Understand the ordinary
A comprehensive understanding of the life of a ‘commoner’ and the means and methods of people’s upward mobility is mandatory for urban planning. For well-understood reasons, planners and the planning process inadvertently go tangentially when it comes to comprehensively understanding the day-to-day lives of a majority of potential consumers of the results of the planning process.
The tyranny of urgency, the conflicting paradigms of urbanism, the preconceptions of urban planners and the role of urban planners as private consultants are some parameters that can influence the desire and level of interest in this particular field.
There is a great need to understand how low-income groups earn their living and obtain essential services in the urban circuit. Life, in its totality, cannot be understood by excluding the majority. A segment of society cannot be left alone simply because it is not well off. And if left where they are, they would sink even lower. But this decrease occurs until a certain period, because, later, their pain grows too much and begins to be reflected as “societal evils”.
Radicals believe that in the era of neoliberalism and with the prevalence of ruthless markets and manipulated democracy, our planning institutions have lost sight of these people and their realities. However, it is also true that ordinary people are reinventing governance and procurement on their terms. The commons presents itself as a serious and practical alternative to the ineffective state.
From an urban planning perspective, the major premise for understanding the lives of low-income groups stems from the inequality associated with low income: these people have meager resources and are unable to easily use available services. , compared to people in the middle and high income groups – interclass differences are not ignored. So how can urban planning make plans inclusive and effectively operational?
Social ascent is what dictates and directs the lives of city dwellers. One of the main factors hindering upward social mobility is the lack of security of tenure, which is unfortunately the case for a majority of people. Conservation with renowned architects and urban planners indicates that social mobility is much more evident in settlements with a diverse ethnic mix than in settlements inhabited by homogeneous communities, although the latter negotiate better with the government than the former.
The greatest “tragedy of the commons” is that they are understood – if at all – with preconceived notions. The theoretical and class biases of academics and policymakers have tainted their understanding of who is considered the ‘commoners’. It is a simple process that to understand a city, it is absolutely necessary to understand how its inhabitants live their lives. A well-designed tool of in-depth qualitative interviews can uncover their outlook on life, aspirations, views, and current situation. It is important to learn why they do the work they do; what is a happy life for them; and by what methods they procure essential services such as water, cooking fuel, electricity, transport, health and education.
It is also essential to learn how they entertain themselves and through what sources, and what they would like to change about all these things. These queries and others like them set the basic framework that could be implemented across gender and age strata. For example, older people could be asked about the things they value about their current situation and the things they want to change for the benefit of future generations. Going back to basics is the key to the much-desired understanding of everyday life for ordinary people. It is obligatory because for these people, each day brings another episode of cultural struggle.
Those who are considered “commoners” build a city – and they do it by themselves. The real challenge is whether academics, politicians, planners and decision-makers can learn to “see” them and, more importantly, realize that no city can be understood by a single image: the imagery developed by market forces.
Most of the time, urban planning rarely pays any attention to ordinary people. This understanding will have huge policy implications and will help to understand the city from the perspective of those who build it and who are the main users (by number) of its services. It also helps to understand urban land use in functional terms in different time zones. For example, it has been pointed out that cities are not included in their nighttime functions: for example, Karachi’s nightlife is driven by actors different from its daytime movers.
Karachi, like other cities in South Asia, is run by the poor, commanded by the elite, and planned by middle-class professionals. The three classes have conflicting perceptions of the city and its operating businesses. Negotiating and navigating the often divergent perspectives requires prioritizing understanding of the people who run the city: its poor communities.
Mansoor Raza is a Lecturer in the Department of Architecture and Planning, NED, Karachi. He can be reached at: [email protected]
Anum Mufti works at Department of Architecture and Planning, NED, Karachi.