What if… Kathmandu had more open spaces?

Cilla Khatry

Cilla Khatry

What if… Kathmandu had more open spaces?

The focus needs to be on creating multipurpose open spaces like football grounds and parks that can be used all-year-round | Photo: Pratik Rayamajhi/ApEx

The earthquakes of April and May 2015 had Kathmandu valley residents running towards open grounds. For the lucky ones, it was an empty plot in their locality or a friend’s house with a big garden, while for thousands of families, places like Tundikhel and Naryan Chaur became refuge. The importance of open spaces was evident. But as things started getting normal and people moved back into their homes, land encroachment continued, leaving the city with less usable open space than ever before. If Kathmandu doesn’t prioritize creating more open spaces, a future earthquake could leave a bigger calamity in its wake, say the experts ApEx spoke to. Moreover, without enough open spaces a city also loses its aesthetic value, impacting the mental health of its residents, they add.

 Suman Meher Shrestha, senior urban planner, says a city needs to be breathable and open spaces are vital for that. But uncontrolled urbanization has made Kathmandu congested, and it’s going to get worse as the population density increases. In places like Thimi, Sankhu, and Bungmati, people have realized the importance of community spaces and the local authorities are renovating and restoring old open areas like temples and courtyards. That needs to be replicated in Kathmandu too, he says, to preserve open spaces and therefore create a livable city.

 Ganesh Karmacharya, spokesperson of Department of Urban Development and Building Construction, says Kathmandu valley needs at least five percent open space while currently it’s only 0.48 percent of the total area. There is an urgent need to preserve what’s there and look into ways to create additional open areas.

 “Kathmandu is an old city and urban planning is a relatively new concept which is why it’s in the state it is. We didn’t give enough attention to proper city mapping,” says Karmacharya. He cites Tundikhel as an example. “If you look at old photos, you will see it was much bigger than it is today. Encroachment and haphazard construction around it has shrunk it.”

 Unfortunately, the same is true for any open space in Kathmandu valley, many of which are now being used for commercial purposes. The Kathmandu Metropolitan City is constructing a view tower at the Old Bus Park. The tower is supposed to have a recreation hall, a conference hall, a museum and a library in addition to financial institutions, robbing the nearby residents of an open space. Similarly, in Pulchowk and Satdobato, Lalitpur, a couple of schools have leased their lands to businesses and departmental stores and the students don’t have playgrounds anymore.

 Narayan Bhandari, deputy development commissioner at Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, says open spaces and greenery are the alveoli of a city. The KVDA is working on a 20-year masterplan to ease congestion in the valley and make it more habitable. Currently, it has identified 83 open spaces and is studying an additional 900-plus areas that can potentially be used in disasters. (According to a 2020 IOM report, only half of these sites are usable in emergencies.) The KVDA has a site in Balkumari, Lalitpur, developed with the help of Japan International Cooperation Agency, that is used to store equipment needed in case of disasters. It can also be used to house people when required.

Also read: What if… (local) elections cannot be held on time?

 But while disaster preparedness is a vital aspect of urban planning in Kathmandu, Bhandari says the focus needs to be on creating multipurpose open spaces like football grounds and parks that can be used all-year-round. “These areas can be used for recreational purposes and to host various national events while also providing shelter in case of an earthquake or other natural calamity,” he says.

 Experts are of the unanimous opinion that a city needs space—for children to play, elders to go on a walk and catch up with friends, and for people to just laze around. Many people live in single rooms or cramped apartments that get very little natural light and thus public spaces are also necessary for outdoor exposure. The lack of parks and public hangout locations force the youths to spend on coffee shops, restaurants and other such establishments.

If Kathmandu were to have more open spaces where people could gather, it would also foster a better sense of community, says Shrestha. Also, a designated open space within a certain radius can make even the most cramped places feel airy and pleasant. But Kathmandu, he adds, has many constraints and we need an integrated approach and different modalities to develop more open and public areas.

 But Kathmandu lacks open spaces, says Arjun Koirala, urban planner and former general secretary of Regional and Urban Planners Society of Nepal. It’s just that these potential public spaces are either neglected or misused. There are also lands that can be developed into parks and playgrounds but many of these haven’t been identified yet for various bureaucratic reasons. Currently, Koirala explains, plots of land are either illegally occupied or a space looks unused but it might be private property and there is no way of knowing which is which. There are also public-private partnerships through which plots of land that should have been public spaces have been leased out. “Kathmandu valley needs a better land management system and the government can start by formally identifying which land belongs to whom,” says Koirala.

The second step would be to determine the purpose of the open area, he adds. There are different kinds of open spaces, even the ones we conventionally don’t think of as an open space. For example, wide roads and pavements are a type of open space. The Bhadrakali-Singha Durbar stretch is an open space as there are wide footpaths. People can often be seen sitting and chatting on the benches along the path. Then, in crowded cities like Kathmandu, there’s also the matter of creating open space vertically. Balconies and rooftops, in that case, also function as open space. “To create more open space, we must first decide on its requirements and then plan accordingly,” he says.

 Shrestha says taking land inventory must be the starting point of the long and ambitious project of restoring Kathmandu valley’s lost splendor. Only when we know what we have can we decide what purpose it should serve and how to design it. However, he says there is also a need for proper policies and monitoring of construction projects to prevent land encroachment. There are apparently a lot of illegal structures turning Kathmandu into a denser concrete jungle.

 Even though there are rules and regulations, compliance is an issue. Shrestha says more often than not construction works don’t follow approved plans. That, he says, will in long run make the valley crowded and thus aesthetically unappealing as well as unsafe. “We must not forget the valley has a certain carrying capacity and uncontrolled development will have a ruinous impact. The only way we can negate some of it is by prioritizing open spaces,” he says.

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