Feb 25, 2018-The wooden benches on either side of the lion statues guarding the Golden Door of the palace in Patan are mostly occupied by the elderly. The long front yard in front of the palace and the temple steps and terraces are mostly teeming with youths and adults. In the mornings and evenings, toddlers are seen with their mothers who have the confidence of letting them run around freely. People chat, couples meet, some feed pigeons, others listen to hymns. The scene is no different at the durbar squares in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur.
Encroaching on nature
It is the durbar squares where many Kathmandu denizens gather for respite from their crammed houses and dark alleys to get a breath of fresh air. These former royal palace complexes tell us about the beauty of our city, but the high concentration of activities here also speaks of the lack of public spaces. Urban space characteristically means several things. It means dense settlements and a large population. Infrastructure and automobiles. No city can be raised without impacting or the risk of affecting the environment and the ecology to a large extent.
To compensate for what nature suffers when a city rises, and to keep intact the inherent need of humans to be in nature, public spaces like parks are created to preserve and promote nature. So unorganised urban space becomes an anomaly. It becomes haphazard settlements and infrastructure, noise and pollution. It becomes concrete and loss of green and open spaces. Kathmandu has become an archetype of the latter. One only needs to look up images of the Kathmandu Valley of some decades ago to see the encroachment of open spaces. The concern here is not the loss of space (although loss of fertile farmland should be a matter of reflection and debate) as the exploitation of open spaces to the detriment of Kathmandu and its inhabitants.
In a flat next to mine, a mother lives with her two children, a toddler and a five-year-old. At a time when the child would want to be running, jumping and playing, he competes for space among the racks, tables, bed, closet and other family belongings in the crammed apartment. The mother is always telling the children to watch out lest they fall down the stairs when they are running about. She knew that they needed to play, and was concerned that they could not. The city’s inhabitants have a myriad of reasons to seek clean, green and open spaces. People wanting to take a leisurely stroll, young lovers longing to meet each other, a student wanting to grab a book and lie on the grass and read, people just wanting to be out in the sun in the grass, and commuters seeking to escape from the crowds and commotion of the streets.
When concrete rose on Kathmandu’s lands, no planned open spaces were created. Kathmandu fulfilled the needs of the crowds, the automobiles and the businesses. It completely ignored the more important need for fresh air and open space. But the issue of encroachment of public spaces in Kathmandu is a neglected subject. A recent talk show on Kantipur TV entitled Sajha Sawal attempted to show, in addition to the extreme inequality in the city, examples of such encroachments that Kathmandu residents are compelled to live with.
The episode revealed encroachments on various levels—on traditional lifestyles, on heritage, on space. The most striking image was of encroachment of physical space, an intrusion whose cruellest manifestation comes in the blocking of sunlight. The show’s presenter and the guest Keshav Sthapit, who is a former mayor of Kathmandu and now a member of the Provincial Assembly of Province 3, take us to narrow and crammed houses whose right to sunlight has been taken away by giant structures and unplanned city sprawl that have emerged around these ancient settlements.
One scene is dedicated to a daughter looking after her mother, bedridden due to paralysis, who, the daughter says, has not seen sunlight, let alone felt it on her skin, for five long years. In another scene with Kathmandu’s community of traditional washermen, one woman shares her memory of the ground being covered with grass. “All this ground was grass before,” she says, recalling how they had ample space to dry their laundry. And she remembers the stone spouts gushing water that was enough for washing clothes. Another woman spoke about how they now have to buy water.
The durbar squares date from several centuries ago during the reign of the Mallas under whom places of rest and communal activities thrived. The phalchas and sattals were structures that enabled city dwellers to sit and rest and spend time in the sun and the shade. The Shahs and the Ranas that followed the Mallas also gave some importance to public places. The Ranas built beautiful, large gardens in Kathmandu, but they were within the confines of their lavish palaces and out of bounds to the common people.
And when Nepal entered the ‘modern’ world with the advent of democracy, the change was rapid and uncontrolled in Kathmandu. Promises are made about building parks, but what we are seeing instead is the addition of more lanes to roads that have been designed with little thought to the convenience of pedestrians. The ongoing expansion of the Ring Road is a case in point that has been proven to be an engineering fiasco. Where planners have failed to provide space for pedestrians, parks to sit and stand and stare seem to be a dream. Speaking on the talk show, Sthapit emphasised the need to bring these issues to the fore. He eloquently described the plight brought about by the encroachment of Kathmandu’s indigenous lifestyles and open spaces. But it is the common individuals and communities who should speak up for public spaces, take the initiative to create such spaces, and put pressure on our city planners to do so.