February 26, 2020

Karachi’s shrinking parks

My three nephews, aged 1.4, 3 and 5 years, are on school break. Their mother is going out of her mind. “I’ve got to get them out into a green space to run around till they drop,” she said. And then, before I could even perish the thought, she added in a stiff voice: “I don’t want to take them to a mall.”

I started thinking, green spaces, green spaces, green spaces in Karachi. There is a beautiful small park near my house, in fact just a stone’s throw from Benazir Bhutto’s residence, 70 Clifton. I had noticed that its boundary wall had been pulled down and some kind of reconstruction was going on. But every time I passed I couldn’t help but think it was so much better just borderless. A boundary wall and gate deterred people from thinking of entering. And it seemed closed all the time. With nothing between it and the pavement, it was just a lush green expanse. I decided I couldn’t take them there with all the construction material spilling over.

A few weeks ago a non-profit in Karachi that works to save its environment, Shehri-CBE, published an 11kg two-volume exhaustive listing of Karachi’s parks and how they have been taken over the land mafia. Take the example of Huzuri Bagh (bagh being garden), which was six acres in the late 1960s.

Satellite images prove how it was completely constructed over by 2010. “Can you imagine the Central Park in New York allowing citizens build houses over it?” asked Shehri’s Roland deSouza at the launch of the book which was covered by The Express Tribune reporter Rabia Ali on my desk.

To give you an idea of how parks have shrunk I’ll give you the example of the neighbourhood of North Nazimabad that is one of Karachi’s few well-planned schemes, dating to 1953. Five decades have passed but the proportion of parks to layout has not gone up in line with the population growth. It has dropped from 4.48% to 4.26%. This area was meant to accommodate a population of 71,244 people but now has 0.2 million people. (Classification and Standardization of Parks North Nazimabad Town – Karachi, Pakistan in the Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 3(2): 853-865, 2009).

I was in London over the summer with my sister and she kept exclaiming in amazement how there was a park every two blocks or so. There was no entry fee either. And they were kept clean and green by municipal staff.

But it would be unfair not to mention one park in Karachi. Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim near the sea front and Lady Lloyd Pier in Karachi is still a good space. It is spread over 130 acres and is beautifully landscaped but every time I’ve gone there it has felt kind of fake. I suppose I like rough, overgrown and natural greenery. Still, this park is amazing for the inner city kids and large families who can’t afford to pay to enter other entertainment spaces like the cinema. They often head there in the hot summer nights to catch a bit of the sea breeze. It’s a safe space and only families or couples are allowed to enter, no stags. But it’s not enough.

Neighbourhood parks just don’t have enough for children. They are not well maintained and in some cases have been taken over by drug users, rag pickers and the homeless.

But I had to take my nephews somewhere. A little research revealed the University of Karachi botanical garden. My sister’s face lit up. Biscuits were packed, water bottles filled and mosquito repellent was applied. The botanical garden is open for vistiors 4pm to 7pm Mondays and Thursdays. It is located off university road just after NED university and has a gate of its own. There isn’t much parking space, but as we discovered, not a lot of people actually go there. Aside from one decent greenhouse, the rest of the botanical garden was quite disappointing. A broken air conditioner wheezed in the alpine house where a few weeds straggled. I couldn’t find the pond the man at the gate had pointed to vaguely.

Still, my nephews had a good romp. They rolled down the hill, which amused them to no end. They had to be wrenched away from the cactus. They drew a few fronds much to the delight of their mother. Next we plan to take them to Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum, which is set in a huge space in the center of the city. Safari Park offers a train ride to a zoo enclosure. The Karachi Zoo is also on the list. There might not be enough out there but for whatever it is worth, we’re going to hit them all.