It was in the modernist era of development – the 19th and 20th centuries – that urbanism started to grow and modern cities gained momentum. In the approach adopted in the architectural layout of human settlements, machines took precedence over humans and the cityscape catered more and more to technology rather than its living, breathing inhabitants.
Thus, the urban streets facilitated its vehicles and sidelined its pedestrians. However, now with a radical shift in the urban planning paradigm triggered by new challenges like climate change and a global energy crisis, there is an emphasis on discouraging the use of automobiles and promoting walking, bicycling and public transport.
Urban streets are now becoming more accommodating of pedestrians, encouraging people to walk and in turn creating a more humanised interaction system. Recently, a couple of fifth-year architecture students of the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture – Hira Noor and Mishaal Rahim – researched into this evolving trend and explored potentials and constraints related to its adaptation in Karachi’s context.
Walkability and its importance
Their research defines walkability as a quantitative and qualitative measure of how accommodating an environment is to its pedestrians. So in order to promote walkability the surrounding environment would also need an aesthetic uplift. This brings forth other aspects of walkability that, contrary to common perception, are not just limited to creating environments allowing pedestrian access but also feature in factors of environmental quality. These factors include cleanliness, landscaping, and amenities such as seating, shade, and curb ramps, condition of street furniture, quality of paving materials and sidewalk continuity. Therefore, architecture has a strong role to play here.
The research identifies some detrimental flaws in the Karachi transport infrastructure that jeopardise the possibilities of promoting walkability such as law and order concerns, lack of consideration of neighbourhood aesthetics and poor streetscape design having overlapping pedestrian, commercial and vehicular zones. In addition, flyovers and wide roads dominate the urban-scape with no consideration of pedestrian sidewalks and underpasses. Relief spaces for pedestrians to provide shelter and reprieve from the harsh heat are non-existent.
What needs to be done
The research suggests that, to start off with, pilot-scale experimental design interventions can be used in neighbourhoods to increase walkability. The land use should feature clusters of homes, parks, schools, shops and employment centres within a half-mile radius of another. Neighbourhoods should include central hubs and schools and maybe even workplaces so as to promote commute on foot. Intersections should not favour either motorist or pedestrian, but give equal service and support to both, as well as to the disabled. Furthermore, the streets need to be illuminated to create a safer and more comfortable environment with auto and parking restricted zones. An innovative design intervention suggested in the research study is of exploring the possibilities of developing elevated grade-separated linear parks. A linear park is substantially larger in length than it is wide and hence sprawls through various intersections. Such parks can also be considered as elaborate extensions of green belts, thus, allowing for varying views, easy accessibility and a larger impact zone and are being used to reshape urban centres. Inspiration can come from New York’s High Line project, where an abandoned elevated freight rail line has been transformed into a public park on Manhattan’s West Side. It is maintained as an extraordinary public space catering to the concerns of real estate, security, design, landscaping and enhancing pedestrian accessibility. The park also manages to separate itself from the urban jungle of Manhattan; its congestion and traffic. As Karachi faces a severe energy crisis and an unsustainable transportation infrastructure, utilisation of options such as increased walkability are the urgent need of the hour.
The writer is an urban planner and runs a non-profit organisation based in Karachi city focusing on urban sustainability issues. He can be reached at email@example.com
Published in The Express Tribune, October 13th, 2014.