Hot Climates in Urban South Asia: negotiating the right to and the politics of shade at the everyday scale in Karachi

13 Sep 2023, 3:51 p.m.
Soha Macktoom, Nausheen H Anwar and Jamie Cross

With global warming, temperatures are rising in cities and South Asia has become a hot spot for heatwaves and extreme heat in general. As cities become hotter, people scramble to seek relief from extreme heat under some form of shade. But is shade available? And if so, is it accessible for everyone? Does everyone today have the right to shade? We question Mike Davis’s (1997) radical political claim of shade as an inalienable right by observing access to, negotiations for, and the current politics of shade in South Asian cities like Karachi, - Pakistan's largest city with a population of 16million. Akin to many cities across South Asia, Karachi's ordinary citizens are facing increasing climate risks and the impacts of extreme heat are critical. In our research, we try to understand how ordinary citizens navigate the city in search of shade. Often it is the informally employed outdoor workers such as street vendors, guards, rickshaw drivers, porters, and water vendors, who are the most vulnerable and exposed to extreme heat. They are forced to deploy innovative, but often unsustainable ways to create their own shade. Shade, in these circumstances, is something that must be claimed, alongside other rights and entitlements within public spaces in South Asian cities like Karachi.


Streets, public parks, spaces under flyovers and existing roadside trees, are all spaces where outdoor workers can be seen using different claims making activities to negotiate shade. Shade - a critical infrastructure - is intertwined with political, ecological and social complexities, limiting relief for outdoor workers from heat and solar exposures. The micro-geography of the built environment, with its dominant use of asphalt, concrete, metal, plastics, amongst other forms of materials, plays an integral role in determining the thermal terrain of heat and exposure within which these laboring bodies exist. Moreover, with green spaces declining, particularly in the inner city, thermal harm has become imminent. How do outdoor workers talk about heat? How do they manage the thermal loads on their bodies? Are these experiences gendered? We rely on stories and first hand accounts from men and women who labour outdoors in the heat on a daily basis, revealing varied experiences of heat. We build on these conversations to outline a theory of shade, currently missing in urban theory, but one that we believe is essential for informed policy making agendas in a changed climate.


We are  attentive to the ways in which colonial legacies have shaped Karachi’s built environment and urban planning, as these are intrinsically linked with deepening disparities of shade access and the longstanding impacts on the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. Adding to this, shade policing (Bloch, 2019) is on the rise today amidst other forms of urban management for maintaining spatial and social order by the state. Consequently, vendors develop intimate relationships with state actors - ranging from municipal officers and collectors to traffic policemen. Timely payments guarantee access to shaded locations, or permissions to put up arbitrarily assembled shade. In this piece, we demonstrate how these political entanglements restrict the right to shade for outdoor workers in Karachi. Shade, under these circumstances, is a political and material achievement. We consider these to be important conversations going forward if shade is to be considered an inalienable right in its truest sense in an age of overheating cities.



Bloch S (2019) Shade. In: Places Journal, April. Available at (accessed 5 February 2021).

Davis M (1997) The radical politics of shade. Capitalism Nature Socialism 8(3): 35-39.


Read the full paper on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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