Karachi needs open spaces

Salman Rasheed

The writer is a Karachi-based research analyst and political consultant.

Karachi, like other megacities around the world, has become a concrete jungle and thus, the need for open green spaces and playgrounds is huge. Karachi has been experiencing heat waves due to climate change, deterioration of green spaces and enhanced construction activity leading to obstruction of natural wind flow.
Playgrounds and green spaces have an important role in promoting healthy activities and fitness among youth and families.  Back in 2016, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that physical inactivity, linked to poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas, accounts for 3.3 percent of global deaths. A recent study published in 2019 of US cities suggests that tree cover reduces heat-related deaths, electricity consumption, and the need for cooling.
United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal no. 11 also emphasises the importance of public spaces, as it calls for “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular, for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities.”
The cleaning campaign by Federal Minister Ali Zaidi in August last year exposed the dismal conditions of open spaces in Karachi.  Sadly, these open spaces have literally become garbage transfer stations and in some neighbourhoods, encroachments of various kinds have gobbled up many playgrounds.  Furthermore, in other areas, the lack of maintenance has resulted in the complete abandonment or shut down of open green spaces.
The total share of green space visible in satellite imagery has declined from 4.6 percent in 2001 to 3.7 percent in 2013, while huge areas of vacant land in major areas in the city centre are closed off to the public and neglected.
Besides the need for green spaces in Karachi, there is a requirement for restoration of footpaths in main commercial areas and busy corridors, as they are either broken down, converted to unregulated parking areas, or used for dumping trash to the detriment of pedestrians.
The University of North Carolina conducted a study of urban vegetation in 16 cities around the world, which revealed that Karachi as the city with the lowest percentage of green areas, with only 3.06 percent of its urban land covered with vegetation, whereas the highest recorded percentage share of green spaces belonged to London with 53 percent.
Last month, the World Bank published a report ‘The hidden wealth of cities: creating, financing, and managing public spaces’ that included three case studies on Karachi written by urban planning consultant Farhan Anwar.
Anwar mentions that public spaces in Karachi can facilitate positive social interactions within communities and are critical for promoting social inclusion. Degraded public spaces and limited access to basic facilities are also a factor limiting youth engagement in and across communities.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stated in 2017 that 90 percent of Pakistani youth have never accessed sports facilities places young people at a high risk of being intolerant to others.
The World Bank report also states that public facilities and amenities such as libraries, community centres, and sports facilities not only serve as amenities for communities but also help create a sense of place and build social cohesion.
I highly recommend that those responsible for preparing the next masterplan for Karachi read this World Bank report and case studies of Farhan Anwar for valuable suggestions. The government and their agencies can play a positive role by developing some of the land in Karachi into green spaces and playgrounds.
In the recent past, empowered local governments throughout Sindh did a better job of maintaining playgrounds and open green spaces than the current local government system. The Sindh government should amend the existing local government law to devolve power and authority to local bodies and establish the Provincial Finance Commission without further delay.
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