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“An urban time-bomb.” That is how Rahul Mehrotra of the Harvard Graduate School of Design described the explosive growth of contemporary cities across South Asia.

From January 9 to 12, 2014, Karachi became the gathering place for politicians, scholars, doctors, architects, urban planners, and citizens to explore issues related to rapid urban change at the Contemporary South Asian City Conference.

SAI Executive Director Meena Hewett with Harvard and Aman Foundation teams

The mega-conference, with over 3000 guests registered, took place at the historic Frere Hall, and was organized very efficiently over a three-day period. The conference aimed to generate new knowledge and insight into the driving forces, socioeconomic challenges and political implications facing the contemporary South Asian city.

The Harvard South Asia Institute (SAI) was a sponsor for the conference, and a Harvard team participated in several panels on topics such as housing, urbanization, disaster response, mental health, and conservation. SAI’s Executive Director Meena Hewett also attended.

Hewett said that she saw the conference as an opportunity to help form new partnerships to address old problems: “It was a unique opportunity for participants to sit in on discussions on multiple issues of rapidly growing cities across South Asia… We hope keep up the momentum generated at this event,” she said. “For me, the important lessons were to not get bogged down with finding the perfect solution that has a major impact but to take on small challenges that produce immediate results creating a culture of optimism for social change.”

Two Harvard professors had the opportunity to give guest lectures. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of around 300 people, Rahul Mehrotra, Chair and Professor of the Department of Urban Planning & Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design gave an eagerly anticipated presentation titled the ‘Kinetic City’  about elastic space in urban areas.

Professor Rahul Mehrotra speaking at the conference

Describing the venue of Frere Hall as a living manifestation of his theoretical ideas, he explained that the usually-vacant gardens were transformed and had become a “transient” space. He stressed that it is important to accept the evolving aspect of cities: “Change is happening rapidly… We have many cities that will soon become 1 million-people cities, and urban planners and designers can make a big difference to how things evolve in these municipalities,” he said. “Our cities are becoming complex and highly susceptible to malfunction because we are ignoring evolutionary gestures.” Mehrotra was also the discussant for the panel “Beyond the Nation-State: Emerging South Asian Urbanism,” which considered South Asian urbanism on a subcontinental scale.







Jennifer Leaning of the Harvard School of Public Health and Director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights also gave a guest lecture to around 75 people about disaster response in urban areas. Describing the stressful effect of disasters on cities, Leaning emphasized that preparation is key for cities, as well as an understanding of the structure of a society.

Jennifer Leaning

“If you are not actually paying attention to these vulnerabilities and endeavoring to mitigate them in the context of disaster planning, then at the time of a disaster these are the people who are going to suffer the most,” she added. “In this manner, disasters reflect the underlying structures, institutions, complexities and functioning of a regular society.”

The panels spanned three days, covering a variety of topics related to urban issues in South Asia. On January 10, Spiro Pollalis, Professor of Design, Technology and Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was the discussant for a panel titled “Professional Practice in South Asia,” which explored contemporary design implementation strategies in architecture and urban planning and featured leading professionals in the field.

On January 11, Justin D. Stern, a PhD Student in Urban Planning and Design at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, was the discussant of a panel titled “Constructing the ‘Right to the City’ in South Asia: Housing, Governance & the Civic Realm,” which examined the right to the South Asia metropolises. This is a difficult issue when the population of a city is divided into two groups: those that can afford private education, health, housing and transport, and the other group that uses services from the public sector. Spiro Pollalis also participated in this panel.


Stern noted that South Asian cities need to consider new solutions:  “We have heard and read many times that South Asian cities are resilient, but we need to question ourselves if this resilience prevents us from finding holistic solutions to our problems,” he said.

On January 12, Ruth Barron, Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance was the discussant for a panel titled “Mental Health and the Urban Environment.” The panel featured Jennifer Leaning and Satchit Balsari, Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and Director of the Global Emergency Medicine Program at Weill Cornell Medical College/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

The panel examined the complex relationship between mental health and urbanization in South Asian cities like Karachi.  In general, Barron said a sense of invulnerability is normal, but episodic trauma causes us to experience feelings of anger, disillusionment and stress: “These feelings are normal in terms of an extreme event, but the episode itself is not,” Barron explained.

“Most people do improve with time while others remain depressed and block normal feelings that are typical of our everyday lives.” Barron also discussed the importance of understanding secondary trauma, such as stress on emergency workers, doctors and nurses.

Although there is usually a large focus on caring for survivors, there is something else to consider after disasters. Leaning emphasized that the treatment and management of the dead is also vital: “They matter as much as survivors do,” she said. “There are survivors who are traumatized by dead people.”

“Depending on the individual’s culture, the mourning or burial should be in accordance so that the families don’t feel violated and haunted,” she added.

Jennifer Leaning was also the discussant for a panel on January 12 titled “Disaster and Mass Casualty Response in Urban Crisis,” which addressed the best practices for urban disaster planning and response, as well as trauma care in dense urban settings. Satchit Balsari participated in this panel.

Overall, the conference provided an excellent opportunity for experts to come together and address the most pressing issues facing contemporary South Asian cities.


Click here to see media coverage of the conference.

Visit the Pakistan Urban Forum Facebook page to view more photos of the conference.


*An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Rahul Mehrotra as saying “We have many cities that will soon become 100 million-people cities, and urban planners and designers can make a big difference to how things evolve in these municipalities.” The correct statement has been updated: “We have many cities that will soon become 1 million-people cities, and urban planners and designers can make a big difference to how things evolve in these municipalities”