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Over my dead body! Don’t you dare stop my delivery vans driving directly to my shop! The year was 2019 and Haji Nasir began fuming as soon as he noticed me near his shop on Marriott Road. I had become culpable as I had declared the intention to convert the street into a pedestrian enclave.

This street, also referred to as Medicine Market, is situated in the heart of Karachi’s historic core. It was a congested street, with a highly degraded environment, as are all streets in Karachi’s Old Town Quarter.

On the orders of Hon’ble Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, Government of Sindh had sprung into action and in a first-of-its-kind meeting, the Chief Secretary assembled a gathering of city’s prominent architects and planners. The discourse focused on bringing the glory of Karachi back.

For me it is Karachi’s unique heritage that endows the city with its distinctive character. My dream had always been to walk down landscaped streets from Karachi Port Trust in the west to Empress Market in the east, lined with well-maintained Imperial Vernacular eclectic architecture built by19th century native communities – a reflection of their newly acquired wealth.

As a start, I designed a 13-segment trail winding its way from Denso Hall to Port Custom House. Once approved, the heritage-loving Commissioner Karachi notified the entire heritage trail as a walking street. Each segment would be named after a prominent historic building in that particular segment.

Accordingly, the first segment, Denso Hall Rahguzar, would be named after the remarkable 1886 Neo-Gothic landmark, the first library and reading room built for the use of natives. It was built in the ‘Black Town’ planned by colonial rulers to keep natives well away from the ‘White Town’ of Civil Lines.

I feel attached to Municipality Engineer Strachan’s Denso Hall. On behalf of Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, with a mission to maintain its integrity and authenticity, Heritage Foundation had diligently restored the building with its own investment of 15 million rupees. It would require labour of love to carefully remove the insensitive de-facing sinflicted by Karachi Water Board during its long occupation.

The detailed design of Denso Hall Rahguzar would set the template for decarbonization and greening of Karachi to mitigate climate change impact. I designed the 45 ft wide, 400ft long street to ensure zero vehicular traffic to prevent fumes; removing all heat-emitting concrete pavers and asphalt to minimize carbon emissions; placing 3,000sft of permeable terracotta paving for cooling the air; relocating unsightly cables and wires in underground zero carbon trenches; planting four Miyawaki style dense street forests with 600 trees to clean and cool the air and boost biodiversity; laying 1,400sft of sponge pavements and seven deep wells to absorb flood water to replenish the city’s parched aquifer, along with restoration of 12 historic buildings lining the street and preventing multi-storey construction to limit carbon emissions.

It soon became clear that state funding was in short supply. The World Bank support was available only for the city’s high-carbon ventures such as the People’s Square. Clearly, a heritage-driven climate-smart project, aiming at humanizing the carbon-intensive concrete jungle, was not yet on their agenda.

While Heritage Foundation resolved to implement the civil works of the trail utilizing its own reserves, due to the persuasive powers of the heritage and environment savvy DC Karachi South, KE, and other service providers agreed to underwrite their own cost. With their assurance of cooperation and facilitation, we initiated the work in January 2020.

Unexpectedly, COVID-19 struck and soon lockdown was imposed. Later in the year, as we restarted site work, the earlier murmurings against restrictive traffic, now morphed into full blown furor. Monsoon rains had played havoc. The forests and pavement area that had been excavated now presented the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. No wonder the shop owners vowed to kill me.

By October the work was once again in full swing and soon major impediments were dealt with. KE’s gigantic installations and electric poles would be removed and unsightly cables and hanging wires re-located in bamboo covered underground channels.

As historic facades were revealed, there was a softening of attitude among shop owners– for many, semicircular stone arcades of Quettawala Building were reminiscent of their favourite cloisters of 8th century Andalusian Masjid-e-Qurtaba.

The game changer was the concentrically laid terracotta paving, each circle highlighted with Karachi’s historic landmarks, and each of 150,000 cobbles lovingly hand-crafted by female artisans living near the spectacular 14th to 18th c. Makli World Heritage. These were former mendicants who had been trained by us in the ancient clay tile-making craft.

To my surprise the most enthusiastic response from the shop owners came about as we began planting forests. Suddenly, a sense of ownership emerged. They began to take care of trees in front of their shops, even replanting wilted saplings.

Today, when I visit Denso Hall Rahguzar, it is the same Haji Nasir who offers me tea and nuts. I see him stopping shoppers from littering and smokers from polluting the street, also ensuring no entry of vehicles. He says he is able to breathe cool, fresh air for the first time in decades; he can hear the twitter of birds and is delighted by colourful butterflies fluttering on flowers that he planted.

His shop does not get flooded, his merchandise is safe, and his business is flourishing as the street is now a tourist attraction. Every drop of storm water is conserved to increase soil fertility, leading to the phenomenal growth of 4 Miyawaki forests, taller and denser by the day. He is proud of his zero flood, zero heat island eco-rahguzar, lined with clean facades and stabilized historic buildings.

Confronted with soaring temperatures and unwarranted loss of life, impending flooding and loss of property, should we not decarbonize and green the rest of the city?

(The writer is CEO of Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and can be reached at [email protected] and Sir Arthur Marshall Visiting Professor for Sustainable Urban Design (2022-23), University of Cambridge)

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Dr Yasmeen Lari

The writer is CEO, Heritage Foundation of Pakistan and Sir Arthur Marshall Visiting Professor for Sustainable Urban Design (2022-23), University of Cambridge. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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KU Jun 06, 2024 10:11am
Good effort. We need to convince the leaders on climate change threats, especially when there are clear evidences n forecasts for droughts n life-killing heat in near future, affecting food security.
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