From My City to Mega City: Why Does It Matter | Invisible Cities

Feb 2015

Invisible Cities | BLOG

Mochi at Nawankot. photo: Rabia Ezdi.

Mochi at Nawankot. photo: Rabia Ezdi.


The city, as much as it exists in ‘real’ space, is a formation in our minds. Public space then, is an emotional construct in our mind’s eye, laden with ‘meaning’ and association that we attribute to it as observers. Just as the spaces and places we inhabit shape us, we create and recreate ourselves through them. Is there then such a thing as good space and bad space? Emotion-friendly, human-friendly space that enhances our well-being, and unkind, human-unfriendly space that is injurious to it? The following discussion is not a technician’s take on the city. It is a position that speaks of the deeply personal, deeply rooted layer of ingredients that make a city ‘ours’.

Space carries with it ‘notion’ or ‘significance’- explored thoroughly in the theory of semiotics. While the home is the ‘womb’ or the microcosm, the city – at large – is the individual’s imagination of the ‘world’- the macrocosm. The ‘home’ is the cradle for the development of our personality and the first layers of our self- esteem. The world outside the home, on the other hand, establishes our sense of who we are and where we stand within society. Our sense of what is ours in the world is intrinsically linked to the minute details of our relationships with the spaces we inhabit and traverse: the neighbourhoods we live in; our journey to the school or workplace ; the park where we let go and connect to a larger community. It is the subliminal messages in the environment that form our system of values, our impressions about the world around us, and in the larger mosaic – our notions about trust, love, and humanity.

The mohallah where no one is left to fend for him/herself is a home outside home. The chacha on the cycle passing by, the chanay wala, the ice cream wala with children flocking all around. The baba ji looking out for everyone. The small corner ‘store’ where the shopkeeper knows every child, above and below counter height. Where every elderly lady is a khala, against the voice of children playing pakran pakrai in childhood’s unrhymed un-worded harmony. It is in such ‘places’ that we are nurtured and our perceptual maps of the world are formed. And it is here that because of all the parts that add up to the whole, we begin to believe the city is ‘ours’: ours to tread, ours to love. The psychological boundaries of the ‘home’ then begin to extend beyond the physical boundaries of home. And we begin to own, and belong to, the ‘place’.

This brings to the fore the next question – what are these psychological notions actually built upon? Here, intimacy and ‘smallness’ as spatial hence experiential qualities are fundamental. While ‘big’- the heavy traffic road with cars whizzing by, the flyover, the iron walls around the gated community, the invasive check post- is loud and omni-potent, ‘small’ is intimate; it is in close proximity, it is accessible. Smallness is not merely size. Smallness, more often than not, comes with a sensory-laden imprint of all that is secure, within safe reach, comfortable, and ‘accepting’ of us.

We therefore experience space not through an ‘absolute’ truth, but as a ‘reality’ offered to us via subtle messages where place and people coincide and act as the ‘signifiers’ of various notions. The chai khana is a sanctuary to relieve burdens, Data Darbar is as much mine as it is anyone else’s, the naayi ki dukaan is where nothing is too taboo to be discussed, the shade tree of the bagh shelters us, the safe pedestrian crossing is what reassures us of our trust in the city, the wide pavement where a myriad of activities melt harmoniously into each other embraces us. These are the great gifts of a city that loves and is loved in return. They are monuments to our humanity, and they tell us that everyone matters. These are the very vessels that carry us forward from struggle to solace.

And then there is personal ‘autonomy’ in our people-space interactions. In the genius of Jane Jacobs: “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist.” Often in the pretty, orderly street devoid of these overlapping signs of life bouncing into and off of each other, is a barren wilderness where people are held together by order and a pretty picture, but are not allowed to be what their hearts beckon them to be – intuition-driven, spontaneous creatures of love, life and belonging.

A healthy degree of citizen’s autonomy gives us that essential ‘sense of ownership’. This is different from merely owning a space on paper. The plaque reading ‘Sponsored by Al-Falah Bank’ at Liberty roundabout in Lahore, for instance, takes this sense of ownership away from us. It makes us feel that the space is someone else’s- that we are in fact encroachers. A major road in the city carrying the brand name ‘Jam-e-Shirin’ Boulevard does the same. It turns a road – the purest kind of public-owned space, into someone else’s property; and it signifies a value system where one is as good as what he/she can afford. Lahore’s railway station, on the other hand, because of the kinetic mix of activities thriving in its open spaces still feels closer to that sense of ‘home’, or what is still somewhat ‘ours’. Good, bad, rich poor, ugly, pretty. Any shape and size, you are acceptable.

The ‘mega’ in our mega-cities today is a new unit of measuring, perceiving, and developing the city. But mega is huge, detached, and distant. And as a model of development it is making the city into that ‘mean’ place that barks at us like a hostile dog: intimidating, needing to be pacified. Does the mega-city concept then require that a city with a population of ten million, such as Lahore, merely because of its size, has no option but to be developed through ‘mega’ projects, and ‘mega’ thinking?The answer is no.

Intimacy and personalisation in any agglomeration are not directly proportionate to its spread or the size of its population. And this is where design comes in. The perfectly manicured Sheba park of DHA shouts ‘stay out’ to more people than it welcomes in. Charar pind, the village walled-in by DHA with the armed guard at each entry, shouts ‘guilty until proven innocent’ to its residents. Lahore’s metro bus network, while it fulfils a transport need in the most clinical terms, could have borrowed cues from more experience-sensitive design; where the city’s greatest vistas would not be blocked by the alignment of the elevated structures; where the iron-clad artery would not slice the city into more edges. The Azadi chowk web of flyovers and bridges could have respected the scale of its esteemed surroundings, such as the Badshahi mosque, the Minar-e-Pakistan, and the life-breath of activities that took place in Minto park. Hazoori Bagh need not have been closed off with barbed wire, to eliminate the very act that keeps Lahore alive and breathing: poetry, story-telling, and the pulse of its people. The examples are endless.

Great urban design will be exactly the opposite of the narrow window that the term suggests. It will see the hardware of ‘design’ as only one component of the whole. In a truly great formula, design exists not for its own sake, but for the love of people, for the multiple creative appropriations of that one ‘place’, and for the colourful spectrum of activities, thoughts, and dialogue that any space is a platform for. Great urban design will see design as a tool for the ontological richness that forms a lasting impression: that which rings a chord within the deepest crevices of our beings, and makes us fall in love all over again with the city we long to call ours.

Rabia Ezdi is associate professor at the National College of Arts, Lahore. She has an MSc in urban development, writes free-lance for various publications, and does independent research on the issues of cities and low-income communities in Pakistan.

Invisible Cities is a Tanqeed blog, edited by Fizzah Sajjad and Hala Bashir Malik, that seeks to explore alternative discourses on the urban question in cities of the Global South. For pitches and submissions to the blog, please contact and


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