Pakistan Institute of Development Economics

The Pakistani City as a Character: A New Narrative Approach to Pakistan’s Urbanisation Challenges
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The Pakistani City as a Character: A New Narrative Approach to Pakistan’s Urbanisation Challenges

Publication Year : 2023

There is a pair of intertwined challenges adversely impacting contemporary Pakistan.

First, there is the dizzying pace of urban development that the country is undergoing. The rate of this urban expansion is transforming the landscape at an unprecedented scale. A closer examination reveals symptoms akin to growing pains seen in many Global South countries. There’s the looming issue of inadequate housing, a problem that lies at the intersection of skyrocketing urban population and limited infrastructural resources. The lack of sufficient and affordable housing options has left countless citizens without a roof over their heads, driving the proliferation of informal settlements.

Parallel to the housing crisis, dispossession is rampant as the urban sprawl intensifies. As cities expand, many citizens are uprooted, their land and property overtaken for new developments. These cases of dispossession are not just about losing physical assets, they also signify the loss of cultural roots, communal ties, and a sense of security for many individuals and families.

Further, as cities reach outwards, there’s a steady encroachment on rural hinterlands. These regions, once characterised by their distinct rural cultural cycles and agricultural prowess, are rapidly getting consumed by the concrete jungle. The rural-to-urban transformation has implications beyond mere aesthetics; it threatens food security, disrupts ecosystems, and exacerbates climate change.

The unchecked spread of suburban sprawl, meanwhile, stretches the city’s resources thin and imposes a substantial environmental cost. The growing disconnect between the city’s core and its periphery also creates challenges in transportation, social cohesion, and the provision of essential services.

The urgency of addressing these challenges cannot be overstated; the city’s future liveability, sustainability, and resilience hang in the balance. And yet, in a twist of irony, we are faced with a second challenge where Pakistan, even in the throes of such intense urban challenges, is grappling with a conceptual problem. The city — the heart of all this development and transformation — isn’t widely perceived as a shared space. Instead, it is often reduced to a commodity to be exploited, a possession to be claimed, or at worst, a problem to be managed.

The city’s political conceptualisation is of paramount importance as it shapes the way urban spaces are designed, managed, and experienced. Viewing the city as a shared space underpins the idea of collective ownership, communal responsibility, and mutual respect. It acknowledges that the city is a mosaic of diverse interests, values, and dreams that need to be harmoniously integrated. Without this perspective, urban spaces run the risk of becoming fragmented, exclusive, and unsustainable.

Addressing these challenges demands not just practical solutions but also a shift in perspective. The city needs to be seen not just as a stage where economic life plays out, but as a collective organism, alive with the aspirations and trials of its inhabitants. But how can we transform this perspective? What would it mean to imagine the ‘City’ not just as a physical entity, but as a living, breathing collectivity, a shared heritage, and a common future?

The notion of conceptualising the city as a collective organism — brimming with life and vibrating to a unique rhythm — demands a fundamental shift in our perspectives. It is not merely an abstract idea but a radical reframing of our understanding of cities, moving beyond seeing them as inert physical spaces or administrative units. Instead, we begin to envision cities as living, dynamic entities, each with its distinct identity and trajectory, embodying a vibrant mix of history, culture, aspiration, and human endeavour.

To foster this transformation, it is crucial to reinterpret our perception of the city’s institutional arrangements and the myriad actors within its bounds. The city’s institutional structures – be they governmental, educational, cultural, or commercial – are not just functional entities, but are integral parts of the city’s character, playing decisive roles in shaping its identity and directing its growth. Similarly, the city’s inhabitants – individuals, communities, businesses, and other entities – aren’t mere passive recipients of urban services. They interact, collaborate, conflict, and negotiate with each other and with institutional structures, their actions and decisions collectively weaving the intricate tapestry of the city’s narrative. Each thread in this tapestry tells a unique story, and it’s the interplay of these millions of narratives that give the city its distinctive character.

The idea of cities as collective organisms is not new, but it has mainly been restricted to academic circles. There’s a wealth of academic research on major Pakistani cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. These studies contain valuable information on the cities’ history, architecture, culture, and social dynamics. However, they are usually not accessible to the public. This is where storytelling through popular media can be useful. TV shows and movies can present city life and issues in a more accessible and meaningful way. They can show real-life scenarios and depict the daily challenges and triumphs of city dwellers. Through popular media, stories of the city can reach a wider audience without the barrier of academic jargon.

Moreover, this kind of storytelling can make urban narratives more democratic. It allows the voices and experiences of everyday people in the city to be heard. It highlights not just the brick-and-mortar infrastructure of the city, but also the realities of daily life and the diversity of experiences within the urban environment. This can lead to a more well-rounded and practical understanding of the city and its complexities.

There’s immense potential in harnessing popular media to portray city narratives. We have seen internationally acclaimed TV series like “The Wire” which presented an intimate portrait of Baltimore, delving into its institutional arrangements, societal divides, and the everyday lives of its inhabitants. Similarly, anime series such as “Ghost in the Shell: SAC” not only captivate audiences with futuristic Tokyo’s depiction but also provoke thought about urban existential questions and technological transformations.

Such storytelling isn’t just engaging and relatable; it serves a higher purpose. It casts the city not merely as a backdrop but as a protagonist in the narrative, allowing audiences to grasp the city’s complexity, dynamics, and spirit. This approach helps frame urban issues in a relatable context, stimulating public discourse about urban planning and policy. Moreover, it cultivates a sense of empathy and connectedness among the viewers, enabling them to understand and appreciate the shared space they inhabit.

This narrative approach fundamentally shifts the paradigm of conventional storytelling. In traditional narratives, the city is often relegated to a backdrop, a passive setting where human characters play out their stories. However, in this innovative approach, the city itself emerges as the protagonist. The city’s structures, the networks of institutions that make it function, and their complex dynamics become integral to the plot. The story is not just happening in the city; it’s about the city. It’s about the city’s character, its triumphs, and its tribulations.

Furthermore, the narrative gives a voice to the city’s institutional arrangements. The structures that facilitate transportation, dictate governance, guide economic activities, or promote cultural interactions – all become active players. They engage, conflict, collaborate, and evolve, much like human characters. Their roles, interactions, and transformations shape the city’s journey, highlighting the complexities and intricacies of urban life.

Adopting this narrative method could be instrumental in deepening our understanding of Pakistan’s escalating urban issues. It promotes a holistic perception of the city – as a living, evolving organism, marked by distinct struggles and aspirations. By placing the city at the centre of the narrative, it reveals the city not as a static entity but as a dynamic character, constantly responding, adapting, and transforming in the face of challenges. Such a perspective can foster greater empathy for the urban challenges, stimulate public discourse, and inspire innovative, inclusive solutions for Pakistan’s urban future.

In conclusion, the transformative approach of perceiving the city as an active character and not just a static backdrop offers an innovative way to engage with the challenges of urban development. Storytelling through popular media brings the city to life, allowing it to share its experiences, and fostering a deeper appreciation for our shared urban spaces. This not only widens the reach of urban narratives but also strengthens a collective understanding of the complex tapestry of urban life and its nuances.

This narrative strategy has the potential to fundamentally shift the discourse around urban development in Pakistan. It can stimulate meaningful conversations and encourage more inclusive policymaking aimed at fostering sustainable, equitable, and inclusive urban growth. The power of such storytelling lies in its ability to make the city’s triumphs and trials palpable to all, thereby galvanising collective efforts towards creating resilient, vibrant, and liveable cities. The city, in its role as a protagonist, can become the rallying point for envisioning and shaping a better urban future for Pakistan.

The author is a policy researcher and speculative fiction writer interested in cities, education, history, development, and storytelling. He tweets at @wingsforus and can be reached at [email protected].