OP-ED: The quality of public space
The chaotic pattern is repeated in town after town starting with Gakkar Mandi and on to Gujranwala, Kamoke, Muridke and right up to Lahore. Nobody seems to have given thought to the quality of public space here. Little wonder that central Punjab has become a recruiting ground for religious extremists. Anything to escape these hellholes
Private space in Pakistan is fine. The rich with their retinue of servants, ample leisure time and splendid homes have a private life style of luxury and comfort not easily matched in the West. Even the poor manage to carve out private spaces that are clean and welcoming. But the quality of public space, the true measure of development, indeed of civilisation, is a different matter altogether.
Private space is created via exclusion and as a society, we are adept at it. Social norms, contacts and influence, high walls, security guards and increasingly dogs are all powerful and finely tuned instruments for ensuring exclusion. The private space created by exclusion allows the society indulgences that would otherwise not be possible. The unrestrained merry making at an average Lahori Mehndi, for example, is possible only because of exclusion. Public discotheques, on the other hand, have never succeeded in Lahore.
The principle of exclusion puts a high premium on being an insider. The quest to be an insider consumes the energy leaving little time and resources for the organised struggle needed to claim the public space. The insiders, at least those exposed to quality public space in the West, know what they want but don’t risk insider privileges to take controversial political stands on public space especially at the local level. Example, no body takes action to stop Shamianas encroaching public parks in the winter marriage season even though everybody agrees privately that this is a menace.
Modern developed societies, by contrast, emphasise the quality of public space. This begins at the airport and carries through to public transport that takes you to your final destination. Time, energy and money is spent to ensure orderliness, cleanliness and, yes, fairness. If you pay your fare, you will get on the train. If you stand in the line, you will be on the bus or the taxi in a short period of time. If you decide to walk, you can rely on a safe, well-lit and clean pavement. If you sit down to eat in a restaurant, the food will meet the expected standards of hygiene.
The English pub is a superb example of fine public space. The traditional décor, the mellow lighting and the friendly publican are all designed to breakdown the stiff English reserve. Walk into a pub an hour or so after opening time and the loud chatter would leave you wondering whether this is the same society that spends hour long train commutes hiding behind newspapers to avoid eye contact and the “risk” of engaging in casual conversation with a stranger.
The shopping mall is America’s answer to the English pub. Huge expenditure is incurred on shopping malls to create luxurious public spaces that make you feel good and belonged. All designed to encourage you to spend your hard earned money on cheap imports — probably from your own country if you are Chinese.
A high proportion of the national wealth in the developed countries is accounted for by the public infrastructure and the public space. This is increasingly the trend also in developing countries throughout Latin America and East Asia. Closer home, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to the East and Dubai to the West are emphasising the quality of public space and are reaping huge benefits in terms of domestic and international tourism.
Lahore’s many public gardens give it a special place in the country unmatched by Karachi and other large cities. Governor Ghulam Jilani in the 1980’s continued in this fine tradition. The biggest benefactor of Lahore in recent times was Shahbaz Sharif. His road and garden projects have given Lahore the look and feel of a modern city. The new airport will be the cherry on the top. But Lahore still lacks reliable and safe public transport. And it fails the “walk” test. The old Mall road, once famous for being pedestrian-friendly, is ravaged by encroachments. The walk from the main market in Gulberg (now the geographic and commercial centre of the city) to the Liberty shopping centre, a mere three kilometres, is a hair-raising experience. And emphatically not recommended to women.
The two greatest enemies of urban public space are unregulated construction and smoke belching motor vehicles. Heaps of sand, bajri, stacks of bricks and saria are dumped on public pavements, well outside the private premises. Open trolleys ferry construction dirt at night dropping a good ten per cent on roads that is churned up all day long by vehicular traffic. The combination of smoke and dust and encroached pavements render public spaces thoroughly uninviting. Even more so in the hot summer months.
Nawaz Sharif’s motorway from Lahore to Islamabad, a massive investment in public infrastructure, has dramatically altered the perception of public space. Avoiding the clutter of old Lahore, the motorway takes users on a refreshing drive through the guava and orange groves of Central Punjab on to the majestic vistas of the Pothowar. Unfortunately, because of the long drawn economic slump, the motorway has not attracted many users. This has rendered it the most expensive road ever built in terms of cost per user. Those who do use it, enjoy quality public space albeit at very high cost to the public exchequer.
Most travellers between Lahore and cities to the North, however, still use the old GT road. This journey is a sobering return to reality after the illusion of the motorway. The sixty-mile drive between Wazirabad and old Lahore captures all the dimensions of sub-continental urban decay. Stagnant pools of sewage and heaps of solid waste compete with food stalls, fresh produce stands and wandering buffalos in the heart of city centres bisected by the GT road. Harassed human multitudes clutching children and seeking Devine protection squeeze past busses and cars, their horns blaring, as they cross the road.
This chaotic pattern is repeated in town after town starting with Gakkar Mandi and on to Gujranwala, Kamoke, Muridke, Kala Shah Kaku, Shahdara and right up to Data Darbar and Mochi gate in Lahore. Nobody seems to have given thought to the quality of public space here. No bus stands, no under-passes or over-head pedestrian crossings, no streetlights, no drainage, not even municipal sweepers — and no employment. It is as though the last one hundred years of urban planning never touched these towns. Little wonder that central Punjab has become a recruiting ground for religious extremists. Anything to escape these hellholes.
The writer is a leading economist of Pakistan