Urban Resilience And The Struggle For The City In Global Cities

Urban Resilience And The Fight For The City In International Cities

As the sixth largest city in the world and the largest city in Pakistan as well as its financial hub, Karachi has often been at the center of political turmoil and sensationalism through media journalism and how it often fails to meet the criteria of perhaps a developed city. Known as the “City of Lights” and located on the Arabian Sea, its title presents a dichotomous reality in terms of its actual physical state, however, the light of the city continues to emanate in the diversity of the people that inhabit the most populous metropolitan city in Pakistan. The 2016 population for Karachi is estimated to be 16.62 million (World Population Review) and as of now, it is estimated to be around 18 million.

The large multiethnic population and the city’s urban landscape, put it at an interesting apex of development in reverse and non-conventional forms of historic and present urban resilience.

Usually, we read about and partake in discussions surrounding urban resilience that denote sustainable cities that involve tangible development, as in the case of Karachi – in this review paper, I attempt to shift this focus from that to the people that occupy these cities and their struggle, resilience and adaptation to tough political, economic and social climates that make global cities such as Karachi more resilient than imaginable through adaptation, activism and initiative.

Through Laurent Gayer’s ethnographic account of Karachi’s population managing violence through its continual transformation and fear in the 1980s and those threads manifesting in the present, I would draw comparisons and contrast how this management of urban political warfare by citizens in cities across Turkey, such as Istanbul in the event of the Gezi Park protests, struggles for environmental justice as an example of successful grassroots mobilization in the Brazilian Amazon, resistance and the politics of dissent between police and drug dealers in urban Argentina, the resistance of non-white people in their struggle for the provision of home buyout programs, manifests in the development and making of resilient urban spaces that have sustained through their struggles.

Karachi as an Urban Metropolis and the Struggle for the City
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Livability Report 2017, Karachi is one of the ten least livable cities in the world. The report includes stability, environment and culture, health, infrastructure including public transport and affordable housing and education as its markers for measuring livability.

In Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City, Laurent Gayer mentions a pamphlet distributed to American soldiers in World War II that presented Karachi as the “Paris of the East” and the “cleanest city in all of India”.

As of now, around seventy percent of Karachi’s 18 million inhabitants are below the poverty line with the city’s ethnographic description ranging from garbage heaps lining city streets, open sewage lines as commonplace, bumpy roads and pollution with unreliable mass public transport system and, failure to meet the demand for a substantial portion of housing.

Despite the normalizing of terror during the 1980s in Karachi and apparent chaos, social life in Karachi continued with regulatory mechanisms.

According to Gayer, four events have reinforced sustainable political strife in the city and leading it to a fragile equilibrium – the emergence of the MQM amid a lack of a political party’s monopoly, MQM’s rule through disruption and spreading of lack of control, rise of coalition politics that led to identity politics with political parties representing distinct ethnic groups and constant state intervention.

Karachi can be seen as a city of migrants from its origin. It has been lamented and turned as a social genre by renowned poets as a specific genre, “sheher-e-ashob” (The city’s misfortune’). As Parveen Shakir wrote,

Ek aisi biswa hai
Jis ke sath
Paharon, maidanon aur sahraon se ane walah
Har size ke batwey ka admi
Rat guzarta hai
Aur subhe uthte hi
Uske dahne rukhsar par
Ek thappar rasid karta hai
Aur dusre gaal ki tawaqoh karte hue
Kam par nikal jata hai
Agli rat ke nashe mein sarshar”
is a whore,
with whom every eligible man,
descending from the mountains
or emerging from the plains and deserts,
with wallets of different sizes,
spends the night.
In the morning,
slapping her on one cheek,
he expects the other one,
and leaves for work,
drunk in anticipation of the night to come.”)
Parveen Shakir (1952-1994)

The sexualization of Karachi and contrast to that of a prostitute are indicative of the notion that the quality of life for its residents has been far from achieved and Gayer goes on to connect it to Bombay’s similar history and struggle, wherein the ‘two megacities had to cope with the crisis of their cosmopolitan ideal, in the last decades of the twentieth century.

This form of a lament to the city was also a means of resistance and denouncement of the army’s intervention in the city in 1992.

The history of the founding of modern Karachi was that of an ‘open city.’ The everyday struggles of Karachi’s residents amid this political strife and ordered disorder, have showed that a large part of its urbanization has been left on its ‘unofficial sector.’

The unofficial sector comprises of any entity besides the government or the establishment. It is this sector that this essay attempts to unpack through the lenses of social and political activism and social mobilization, in Karachi through Gayer’s account to the other global city centers around the world.

Parween Rahman was the late director of Karachi’s most influential postcolonial NGO – the Orangi Pilot Project. She would emphasize a more heuristic distinction is between actors operating in their official and unofficial capacities as a shift from the informal to the unofficial implies that the proper boundary of split in the context of Karachi’s poor urban development and planning is not between state and society or between public and private, but rather as Rehman used to say “even the official is illegal.”

This could be seen in the form of illegal buying through bribery as those buying plots from the termed formal sector have to pay bribes to public officials involved in these exchanges.

Rehman was brutally murdered on March 13, 2013 for her tireless efforts in exposing city and urban life, and trying to raise awareness. In Karachi’s development sector, she is continued to be seen as a powerful figure of resistance who helped reorient urban landscape around Karachi through her activism and active citizenship, via documenting land use around the city, which some believe antagonized the city’s powerful land grabbing criminal agencies.

She was killed as a result of ethnic, sectarian and criminal violence which is reflective of the increased level of violence in the country’s largest city (BBC News)

Rehman successfully headed the Orangi Pilot Project, one of Pakistan’s most successful non-profit programs that helps local community development in helping them escape from poverty. As reported by BBC News, a resident said that “she was a great help for us. She was just like an elder sister to whom we would go whenever a problem struck us.”

It is heartbreaking that the case of Rehman’s brutal murder that lasted 7 years, has just ended in a horrific conclusion and injustice on November 21, 2021 where the High Court of Sindh overturned a previous ruling and acquitted 5 persons accused of murdering her, despite there being substantial evidence to the contrary, including a recorded confession of the principle accused.

Rehman’s activism and work toward encouraging communities to maintain their own systems for sanitation, health, housing and micro-finance and her selfless efforts in mitigating urban poverty despite receiving death threats, is a brilliant example of urban resilience from a people’s perspective and shifting the focus from government control to amplifying people’s voices.

It is also an example of how citizens can take active charge of improving their lives and what democracy really entails – questioning the wrong and criminal, making people aware of it and leading toward tangible social change. This is transformative urban resilience and we shall see this now in the context of the Gezi Spirit in Turkey.

Reimagining Resilience through the Gezi Spirit in Turkey
The significance of the Gezi protest in June 2013 due to a conflict over Gezi Park in central Istanbul was a spillover effect of the continuous resistance to Turkey’s aristocratic developmental model and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) urban policies.

The ‘Gezi Spirit’ continued to politicize space through various elements of de-localization, so it had a significant impact on the civil and political landscape of Turkey. In the article, The Work of a Few Trees: Gezi, Politics and Space, there is mention of an email being sent to the activist circles of Istanbul that informed them of the abolition of the park which stood as one of the few green spaces in the city center and the updates surrounding it.

The impact of this email can be seen in the testimony that, on that night only, a few activists immediately reached the park and prevented a few trees from being chopped up, ‘forced the construction vehicles to retreat and set up a small resistance encampment to defend the park” (Erensu and Karaman, 2017).

The power of words and action that awareness can lead to, such as the meeting of such anti-environment-friendly policies in the case of Gezi Park with increasing resistance can be seen through the actual ceasing of such measures as a result of them. This is active social and political activism and contributing toward urban resilience in transformative and enduring ways.

The spirit of these Gezi Park demonstrations from May 28, 2013 – Aug 20, 2013 continued to politicize space through various elements of de-localization, and it had a significant impact on the civil and political landscape of Turkey. Moreover, the enormous importance that slogans and phrases such as ‘Yasam Alani’ (life space) in the context of this particular incident had and can have is an important part of social and political activism in the struggle for the city and acquiring right to it.

We can also see that in the political work of space and its production, how both reinforce each other – the production of space becomes both the cause and stage of the revolt, as seen in the case of Gezi which was both the cause and means of the revolt.

The revolt’s high form and energy can be due to the reason that Gezi is in Turkey’s most central open space and that helped mobilize as well as provide channels for massive participation in the (re)production of space and gave a voice to the public. Yasam Alani as a spatial political imaginary became a crucial symbolic notion to unite public demands around urban and rural commons.

We can see how a central, historic park within Istanbul became a symbol and means with spillover effects, delocalizing political stakes from the literal space of Gezi to re-localizing them to a variety of settings across the urban and rural continuum and divide. We can see a similar thread of local communities’ resistance countering the negative impacts of sites that serve as a means of infrastructure development, for urban actors often totally neglecting and disregarding communities directly affected by them, in the struggles for environmental justice in the Brazilian Amazon.

Active Citizenship in the Brazilian Amazon

The event of the construction of the Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon that Randell and Klein (2021) in their article, “Hydropower Development, Collective Action, and Environmental Justice in the Brazilian Amazon,” analyze is an instance of a successful grassroots mobilization. The exploitative national scaling of development projects such as that of dams with no evidence of local-level benefits is what makes the Brazilian Amazon a site of contemporary internal colonialism, where despite the provision of jobs to outsiders and other people, socially and environmentally, it led to the displacement of at least twenty thousand people with various other negative consequences such as the impact on marine life and threat on livelihoods of farmers, fishers and Indigenous groups.

These farmers and fishers, who were the marginalized people, became active citizens who through recognizing threats, began to engage in resistance, learned to become strategic activists, and through actions, were able to alter their own material conditions which could be seen as a recognition-based form of environmental justice — they took their own improvement and provision of compensation in their own hands, built partnerships with various public and private stakeholders to have a recognition and say.

This active citizenship involved people without formal education and prior political experience apart from voting, against nominally powerful actors – the energy company and the federal government, within a context of internal colonialism.

The threat of dam construction led to the civic engagement of farmers and fishers, most of whom were neither experienced activists nor highly educated which goes to show the power of collective action and how the participatory process of resistance itself became an education — a powerful example of how collaborative claims-making can lead to actual change and fulfillment of demands, despite not having a solid standing, background or recognition in the society.

This incident shows that power is not an attribute, but a relation, in that it is not an entity that people possess but exert.

It is not static, but dynamic and reversible. Furthermore, these stakeholders, such as farmers and fishermen who resiliently stood for their environmental justice and right to urban life, should not be seen as politically or educationally deficient, through a deficit-based approach.

Through collaborative claims-making, they created a structure of opportunities for/by themselves to reverse an unequal power relationship which led to transformative resistance from political invisibility to civic engagement.

Through their collaborative resilience and resistance, they were able to project an increased knowledge of their environmental conditions to relaying scientific evidence of harm that demonstrated the negative effects of the dam on the ecosystem from their experiences of harm. This element of endurance and patience as it comes to activism and resilience can be observed in the Federal Buyout Program in the United States.

The resilience in non-whites to attain the provision is commendable, in that it is a much more tedious and long process for them, which is resultant of only their racial identity.

How marginalized people in the US endure racial discrimination with housing provision

In their article, ‘Racial Inequalities in the Federal Buyout of Flood-Prone Homes: A Nationwide Assessment of Environmental Adaptation, the authors discuss the history of federal interventions to mitigate environmental damage.

The US federal government has a long history of environmental interventions which is grounded in settler colonialism.

To understand the extent to which the above-mentioned process of attaining the facilities of the federal buyout of flood-prone homes is harder and discriminatory for non-white citizens, here it is further important to shed light on the institutional racism – racism as embedded within the rules and operations of major institutions – that persists in the country and is a part of its historical creation. From the healthcare system where Black Americans have limited and less access to medical care, in addition to their symptoms being taken less seriously, which leads to a higher morbidity and mortality rate, to the housing market, bank and insurance sectors denying Black Americans mortgage more frequently, we can only imagine how much the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement as a means of resisting such harsh oppression and isolation had to integrate and voice itself.

Its roots were laid in 2012 after a series of brutal killings at the hands of the police of innocent black people. The most recently highlighted 2020 case of George Floyd gained much coverage around the world and the movement continues to “highlight racism, discrimination and inequality experienced by black people” (BBC News, 2021).

It is unbelievable how the fight for civil rights go all the way back to the times of slavery, in the US but still continue till today. In this regard, such movements become a pioneering platform to amplify marginalized people’s voices and stories and gives them a chance to be heard. They are also collective which strengthens their cases and helps exert pressure on the relevant authorities and in this case, the US as a country by and large to perhaps rectify its image (which it has not managed to).

In the article ‘Why Does Disaster Aid Often Favour White People,’ we can further see narratives and stories how African Americans who were involved in the process of housing provision by the federal government.

Mr. Biagas’s case shows that the process of acquiring a total of $26, 000 from FEMA was such a tedious process, it is pretty clear the neighborhood effect such as a predominantly African American neighborhood in Mr. Biagas’s case, causes FEMA’s federal buyout program to be discriminatory and hindering recovery for such a neighborhood based on a radical identity. Mr. Biagas’s also mentions that the FEMA does not portray this process to be linked to racial reasons, but the fact that the recovery of white neighborhoods is faster than theirs is proof that there is discrimination in the provision of this buyout program.

Awareness and Dissent Among civilians toward State actions in Urban Argentina

Another text that can be seen through the lens of resilience and dissent of the public towards the law and state security is ‘Collusion and Cynicism at the Urban Margins.’ The study makes it clear that the state, whose only function is to enforce the rule of law, is simultaneously an accomplice to criminal activities, siding with illicit traffickers, which the residents have an idea of and see through. In other words, the masses are not fickle as otherwise assumed by the state in ruthlessly violating responsibility and its obligations.

As seen in one of the respondents’ responses of the study, they see “only a fine line separating police from criminals” and frequently distrust this defense organization. Another respondent clearly and upfront expresses their lack of trust in the force as the response goes, “Why would you call the police? What for? They don’t do anything.”

I believe this awareness of what the state organizations, that are the primary means of safety and defense for its civilians, such as the police in this case are actually doing is the first step to leading toward change. Moreover, this study shows that the people’s voices need to be heard and their objection needs to be addressed by the state itself.

This text also complicates the notion of dissent and resistance to reaching out to the police for help, with the emergence of legal cynicism. Citizens’ perceptions of law enforcement agencies as being ineffective and potentially exploitative.

This creates further inequality as citizens, especially those in marginalized areas become reluctant to call for protection against crime – which leads to crime in marginalized areas being underreported and not addressed as much as it should.

This undermines the rule of law as citizens may decide to defend themselves, however, it also generates interest and fosters a sense of awareness and empowers them about policy and politics among the marginalized to grassroots organizing.

This can shift the focus from a negative view of legal cynicism that is about lawlessness and anomie, toward a positive and hopeful one that paves way for political innovation and a fresh sense of agency among young citizens.


In a nutshell, in all the cases studied above, one can see resilience manifesting through communities by social, political and environmental activism. This resilience is tangible as it contributes to social change, via modeling urban spaces to the needs of the locals. Awareness is the first step toward this urban struggle for the city and bettering its condition.

Even communities with little experience of formal activism can express resilience by collective action, by showing a sense of ownership over their spaces.

Karachi being a migrant city and economic hub is often a victim of this lack of ownership which is seen through the lens of development and infrastructure. But its people have showed immense resilience and have more potential to make transformative change through collective action and political activism.

A few common themes of resistance that stood out to me were, for example in Gezi, Dalo Monte Dam and BLM all focus on mass power protests, there is often an element of violence, lack of communication with the state and occupying space, for example through sit ins.

Through all the articles reflected upon, one can ponder over the notion that people’s activism can be harnessed to better via local governments, local democracy and allowing the state to better plan and manage the city with the help of people as opposed to centralized planning. Trust deficit between states and people can be bridged — such that the current scenario of activism and resilience can bear fruit for a more permanent, long-lasting solution for future citizens.

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