My grandmother tells me with some pride that, as a student at Lahore’s Kinnaird College in the 1940s, she used to get to school on a cycle. So did her friends, she tells me. It’s been 60 years since, but now you’re hardly likely going to find unaccompanied women on the streets of Lahore, let alone cycling. I once asked a transport engineer what he thought the reason was for such a 180 degree turn in societal attitudes. Without blinking, he said it was the automobile.
Sir Norman Foster, arguably one of the greatest living architects of our time, says that man shapes his environment and then is shaped by his environment. How true. Now consider that, until the automobile turned up in the early 20th Century, the intersection was a place where people met and gathered. In our world, an intersection is where you wait for your red light to turn green.
If we have been responsible for shaping our environment, what is it shaping us into?
Take for example the typical middle to upper class housing template. On a moderate to large sized plot, you’ll have a (at least two storied) house, a small patch of green, a garage and, of course, a wall. The crucial ingredient here is the wall, the excuses for which are usually security and, because that’s simply not what a wall provides, privacy. Walls are used in our part of the world to protect the privacy of the home and the hallowed cultural concept of chardiwari. But it wasn’t always this way. In pre-Partition Lahore, for example, by-laws stipulated that boundary walls, where erected, could not exceed four feet in height. Of course, those were different days. But that’s what I’m getting at.
Consider this: for the size of the typical housing scheme plot, the privacy is almost absolute and is virtually free. You’ll have to bear with me and assume, for a moment, that privacy is a commodity that can be quantified. If you can follow me till here, then it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to compare the cost of privacy in any one of our housing schemes to the cost of equivalent privacy in any other major city of the world. Not only is it prohibitively expensive to get the type of privacy we take for granted in our parts, other cities are simply not designed to protect and centralise privacy the way our cities are.
Now consider this: A man comes home, his DHA home, to find the house has run out of, say milk. Since DHAs are rarely designed with the pedestrian in mind, what this means is that the man will have to use a car or send an employee to do his shopping. Rarely will the thought be entertained that the women in the house should venture forth into the outside world to do a bit of shopping. After all, the streets are unsafe, aren’t they?
Now try and picture another setting. This time think of a city where mid-to high-rise apartments are the norm. Where a public square is present nearby and because of the increased density, services and utilities are located within walking distance. Do you think it would be simpler or easier for the same man’s wife or daughter to run down and buy a carton of milk?
Like Norman Foster said: Man shapes his environment and then is shaped by it.
I often wonder whether the low-density sprawl that our cities have chosen to follow exacerbates gender discrimination. After all, if cities are designed to protect privacy and are, as a rule, unpleasant to traverse by foot or public transport, won’t the residents of such cities be more susceptible to thinking that chardiwari is a cultural norm? On the other hand, if our cities were designed to be high-density with plenty of public space, wouldn’t residents be more at ease with the idea of rubbing shoulders with other men and women?
Published in The Express Tribune, June 19th, 2010.
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