KARACHI: Flyovers are a secret guilty pleasure for me as a motorist in Karachi. How many times have I sped off to a friend’s house at Safoora’s Gabol Chowk, which some people would argue lies at the edge of Karachi’s universe, taking just a fraction of the time it used to because of a ribbon of seamlessly floating flyovers from the main artery of Shahrae Faisal. I would thank former mayor Mustafa Kamal in my heart of hearts as I made my way across the city.
I say that flyovers were a guilty pleasure because I realised that they were a questionable solution to Karachi’s traffic jams. Yes, there was perhaps a time when flyovers were championed the world over as ultramodern solutions. Their sleek curves were symbols of height- and space-defying engineering for cities. But then it started to filter in that at least for Karachi, these short-term strips of concrete were just postponing doom – flyovers were no solution to what we really needed, mass transit.
The problem is that flyovers are what anthropologist Marc Augé calls “non-places” - the places that all look the same no matter where you are in the world. They don’t have an identity or give people memories, to put it crudely. The irony is that “supermodernity produces non-places”. We are wowed by the modern feel of flyovers and how they make a city feel like it’s being “developed”. Augé analysed those homogenised "non-places" where we spend so much of our time.
They are places like airports, railway stations, superstores, motorways and international hotel chains. These are non-places which are just "spaces of circulation, consumption and communication". In the case of flyovers (spaces of circulation), they are actually just a transit point, a temporary bridge to take you from one place to another.
“They are transitory, solitary, highly disorienting spaces,” explained Dr Nausheen Anwar, who is an assistant professor of urban studies at the Institute of Business Administration. They are disorienting because you go up the ramp at one point in the city and suddenly, after flying over an entire neighbourhood, descend into another part. It is kind of like airplane travel. You enter a cabin and seven hours later you are in another country.
Anwar pointed out in an email interview with The Express Tribune that Karachi's flyovers signal the making of a 'world class' city. This comes from the modernist aesthetic to move people fast and in such a way that reduces their social contact with surroundings. “Think of 'bypassing' Lyari or 'bypassing' the low-income colonies that pepper the margins of the KPT Expressway,” she elaborated. Even the language shows what’s really going on.
It became clear in decade of post-2001 Karachi that local government was crazy about building flyovers. Former mayor Mustafa Kamal proudly tells international forums that he built 35 of them. But this was accompanied by the spin-off creation of strange new spaces underneath them. The general perception was that in these sunless corridors the desperate and derelict, the forgotten and failed of Karachi tended to appear. I was already convinced that flyovers should never be built as a traffic solution but I became more and more preoccupied with the spaces underneath as well.
Then I visited Guangzhou in China this June on the Jefferson fellowship to study urban solutions in East Asian cities via the East West Center in Hawai’i. I was delighted to tour their greenways. The Guangzhou city government completely revamped the spaces underneath their flyovers by landscaping them and developing a space where people could come and hang out. In Donghaochong, a canal running under the flyover was cleaned up and turned into a beautiful stream. The results were miraculous.
I returned to Karachi and thought about the spaces underneath its flyovers. Could Mohammad Hussain Syed, our administrator, and Roshan Ali Shaikh, the commissioner, undertake something similar here? I looked at the case of the Banaras flyover with what I thought was all the “dead space” underneath it and felt that it would be a perfect pilot project site. If you look at the photograph or visit it, you’ll see that fruit sellers have set up their carts there and the place is teaming with activity. I was convinced that what I believed was ‘chaos’ in the dead space underneath the flyover should be cleaned up, beautified and landscaped.
But then Dr Anwar questioned the idea that “dead space underneath flyovers should be beautified” because we think that by doing so, we would be able to bring alive something of a part of the city. For her, quite simply, flyovers signal the annihilation of traditional space. “So underneath or in close proximity to the transitory 'space', there is a desire to conjure a 'lived place', which in an anthropological sense is organically social and not just beautiful.”
I went back to the photograph of the space underneath Banaras flyover. Who said this was not beautiful? I looked at the colourful fruit piled high. I wondered if landscaping it would make it a better space for the people who had come and already done something with it? Should we mess with something that has emerged ‘organically’ on its own? I wasn’t so sure the Guangzhou greenway was an idea that should be replicated wholesale in Karachi.
The flyover is an alienating structure and not “intimate” but there was something about the “dead” space underneath Banaras flyover that had become “intimate” simply because of all the people who had started to use it.