restrictions for park maintenance, Mazhar says, “The office of the Director General Parks is a large lounge. It strikes you as an extension of some elite club. If they can spend a fortune on its maintenance, why can’t they do the same for the park?”
“Government officials arbitrarily come up with nonsense ideas like outsourcing the park management under public private partnerships. Sitting in their lavish offices, they want to decide the fate of the public and declare that the best way to preserve a public property is to fence it,” she says.
“If you ask me, the root problem is fencing the properties and making people beg for permission. And for what, really? If we stop resisting today, they will conveniently turn Frere Hall into an extension of the Sindh Club that is right behind it,” warns Mazhar. If this happens, she says, the general public will have access for only a few hours.
Mazhar is not alone in dreading this outcome. Haris Latif, a student, says student unions use the place to organize study groups. “It’s located at the centre of all the important places and it is easily accessible,” he says. He recounts important events that happen at Frere Hall. Fencing it off, he says, will discourage those. “Initially they will allow these events to be held. Once the management changes and more patriarchal and conservative minds take up offices, will they still allow Aurat March?” Latif asks.
“The fencing and fortification of Frere Hall will be a disaster alike for the short entertainment content creators, library visitors, student union mobilisers, joggers and those using the space as a thoroughfare. The site will not only lose its identity, but will also be reduced to an area for the privileged and their gatherings. They will look down upon the presence of an outsider,” says Latif.
“As for problems like vandalism, inspiration should be sought from successful parks in the UK and other parts of the world. Install CCTV cameras to protect furniture and avoid vandalism, employ sufficient staff to oversee maintenance and demarcate areas for children. Trust the people to know what is important and do not scapegoat them for your own inability to restore and rehabilitate a heritage site,” says Mazhar.
The writer is a journalist covering human rights and social issues. He can be reached on Twitter at @mhunainameen