The dismal state of Islamabad’s public parks

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Jan 21, 2013.

Islamabad – On this cloudy Sunday afternoon, Muhammad Shareef, a government employee, is slumped on a bench inside the public park in sector I-9/1. Shareef is not the park’s guardian but the grey bristles on his cheeks and his khaki sweater lend him an air of fake authority. He takes a break from rubbing his teeth with a miswak and starts speaking about the field in front of him where the neighbourhood children are running around on dry, worn out grass.

“There is a gardener who receives a salary for maintaining this park, but I have never seen him around,” Shareef, who has lived in a flat next to the park since 1996, says. “There have been no efforts to improve the condition of this park in the recent past.”

Around him, patches of grass have completely withered away, puddles of water remind of long forgotten rains, the metal fence that bounds the I-9/1 Park is broken at places and is mostly used as a clothes line by the locals, the swings are either missing or rust-encrusted and most of the rides need urgent repair.

Add an occasional broken bench or an overflowing trash container to the above and what you have is a general description of most public parks in Islamabad’s I, G and even some F sectors. A majority of the city’s 170 parks, owned by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), have fallen into a state of disrepair due to administration’s neglect and the citizen’s apathy.

Raja Altaf Hussain, a cab driver and area resident, stands next to the park in sector G-9/2. Here, the children play in close proximity to the foul stench from a trash container and cracked mud that has turned green with algae.

“The authorities built this park but they have never returned to inquire about its state,” Hussain says. “They don’t care if it thrives or rots.”

He thinks the CDA’s negligence is because no important or rich people live in this sector. A claim that CDA’s Parks Directorate officials deny.

“All parks are allocated the same resources,” says one Parks officer, who requested anonymity. “We don’t discriminate among the parks.”

The officer says the rundown condition of some parks is due to their excessive usage and the level of education and awareness among the residents who use those parks.

But the officials admit CDA has not spent enough on structural maintenance recently.

“We have looked after soft aspects such as plants but other maintenance such as walkways and fences have been overlooked due to lack of funds,” a senior Parks official says.

Consequently, the stairs of a playground slide in I-9/4 have been missing a protective fence on one side for sometime now. The chain of one of the swings has come unhinged and needs to be welded, too.

“Such broken slides and swings are dangerous for children,” says Ali Akbar, a government employee who has brought his children to the park. “You cannot expect the children to be careful, so the joy rides need to be fixed to avoid accidents and injuries.”

In G-8/2, the residents have another problem in addition to broken benches and swings . They cannot let their children out in the evenings, because instead of people, it’s the area’s wild boars that jog around the park after sunset. The park is right next to a strip of foliage and trees where the boars live.

Ajab Khan, who works as a salesman for a mobile network company, said the residents have complained to the CDA several times but there has been no solution.

In areas where they can help, the residents have also stopped to care.

“You see that board,” Shareef points to the west, back in the I-9/1 park, where important instructions are jotted on a black signboard. The first instruction prohibits any vehicles inside the park.

“People use the space for parking their cars all the time,” he said. “They have broken the fences so they can drive inside.”

Litter in the parks can be avoided if the public is more sensitive toward cleanliness, says Irfan Hamid, a resident of sector G-6.

Hamid and his friend Faraz Hafeez Khan were on an outing with their families, including five young children altogether, in the Kohsar Market children’s park.

Alongside some parks in F-10, this park – neatly tucked away next to Islamabad’s posh little market – is one of the better public spaces in the capital. Hamid is not completely convinced, though. He thinks the park’s swings need to be fixed. But there is more than just regular maintenance that draws families to a park.

“You also look at the general surroundings of the park,” Hamid says. “What kinds of people visit the park, if it is safe for families?”

His concerns seem valid. The F-7/4 Park, the Jubilee Park and the Argentina Park in G-6, are all pretty well kept. But there are hardly any families to be seen in these parks. These are mostly occupied by teenaged boys and adult men playing cricket or lounging on the grass.

These concerns aside, the quality of some of CDA’s prized parks is also slumping. The upkeep of Kachnar Park in sector I-8, for example, which has perhaps the best park infrastructure among Islamabad’s public parks, has declined since Kamran Lashari’s time, park regulars say.

The Parks Directorate claims it has recently received some funding from the Planning Wing.

“We are going to improve the state of the parks in phases starting with the most underprivileged areas,” the senior Parks official promises.

People still visit the F-9 Park regularly and the Japanese Children’s Park or the Lake View Park receives plenty of visitors on weekends. But the ease of access and comfort provided by quality sector parks are unparalleled.

Shareef has given up hope that the I-9/1 Park will ever improve. It remains to be seen whether the current CDA administration, with its emphasis on environment conservation and cleanliness, can change his mind.

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