For the last 29 years, countries around the world have been celebrating the first Monday of October as World Habitat Day, coined by the United Nations. The point of the day is to work towards having a decent place to live in and signify the change that each person can bring.
As stated on the official website, the purpose of this day is to “reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also intended to remind the world that we all have the power and the responsibility to shape the future of our cities and towns.”
Each year, the UN comes up with a unique theme to celebrate the day. This year World Habitat Day will be celebrated reflecting on the theme ‘public spaces for all.’
Street walks, footpaths, public parks and play grounds are often neglected and devalued. However, as the urban life is developing further, public places are being recognized as the back bone of cities. These places are developed for men, women and children alike for recreational activities, as picnic spots and for a good way to pass the time. These public places serve as accessible and enjoyable spaces for all citizens without a profit motive.
This year UN-habitat wants to focus on achieving more than just enjoyment from public spaces. Decent public places augment community interrelation, boost health and wellbeing of citizens. Public spaces also raise economic development and environmental sustainability. Well structured and maintained public spaces and streets are a vital asset for a city’s livability and economy.
UN-habitat invites countries all over the globe to play a role in bringing change. Organizations related to social work give in their ideas and start an event in their community.
Nairobi is hosting Urban Nights, an event to create a green screen of outdoor film screening. The purpose behind this is to set an example of how citizens can make good use of public spaces and increase social cohesion along with enjoyment. At least five filming sessions will be held in different locations all over Nairobi throughout the month. More importantly, the premier event will also include a Panel Discussion, with council members from UN-Habitat, UN Women, Nairobi City County Government, the private sector and the media.
Morocco and Uganda will also be hosting events – publishing a special report on World Habitat Day which includes points to call attention for better shelter around the world and the need of planning our cities better as well as the ‘Smart Cities Initiative for North Africa.’ The initiative hopes to add to economic and social development of North African cities by assisting them to integrate “smart” initiatives.
European (Spain, Italy) as well as north and South American (Chile, Ecuador, Canada, and USA) countries have also organized events. Asian countries including Bangladesh and India will also be hosting events which includes ‘Work for a Better Bangladesh Trust’ and different Indian universities.
You might have noticed the absence of Pakistan from this list. Unfortunately, this year no events have been registered by Pakistan despite the sorry state of public spaces in the country. There are many parks that were green and attractively inviting which have now lost attention. The grass has turned brown and the swings have rusted. The walls of the parks have been stained by political graffiti and advertisements.
Only a few play grounds are accessible, the others usually remain closed even during the evening time. So is the case with our footpaths; when traffic doesn’t allow them to move forward, citizens are seen driving their bikes on footpaths. This has lead to the breaking down of pavements, becoming ditches and rocky surfaces, which make it difficult for pedestrians, especially elders, to walk.
Bus stops are now home for slum dwellers and homeless drug addicts. They are seen sleeping on the benches, hanging clothes for drying on the bus stop. Benches are either broken or pulled off and sold.
What is worse is that most of our public spaces are used for urination, and spitting of paan and beetle nut. Disgusting red paan stains are seen all over the walls, roads and pavements. Last but not the least it’s needless to mention the amount of land pollution seen in these areas. Wrappers, polythene bags, thermopile and all kinds of waste are seen drifting through the wind.
Security issues hinder people going to parks and going on walks around the neighborhood, for fear of getting mugged. These places are often inhabited by rowdy boys who make them inaccessible for families.
While there was recently an initiation to paint specific walls of Karachi with beautiful murals, it is not enough. The public places are in dire need of attention. These places need to be cleaned up, painted and restored. This is the opportunity for all Pakistanis, especially our government and NGOs, to help citizens actively participate in restoring public spaces, and making them accessible and enjoyable for all.