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Learning the Political Value of Space in Pakistan

By Paul Edleman

Lahore’s Shalimar Gardens. Photo by Robert Soza.

Paul Edleman, Professor of Communication and Political Science at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Illinois, was a 2019 participant in the CAORC-AIPS Faculty Development Seminar to Pakistan. In this essay, he describes the various and often overlapping social and political functions served by urban spaces in the historic city of Lahore.

As a political scientist, I have traditionally focused on political and political-economic dynamics in societies. Before participating in the CAORC-AIPS Faculty Development Seminar to Pakistan, I had given little thought to the role of spatial forces and infrastructure in shaping social and political relations, or the roles different spaces play within a city’s landscape. By focusing on the Pakistani city of Lahore, the seminar highlighted how architecture, infrastructure, and the city’s colonial and postcolonial culture and social relations have been shaped not just by historical forces, but by both the planned and the organic features of the city. The two-week seminar provided participants a first-hand opportunity to see how these forces have come together in a city with such a long and storied history.

Shahdara Bagh. Photo by the author.
Shahdara Bagh. Photo by the author.

Lahore possesses several grand gardens and parks, most today providing open space for its residents. Likely the most prominent of these is Shalimar Gardens, built in the Mughal style by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-1600s. Shalimar Gardens are expansive, with terraces and several pools and fountains, which are decorated with layers of flowers and plants. The original purpose of the gardens was primarily for the royal family’s private use, though parts were occasionally opened to the public. It is now a large public garden.

Because of its size, unique architecture, and beauty, the gardens are now a meeting place for Lahore residents of all social classes. While the physical and architectural nature of the gardens represents past grandeur, the modern space has been transformed into a shared space for leisure, family outings, a co-mingling space for youth, and a space for people to gather for conversation and to escape the increased urbanization of the surrounding city. Like other gardens of its time, the Shalimar Gardens were designed not just for beauty, but also contained a functional element of being populated with fruit trees, whose abundance could be gathered and utilized by its inhabitants.

The space of the gardens, then, serves several purposes. It serves a historical function by reminding Lahore’s residents of the city’s ancient past and lineage to great empires. Its current upkeep and preservation reflect a desire to safeguard that heritage and incorporate it into the contemporary state narrative and social identity. The gardens also reflect a communal space where families, particularly children and women, come to socialize and engage in leisure time. At the same time, the same spaces reflect an escape from ever-concentrated urbanization. Shalimar Gardens are the perfect place to go to escape the dust, noise, and heat.

Lahore rooftops
Lahore rooftops. Photo by the author.

Such communal spaces are not reserved solely for gardens and parks. Similar spaces exist in local neighborhoods, only this time on rooftops or in designated alleys. These spaces are smaller and made of concrete but serve the same purpose. And in a country still based on conservative mores, these small enclaves are places where women can congregate and socialize freely in the social milieu of other women. One of our Pakistani lecturers, Professor Amen Jaffer, highlighted the political significance such neighborhood spaces may attain. As a shared space, these communal environments often engender social and political discussions around common neighborhood problems or concerns. In one instance, women used their space and the discussions in that space to organize community protests to pressure the government to improve infrastructure conditions in their neighborhood. These women engaged in not just traditional civil society acts; they engaged in acts of citizenship that expressed membership in a larger society and obligations by its government (Jaffer, n.d.). And these political and social expressions were made possible by the communal spaces in which they share personal and community conversations.

Sidestreet in Lahore
Sidestreet in Lahore. Photo by the author.

Through my experiences in Lahore and in the knowledge gained throughout the Pakistan seminar, I have become much more conscious of the use of space as an expression and utilization of culture and politics. It has expanded my perception of politics and how politics can be influenced and presented in different parts of the world. This is an awareness I would not have gained without my participation in the CAORC-AIPS seminar.

Work Cited

Jaffer, A. (n.d.). The Infrastructures of Urban Citizenship in Lahore. Unpublished paper, Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, Pakistan.


CAORC’s 2019 faculty development seminar to Pakistan was organized with the American Institute of Pakistan Studies and supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.


About the Author

Paul Edleman

Paul Edleman is Professor of Communication and Political Science at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, Illinois. He was among 12 faculty participants in the seminar “Religion and Culture in the Postcolonial City,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held June 8–22, 2019, in Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistan.

Video: Professor Edleman discusses his past experience working with the Center for Khmer Studies in Cambodia to bring a global perspective to U.S. Community College Students.


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