The Eighth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2006
Berkeley Prize 2006

Qurratulain Poonawala


“…unburdened by worldly cares, unfettered by learning, free of ingrained habit, negligent of time, the child is open to the world.” -Yi-Fu Tuan

The capability to dwell on vivid sensory experience is that prized aspect of human faculty, which is second nature to children. The perception of the city has a much different connotation for the child citizen whose senses are neither tainted by the familiarity of the place nor discriminated by social considerations. In the words of Colin Ward in his book The Child in the City, the child, “…has not acquired that selective vision that distinguishes the beauty of flowers from that of the weeds.”

Searching for the inward picture of early childhood, I can fondly recall how my self-colonized spaces, domains I called my own, expanded from the floor, walls and ceiling of the room in my house, to the enclosed courtyard with its cold terracotta floor and sprawling banyan trees and extended out of the front door onto the neighborhood streets. As young ‘explorers’ trying to put together the concept of home and its relationship with the outside world, children move, from the ‘intimate recess of the room to the infinite world outside, experiencing a gradual expansion of the context around them, from silence to sound, from the controlled light of a room to the light of day, from the confines of one’s own thoughts to the sharing of thoughts’, involved time and again for years with the mental cartography of the spatial context around them in the city.

What does the child do with this abundance of vivid spatial impressions? How does he assemble it into an image of the city? In answering this, Paul Shepherd remarks that, “space in juvenile life is structured differently than at later ages; it is much more critically defined. It is intensely concerned with paths and boundaries, with hiding places and other special places for particular things.” This asserts the fact that children structure out a personal concept of the city around certain elements. For the children of the mega city Karachi, the element that assumes utmost importance in concocting their perception of the city is the street.

Growing up on the crowded streets of Pakistan’s port city, Karachi, 12 year old Imran knows all too well the harsh realities of the place he calls home. Yet it is this multicultural street that was his first encounter with community and the city at large as is the case for the 12000 street children living in Karachi presently. "I'm not afraid of the streets. It is my home," says the dark-haired youth, who was abandoned by his parents.

The term street children refers to children for whom the street assumes such an importance that it has become their real home. It includes children who might not necessarily be homeless, orphans or without families, but who live in situations where there is no protection, supervision, or direction from responsible adults. In Karachi, as in other mega cities of the world, especially of the third world countries, urbanisation and environmental degradation have led to widespread displacement of rural populations to urban areas leading in turn to social tensions and a breakdown in family structures, thus contributing to the increase in street children. According to the NGO statistics, in Karachi 54.1 percent of the street children left their homes between the age of 10 and 12. Here it is imperative to ask, what are the various reasons for these children to leave the confines of their homes and opt for street life? Poverty is the driving force behind the phenomenon, followed by domestic physical and mental abuse, along with peer pressure and drug abuse. Whether for economic or social reasons, street children leave their homes to live in parks, doorways, under bridges or in the open air. Many find work collecting waste paper, cleaning cars, working as shoe shiners or as hawkers selling fresh flowers, newspapers or other cheap items. Some resort to begging, pick-pocketing or solicit themselves for sex, while others end up as drug addicts. The massive killings of street children in Brazil and Columbia reported by the Human Rights Watch in 1994 and the unsurfaced stories of the woes of the street children around the world asserts the fact that we are not isolated from the consequences of regressive urbanization.

For these children, as for the other better placed children of my city, streets are by default their first insight into the world. Being a vital urban resource, the street is an environment of infinite availabilities or as the American architect Louis I. Kahn puts it, “…where a boy growing up can find out what he wants to be when he grows up.” It is this multi dimensional space that sets the stage for human drama, where the theatrics of social interaction and exchange are well choreographed. This is where neighbors meet, friendships form, children grow…where life begins.

In the context of my city, streets serve multiple functions for the urbanite in general and the children in particular. This is especially due to the dearth of open public spaces for interaction. The common spaces, particularly those that encourage cultural expression that could bring together Karachi's diverse children citizenry are largely nonexistent. While art performances and exhibits for children regularly take place, they usually occur in private galleries, diplomatic missions, or five-star hotels–venues located in elite areas inaccessible to the average child. There are equally few public spaces and pedestrian-only areas for children to congregate outdoors. Therefore the street becomes a business zone for the street palmists and kiosks, a perfect pitch for street cricket, a playground for children, a shelter for the homeless, a race track for donkey cart race, a stage for the amateur performers, a food bazaar for connoisseurs.

For the child whose environmental experience of the street is different simply because of the difference in scale, the street has a more tactile than a visual appeal. They exploit any feature that the urban landscape happens to provide: kerbs, gutters, changes of level, pavement patterns, puddles of water, street floor as the urban canvas and urban facades as parchments. This is where the children of Karachi dwell in the sense of experiencing the richness of the city.

One interesting thing that came forth as I closely examined different groups of children in schools and on streets and the way they responded to the built environment was that they use and interpret the context around them in their own way. They will play wherever they happen to be and whatever is available to them. In our local context the street that the urban community offers is part of the natural habitat of the child. It offers much more opportunities to him/her because it offers spontaneity that the ‘playground’ or ‘park’, to which they have an ownership, doesn’t. The problem therefore is not to design the street that can lend itself to a child’s play but to educate the society to accept and involve children on a participating basis.

The strategy to make Karachi children friendly is to initiate a ‘Karavan’ to mobilize children and reclaim urban areas for their joint use. The strategy is to focus on the innovative use of street festivals, by working through a coalition of community organizations. These large-scale, easily accessible, and free street festivals would involve street theatres by and for the children, art exhibitions, interactive workshops and other cultural activities held against the backdrop of heritage buildings and culturally significant squares which are fast withering away from the city footprint. Younger children would provide the staple festival activities–skits, plays, musical and singing events while older could assist in organizing the whole event. While these street festivals may find their way once in the children’s monthly planners, creative activities and workshops may continue every week. This would create momentum. For example, weekly poster-making workshops could be held at schools year-round, children could be involved in the preparation of singing competitions and street theatre during the month providing anticipation for the events and culminate with an exhibition of the works at street festivals.

The success of the idea is rooted in mobilizing large-scale and high-profile citizen initiatives around an even larger circle of schools, government agencies and non-government organisations. The schools and the NGOs should then in turn develop their own network of contacts to include parents and other adults of the community who can be visited on the ‘journeys of exploration’ or ‘street festivals’. This is where the role of the informal street teacher assumes utmost importance. There are old and retired people in every locality who would be delighted to be interviewed by groups of children and lend themselves to story telling, building up the ‘autobiography of a place’ from the experience of its inhabitants. As cooperation of public agencies is necessary for festivals to take place on city streets, police, local administrations, and government departments would form another core group. In a city where citizens do not usually view government as a partner, this ‘Karavan’ would create constructive interaction between formerly unconnected groups.

As the street festivals would grow in scope and spread, these can facilitate the mobilization of school children and youth groups to initiate neighbourhood street carnivals. While street festivals would create temporary venues for interaction and cultural expression, it would pave the way for permanent ones by establishing the potential for pedestrian-only districts within urban areas which allow children the access to small spaces for themselves in a secure, cleaner and environmentally friendly context under natural canopies of dense trees. In this I totally agree with Kevin Lynch, who commenting on the opinions gathered from children in the UNESCO survey of Growing Up in Cities said, “…the hunger for trees is outspoken and seemingly universe.” What will come forth hence, will be a city known for its latent content, as a resource with infinite scope of learning for children.

It could be an art festival in the 19th century Empress Market Square with its monumental clock tower as the metaphoric pivot, a street theatre against the Frere Hall with its sprawling Colonial architecture as the backdrop where the activity narrates the dynamics of the built form and its effect on the adjoining urban space or an interactive workshop at sea on the natural resource of coral reefs and mangroves, a speciality of Karachi. The idea is to exalt the urban spaces the children call their own to iconic status and at the same time embody in the children the value of cultural heritage.

The urban context can provide, in Edgar Gumpert’s words. “education networks of fantastic richness and variety.” The city is in itself an environmental education and can be used to provide one, whether we are thinking of learning through the city, learning about the city, learning to use the city, to control the city or to change the city.

Precedence from cities around the world have demonstrated the successful use of the urban void- the streets and the squares to the utmost social and psychological benefits for their child citizenry. The best example to quote at this point is the Heritage Foundation operating in Karachi presently. Formed in 1980 by an architect, it aims to generate people’s interest in the city and bring them together for caring and conservation of the city’s prized heritage buildings. Under its socially responsive banner it embarked on a campaign in 2002 to extensively involve children in its programs by organizing informal carnivals which formalized in January 2003 with a grandiose Sea Karavan for children of all age groups that took place at an elite beach area on the outskirts of Karachi. By intentionally moving the carnival to a location outside the spaces we call ‘normal’ for such activities, the festival managed to get an increased number of government departments, schools and parents to collaborate–like provision of public transport to ensure the participation of all children be it an elite or a street urchin, the security measures and the educational resources provided by schools –with volunteers from all walks of life. Equally important, the event exalted the traditionally exclusive place of Karachi - the sea and productively reclaimed it for all city residents, especially the children.

More recently, ‘Word on the street’, the largest street festival of its kind that took place simultaneously in five cities of Canada asserted the need to reclaim the street for the use of the city’s children. Held every year on the last Sunday of September, the event is dedicated to helping children and adults increase their interest in reading. With authors and distinctive special event programming in the theme tents sprawled all over across the neighbourhood streets, the organisers hope to provide programming that will help instill a love for reading in the lives of Canadian children while at the same time making them feel part of a larger community.

Most people’s recollections of childhood include times when they were made to be involved with something on a participating basis. They rose to the occasion. Rather than imposing regulated spaces for children which few can access, shouldn’t we help them climb out of their colonized domains and into the urban fabric? The city will come forth to them in a different is then that they would be ‘at home in the city’.

Additional Help and Information

Are you in need of assistance? Please email
Qurratulain Poonawala, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Pakistan
Copyright © 1998-2024 Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Privacy Policy Cookie Policy
For permission for any form of re-use of any of the contents, please contact
The BERKELEY PRIZE is endorsed by the Department of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley.