Image: The courtyard garden of the Suheimi House in Cairo c. 1796 (source: archnet.org)
There is little you can do if authorities find a legal justification to build a flyover right in front of your apartment window.
In modern cities, the freedom to shape your environment is limited to the property you own. Whether you get harmed by anything beyond your property’s boundaries or not is out of your control.
This system has driven recreation, among other facilities, out of private homes into public spaces. Thus, citizens of modern cities have become more dependent on the centralized system sustaining those facilities.
In contrast, the system governing traditional Islamic cities encouraged autonomous development, as long as no harm was inflicted upon others. The recent conflict over redeveloping Chicago’s Navy Pier’s Crystal Gardens can illustrate the inefficiency of the modern system.
For more than two decades, the indoor garden at Chicago’s Navy Pier has been a cherished escape from bustling city life, a reminder of the peace and quiet reflection that only comes with being immersed in nature.
But the beloved tropical garden, which has always been free to the public, is set to be replaced with a new paid digital experience.
The owner of Crystal Gardens has decided to get rid of a critical tropical garden space, such an impactful decision, after continuous financial losses.
Chicago’s Navy Pier, a popular tourist attraction and nonprofit organization, temporarily closed beginning in September 2020 for more than a year, in efforts to “limit the financial burden and impact” of the coronavirus pandemic.
The loss of earnings from the pier’s primary sources of revenue such as the Centennial Wheel, Children’s Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater have resulted in a projected deficit of $20 million this year alone, according to the Pier, which called the loss “devastating.”
The 2020 lockdowns resulted in the multiple public institutions to become insolvent.
Many concerned Chicagoans have chosen to fight back, by launching a petition and raising awareness on online platforms. However, Navy Pier claims that its decision is legally backed.
Navy Pier did not respond to CNN’s request for a response to the petition but defended the new project, which it says was “fully vetted” and approved by the Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals, and the City Council.
Whether the efforts of the revolting Chicagoans will bear fruit, is likely dependent upon their ability to exert legal pressure. Navy Pier might also step back if potential harm to its reputation is expected to cause more financial damage. Either way, the decision is unlikely driven by the concern for the public.
What About Sharia?
Sharia mitigates such conflicts through a set of intertwined principles. In his book, I’marat al-A’rd fi al-Islam, Jamel Akbar differentiates between users, owners, and those effectively in control of an asset in the built environment. Whether these groups are united or differentiated determines the compliance model of this asset. In the modern system, the authorities are effectively in control at some scale (consider height limits and setbacks), even in the case of privately owned properties.
Sharia, on the other hand, encourages the rights of use, ownership, and control to be granted to the same group. This provides the incentive to the owners to take responsibility for maintaining their assets at their own cost, without wasting public funds. The system grants full freedom to the owner, as long as he does not violate others’ rights. In other words, Sharia focuses on the relationship between neighbors rather than the one between the individual and the authorities. The result is a decentralized system that embraces local customs and the varying needs of users.
Relating to the conflict over Crystal Gardens, such recreational facilities, and public spaces in general, were scarce in the traditional Islamic environment in comparison to the modern city. This is because the users of an asset were usually its owners, and were thus responsible for its maintenance. This has discouraged futile investment in unnecessary public assets. Overall, the Muslim society had invested most of its resources (trees, lighting, building finishes) in heavily used private spaces, rather than the less-used spaces like streets, squares, and parks.
Akbar illustrates the difference with an example in which a limited number of trees is available for planting around a city. If the trees were to be planted in the public streets and squares, the citizens would be required to assign the tasks of irrigation and harvest to a group of people who have to be paid. The situation will also trigger conflicts over the fair distribution of fruits and the financial contribution of each household. On the other hand, if the trees were distributed among the citizens, those conflicts would be inherently resolved without the need for the interference of an independent regulating authority.
Additionally, in the second case, every household has effectively contributed to the decision shaping the city. A centralized decision would probably comprise the preferences of the minority. Sharia has far surpassed democracy in this case. Considering the functional role of trees, their shades attract people to where they’re located. Their existence within homes would encourage citizens to spend more time within private properties for recreation, thus relieving the authorities of funding public facilities. Perhaps, most significant is the positive impact on social ties, which fosters family and neighborhood relations rather than random acquaintances in public spaces.
Overall, the system governing recreational facilitates like Crystal Gardens, and the whole exaggerated academic discourse on public spaces is irrelevant to the traditional Muslim society. It is worth mentioning, that Sharia is no longer shaping most Muslim cities due to the intrusion of modernity. However, when such conflicts arise between the scattered stakeholders in public spaces, a revisit to Sharia’s principles would curb the deficiency of man-made rules.