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New thinking on public parks

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Ahmad Rafay Alam

The Supreme Court and the High Courts have always been the protectors of parks and green spaces. Recently, the Supreme Court had a wholesale shopping market in Karachi agree to relocate after finding that the land it occupied was originally meant for public space. The Supreme Court is also hearing cases regarding commercial activities in a park in Islamabad.

Parks in our cities are regarded, over other considerations, as recreational spaces and as “lungs” to improve the environment. This they are, but as our cities grow and become more complex, perhaps it is time to consider parks outside the confines in which they have hitherto been dealt with.

There is a world of difference between a park and a garden. Gardens are formal spaces characterised by boundary walls. Historically, gardens were for the privileged, for royalty and aristocracy. They were expressions of political will, displays of engineering prowess and samples of the bounty and plenty acquired by their patrons. But they were never meant for public use.

Parks, on the other hand, historically appear as political instruments of social reform. For example, the world’s first public park, Peel Park, was opened in Salford, Greater Manchester, in 1864 as a response to increasing concerns of the segregation of those allowed and denied entry into “gardens” and the demand for recreational space for the workers and inhabitants of England’s filthy Industrial Revolution cities. In New York, the demand, as early as 1853, for a public space that could provide “working class New Yorkers with a healthy alternative to the saloon” led to the construction of Central Park.

The situation in Pakistan and other cities in developing countries is similar to the conditions that forced the city fathers of those times to look at recreational space with, well, less of a leisurely attitude.

Approximately 35 percent of the 170 million Pakistanis live in cities and urban areas. By 2030, it is estimated that over 50 percent of then over 250 million Pakistani will live in cities. Urban areas are expected to grow and become increasingly more and more densely populated and congested.

This is going to put enormous pressure on available housing stock. It will require a sewerage and sanitation infrastructure twice as large as the one existing today. It will be necessary to provide nearby employment opportunities as well as educational and healthcare facilities. It will also put enormous strain on available recreational spaces.

Every time one spots a cricket game on the street, it’s a symbol of the existing shortage of recreational space for the people who live in cities. But a cricket game is just the tip of the iceberg. Every time one spots a cricket game on the street, think about the number of people who don’t have even that.

The first contention would have to be, therefore, to place recreational space at par with the requirements of housing, sanitation, employment, education and healthcare facilities. Only if this is done will provision of recreational space become more than a “favour” government doles out on the few; only if this is done can one ensure that the need for public recreational space is given the importance and recognition it deserves.

Also, by classifying recreational space in this manner one can begin to deal with it like the scarce commodity it is. This, in turn, changes the way in which we currently allow parks to be run.

The first question that has to be asked is whether public recreational spaces should be provided, like water, at nominal rates or, like housing, to those who can afford them. For all the obvious reasons, public recreational spaces should be kept free. This means users of public spaces should have the right to enter and enjoy them.

The problem with keeping pubic recreational spaces free is the cost of acquiring the land on which they will be set out and then maintaining them. Maintenance includes irrigation costs, labour and other overheads.

One either asks the government to finance these costs or, perhaps and where it can, subsidise them or one can look to the private sector for assistance in meeting these costs. And this is where the dividing line between what is a permissible commercial activity on public land on the one hand and a prohibited activity on the other becomes very hard to distinguish.

Several things can be done to help make this line clearer. First, commercial activity allowed in public recreational areas must not be excluded. All too often, this exclusion takes place by the high price of the commercial activity undertaken. Not everyone, for example, may be able to afford a round of mini-golf and, for this reason, for them to be excluded from public recreational space must not be condoned. But this is not to say that, just because the commercial activity is within the financial grasp of everyone, this justifies the commercial entity to claim some sort of exclusive possession. Public recreation space is, by its definition, public, and any attempt to segregate such space, on any ground and for any reason, is unjustified.

Second, the users of public recreation space must be allowed to avail of services that enhance their use and enjoyment of that space. The first thing that comes to mind is bathrooms. The second is the cost of keeping them clean. But because a bathroom is a facility that enhances that enjoyment of a public park (imagine trying to enjoy a stroll in the park without one), allowing operators to set up and run bathrooms at cost should be allowed. Note that many times, public bathrooms are operated by the authority in charge of the park itself.

Nonetheless, the same principle applies to concession stands. Since the enjoyment of a park is enhanced by one’s ability to find nearby food and refreshments, or by renting a boat to take a ride in a lake, such activity should also be allowed and vendors permitted to set up such concessions. However, these concessions must not be allowed to take advantage of the park-goers.

They are meant only to serve the users of the park. A restaurant on the corner of a park that has a drive-by serves no benefit to the park or its users. Quite the contrary, it is taking advantage of cheap real estate to serve its own commercial interests. And such things cannot be permitted in public spaces.

The underlying thought here has to stem from an understanding that parks and public recreational spaces are public trusts to be administered by government with the same importance it gives to other public utilities. Only if this mindset can be brought about will the next generation of urbanites have access to cheap and clean pubic spaces.

This is vitally important because, like no other thing, public spaces are the laboratory of democracy, and we should ensure that men, women and children from all segments of society can, freely and unmolested, be able to spend recreational time in their cities and near their homes.

Postscript: Careful reader Bilal Farooq, a party and witness to the proceedings in the Supreme Court in the highrise litigation referred to in last week’s column, wrote to inform me that my reference that the developers of the highrise that set off this entire demolition saga had “followed the letter of the law” was incorrect. They were, according to Mr Farooq’s eyewitness account, guilty of “gross violations of all the rules of LDA.” One tries to give even the devil his due, but I thank Mr Farooq for correcting any misimpression that may have been created by my carelessness.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email:

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