Temporal Vulnerabilities, Shifting Landscapes

Sep 2014

Invisible Cities | BLOG

This blog post is not so much about landscape infrastructure, as it is about the exchange that occurs between it and the human dweller, with the term landscape defined as broadly as possible, including the rhythms of human life that occur in tandem with non-human processes, systems and forces, shaping each other cyclically. Aligned partly to the European Landscape Convention’s offering—“areas, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors”, this notion of landscape reveals two pertinent notions—it is an area perceived by people and therefore is subject to a particularity embedded in the collective and/or individual human imagination, and secondly that it is ecological, for it is produced by human spatial practices as well as non-human forces, making it a whole not reducible to its parts.

With the above notion of landscapes being constituted by cultural production as well as material practice, a journey through Islamabadwith two young Afghan refugees from the squatter settlement of Golra, Islamabad’s contested periphery, became an evocative tour with the effects if not the content of a dérive. This was an Islamabad hidden in the interstices of the lush green belts, behind the city’s half-finished shopping malls, and across the geographies that divide the ‘rural’ from the urban. This is the psychogeography of one who constitutes the role of the ‘other’, makes oneself invisible, whose identity is a cultural production. For the most part, the young Afghan wayfarers avoid beggary; their goal is not to make their tragedies visible; instead they inhabit the city almost as invisibly as possible, traversing it to avoid the public eye and confrontations with the police, constantly moving among landscapes that they negotiate with daily. Positioned between the blurry boundaries of childhood and early adolescence, their spatial practices enable a tribal and geographic view into childhood and youth, taking on different shades of meaning in the various settlements of their urban surroundings (squatters, refugee neighborhoods, slums, agrarian communities, high-rise districts, and gated housing communities), and its landscape infrastructures—(public parks, pedestrian routes, vehicular transportation routes, waste collection systems, brownfields, and green belts preserving the aquifer). Subject to the well-intentioned soft power of social activists, they are also situated in the heart of a landscape of contested humanitarian interventions that moralize two distinct postures of intervention—arguing that the ‘street’ is no place for a child to work, or on the other hand, arguing that the only answer to this (recurrent) informal economic survival is to make the street more fertile for their presence. Regardless, the children slide across a spectrum of different roles within the single span of a day: refugees, breadwinners, scavengers, caretakers of the young and elderly, squatter settlers, and school-going children—the latter thanks to their equally temporary school system, the PKSS—a mobile educational infrastructure, always on the move, just like the children themselves.

This was an Islamabad hidden in the interstices of the lush green belts, behind the city’s half-finished shopping malls, and across the geographies that divide the "rural" from the urban.

This was an Islamabad hidden in the interstices of the lush green belts, behind the city’s half-finished shopping malls, and across the geographies that divide the “rural” from the urban.

The children slide across a spectrum of different roles within the single span of a day: refugees, breadwinners, scavengers, caretakers of the young and elderly, squatter settlers, and school-going children—the latter thanks to their equally temporary school system, the PKSS—a mobile educational infrastructure, always on the move, just like the children themselves

The children slide across a spectrum of different roles within the single span of a day: refugees, breadwinners, scavengers, caretakers of the young and elderly, squatter settlers, and school-going children—the latter thanks to their equally temporary school system, the PKSS—a mobile educational infrastructure, always on the move, just like the children themselves

As scavengers of paper and plastics, the children are the backbone of the city’s recycling infrastructure. Though they are thought of as ‘street children’, they do not always work on what is strictly called a street. Granted that the street is an overarching term for the spatial public domain, this is still perhaps a moment to challenge a simplistic and (as Maria Popova might put it) ‘quasi-politically correct’ term that clumps together what is otherwise a heterogeneous group of children and young people that work. A curiosity to discover the nuance of these young refugees’ lives is then vital, as is a look into their environs and milieu, which are challenging to fully assimilate because of their impermanence. It is to these evanescent processes, shapes, and forms to which their vulnerabilities are truly tied, and therefore their vulnerabilities often times have little to do with ‘being on the street’ as it figures through their material and spatial practices. If the vulnerability of a population is seen through the cultural production and material practices of urban landscapes that are fundamentally transient in nature, it follows that their vulnerabilities are therefore also always in flux, always on the move.

Mirza_IMG3 | Invisible Cities

A curiosity to discover the nuance of these young refugees’ lives is then vital, as is a look into their environs and milieu, which are challenging to fully assimilate because of their impermanence.

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Their high mobility between the various geographies of urban waste infrastructure, domestic life, recreation, and learning, and of the evanescent and ever-shifting boundaries of the squatter settlement, of finding a new home base after eviction every two or three years, and of constantly trying to make themselves invisible in the city, lends them to an almost postmodern urban nomadism that makes them the subjects of environments that constantly evolve, producing their identities and subjectivities in different ways according to time, place, and urban expansion patterns. Receding perpetually into the periphery, their homes are constructed with the most basic materials—mud, with thatched roofs, not because they cannot afford more (they do earn substantially better than the young who beg because waste is the most abundant and reliable production of the urban environment and it always sells), but because they know they cannot afford to stay. Always knowing that there will be a new location soon enough, they are prepared to move when the time comes, but until then must bear the police harassment that invades their domestic life to torture and inspire fear. Golra, placed at an uncomfortable location in the dynapolis’ expansion pattern is slowly disappearing into the Islamabad Capital Territory. Though Golra will eventually cease to exist according to this pattern of expansion, there will always be a new periphery available around new housing sectors and its commercial areas for the squatters to temporarily settle around. It is then not this quasi-resilient nomadism that is the most cumbersome, but the harassment associated with legal and political marginalization.

Receding perpetually into the periphery, their homes are constructed with the most basic materials—mud, with thatched roofs, not because they cannot afford more, but because they know they cannot afford to stay.

Receding perpetually into the periphery, their homes are constructed with the most basic materials—mud, with thatched roofs, not because they cannot afford more, but because they know they cannot afford to stay.

Since crowded and commercial places usually contain the most valuable flows of recyclable trash, the children scavenge dumpsites around market squares at dawn, for they are well aware that the landscape will be dramatically different later, when the crowds become intolerable to face. Then they move on to scavenge in the depths of the woods—green belts designed to preserve the city’s aquifer where they will often retrieve plastics that the streams of flowing water have carried in from the city’s more accessible and frequented nodes, offering them the convenience of bypassing crowded places. The serenity and seclusion of these places, and their untamed natural landscape not only gives them a place to work quietlyand far away from the public eye that so embarrasses them, but also gives them a place to call their own and feel secure, where they play, rest, and hide from the police. Through their intimate acquaintance with the sensuous rhythms of the city, their skill is not just about strategic disappearance, but also the manipulation of available urban territory. Particularly since the children do not always scavenge on what is strictly called a street, they often have a greater choice in terms of spatial typologies—parks, green belts, brownfields, under-construction sites, playgrounds, parking lots, and residential areas depending on time of day, and the value of what they may be able to collect. In relative terms, it figures that the vulnerabilities of working children who are allowed high mobility and autonomy are generally better able to maintain a dignified and flexible lifestyle than those who often lack spatial control, such as the young who beg, being obligated to occupy a particular landscape for long hours at a time whether they like it or not.

Through their intimate acquaintance with the sensuous rhythms of the city, their skill is not just about strategic disappearance, but also the manipulation of available urban territory. Particularly since the children do not always scavenge on what is strictly called a street, they often have a greater choice in terms of spatial typologies—parks, green belts, brownfields, under-construction sites, playgrounds, parking lots, and residential areas depending on time of day, and the value of what they may be able to collect.

Through their intimate acquaintance with the sensuous rhythms of the city, their skill is not just about strategic disappearance, but also the manipulation of available urban territory. Particularly since the children do not always scavenge on what is strictly called a street, they often have a greater choice in terms of spatial typologies—parks, green belts, brownfields, under-construction sites, playgrounds, parking lots, and residential areas depending on time of day, and the value of what they may be able to collect.

By analogy, the spatial autonomy of the young Afghans makes them similar to working children of agrarian settlements that participate in the economic lives of their communities by harvesting crop, or taking cattle for grazing, for this kind of work also involves long hours in unsupervised locations, distant from their homes. It is a pertinent question as to how one perceives such young people in agrarian settings, and why this concept of a ‘street child’ does not exist in the (for want of a better word) ‘rural’ environment. The changed backdrop, the idyllic ecology of the lush provincial landscape renders a working childhood much differently. In terms of the objects in the landscape, a pear on an orchard tree is not much different from the empty plastic bottle that floats in the stream hidden within the depths of foliage in the city’s green belt. Both are objects produced by the landscape, and both are collected for economic reasons. Not assuming that the work of the young Afghans is a truly warranted way of living childhood, the point is that it would be helpful to shift the analysis to a twofold investigation—one pertaining to the ‘customary’ use of urban space (cultural and social norms that influence such children’s public presence and appropriation of public space), and second of the changing nature of vulnerability—if the children’s risks are being understood in their proper context, with sensitivity and gravity, not through aestheticized empathy or the simplistic assumption that safety is necessarily synonymous with interiority and protection with adult supervision. For many critics the assumptions about children’s spatial autonomy are linked to 20th century contestations surrounding the hegemonic cultural values of domesticized urban child space—popularization of confinement to home and school as the most secure and healthy places for childhood. Not arguing against the right to education, sociologists such as Andressa Gadda and Elizabeth A. Gagen do argue, through Foucauldian lens, that urban planning, design and its interventions reveal political power relations that aim to ‘discipline’ those who do not fit into normative lifestyles, using examples of playground design in immigrant neighborhoods of 20th century Massachusetts. Meanwhile, other critics simply argue that interventions must be consistent with local, indigenous practices, criticizing the culture of highly supervised urban child space to have a detrimental impact on the cognitive development of the young. Furthermore, through the lens of historian Philippe Aries, art history appears to suggest that the public presence and economic participation of children in Western European culture was hardly linked to any kind of vulnerability before the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Clearly, something changed after the rise of the industrial city. Could it be that such vulnerabilities are a response to changing urbanization patterns? If so, then vulnerability is not a static property inherent to any material practice. Vulnerability is then a social-ecological production of the changing urban fabric. Furthermore, the Indian social activist Harsh Mander lends further complication to the debate by offering that indigenous populations (with the term indigenous used here as broadly as possible) often have a very different view of their own vulnerabilities. Many immigrant populations that scavenge in similar fashion across Asian territories (Mumbai, Indonesia, Manilla, and Beijing to name a few) sometimes take pride in their profession. Conversations with the Afghan children tend to imply, that they find society’s disdain of their association with waste to be far more damaging than their actual encounters with the urban waste infrastructure itself.

In a sense, the children’s engagement with the city’s myriad landscapes is a dialogue about maximizing spatial autonomy with limited means through the simple but profound recognition that the environment is not a static entity—that it is a systemic moment in the spatial realm that is transient. As such, the young Afghans know that there are no fixed attributes to any place that will not transform when they return on a different day and at a different time, including the advantages (or inconveniences) that an urban space yields.

In a sense, the children’s engagement with the city’s myriad landscapes is a dialogue about maximizing spatial autonomy with limited means through the simple but profound recognition that the environment is not a static entity—that it is a systemic moment in the spatial realm that is transient. As such, the young Afghans know that there are no fixed attributes to any place that will not transform when they return on a different day and at a different time, including the advantages (or inconveniences) that an urban space yields.

However, while this blog post does not carry any moral posture on the subject, it is not a celebration of children scavenging recyclable waste. Neither is it a harsh judgment of humanitarian interventions that may sometimes be tainted with aestheticized perceptions of tragedy. It is about understanding vulnerability not as an inherent property, but as a spectrum of altering conditions generated through an exchange with the socio-spatial ecology that one shapes and is, in turn, shaped by. So much as a brief foray into this world leads one to question—is the cognitive habituation to traversing and wayfaring not compatible with security, privacy and learning? In a sense, the children’s engagement with the city’s myriad landscapes is a dialogue about maximizing spatial autonomy with limited means through the simple but profound recognition that the environment is not a static entity—that it is a systemic moment in the spatial realm that is transient. As such, the young Afghans know that there are no fixed attributes to any place that will not transform when they return on a different day and at a different time, including the advantages (or inconveniences) that an urban space yields. With credit due to the human sciences, particularly landscape anthropology, there is now growing literature that acknowledges that many human conditions of contemporary urban life are subject to particular economic and cultural geographies, temporal subject positions within transient landscapes. To illuminate this fact is to perhaps reconsider how interventions might be staged differently, to embrace temporality in such fluctuating fabric. The biggest question of our times then is how to respond to flux.

Saadia Mirza is a researcher mediating between the human sciences and the design of the built environment, focusing on the social implementation of interventions in the urban realm through phenomenological discourses of landscape, architecture and the history of the built environment. Her work aims to soften the strict demarcation between quantitative and qualitative/descriptive thinking through methodologies encompassing videography, cartography, and participant observation. She currently lectures in design and landscape studies at the university level.

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 invisiblecities@tanqeed.org and editors@tanqeed.org.

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23 Responses to Temporal Vulnerabilities, Shifting Landscapes

  1. TQ Chāt | # 18 | Tanqeed on Sep 2014 at 8:43 PM

    […] Saadia Mirza: The exchange between landscape infrastructure and the human dweller. [x] […]

  2. Rida Khan on Sep 2014 at 9:46 PM

    Hey Saadia, it was a good analytical read. I am a student of Urban Design as well, and would really like to read any more reading material that you wrote, recommend, etc., regarding the urban landscape of Pakistan. Do contact me if you read this. Best regards!

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