Space and the cityPublic open spaces are no longer the central element of contemporary residential neighbourhoods in the Kathmandu Valley.
In his book titled Tiered Temples of Nepal (1989), Professor Sudarshan Raj Tiwari, an eminent urban scholar and a cultural historian, offers an important insight on urban planning principles of the traditional towns of the Kathmandu Valley. Tiwari claims that the Kathmandu Valley towns exhibit a distinct set of urban squares, with a clear hierarchy of socio-cultural activities. Other scholars argue that traditional neighbourhoods are always centred around a public square.
The squares have been embedded within the urban fabric in a way that public open spaces appear in each residential neighbourhood in one form or another. But that was in the past; the present is not as exciting. The current urban development efforts have failed to deliver basic physical and social infrastructure in the new growth areas. What is most concerning at present is the loss of community spaces in the contemporary residential neighbourhoods against the backdrop of rapid and uncontrolled urban growth and change.
Change in the Valley
Over the past decades, the Kathmandu Valley’s urban landscape has been transformed dramatically, with widespread consequences on urban form and life. This can be observed in both the changing physical and social environments of the new growth areas. The current growth exhibits traces of urban sprawl, which is in sharp contrast with the traditional city cores, and where achieving social cohesion is becoming a growing challenge.
Urban transformation is also evident in the current development of residential neighbourhoods. The current pattern of neighbourhood formation is not only different, physically, from that of the traditional neighbourhoods due to the changes occurring within the context of rapid urbanisation, but there is also a considerable impact on the nature of emerging residential environments. As the most striking feature, public open spaces are no longer the central element of new residential neighbourhoods. This transformation indicates that public spaces have not received adequate consideration in the development of the new neighbourhoods, which is unfortunate.
There is a severe shortage of public facilities, including open spaces and green areas in the new neighbourhoods of the Kathmandu Valley. While community spaces average about 12 percent of the built-up area in traditional neighbourhoods, the amount of open spaces present in the new developments range from 2.5 to 5 percent of the total developed land area. This is far less than what is needed to fulfil the needs of the residents. Research has found that Kathmandu Metropolitan City, the largest metropolitan area in the Valley, comprises only 6 percent of open space. Other metropolitan regions of the world have about 10 to 20 percent of the space allocated for community usage.
The residents of most new neighbourhoods find it difficult to find places where they can meet and interact with neighbours; children do not find places to play. The ongoing trend of unplanned development without public open spaces and shared amenities has not only negatively affected the quality of life but also the cultural values of the society. The loss of public space, thus, has had significant consequences on urban life and activity. If we borrow the words of Professor Tiwari, the new neighbourhoods 'aggrandise the private spaces and demeans the public ones and shuns community living’.
The current growth of new neighbourhoods reflects a lack of broad vision to guide and regulate the process of residential development. The existing guidelines and requirements in the laws governing residential development are weak; government agencies have largely failed to impose them effectively. The lack of comprehensive planning standards and a proper mechanism to enforce them are thus major impediments. These shortcomings clearly overrule the need and context for proper and satisfactory development of public open spaces within the urban neighbourhoods.
The impacts of urban change are observed in the morphological shift of the Kathmandu Valley’s current urban form, with further consequences on the development of public open spaces as seen in the changing mode of their spatial configuration. It can be argued that we have lost continuity with the past and have opted not to use traditional wisdom and mechanism in city building.
The encroachment of public land is a collective experience in most urban areas of the Kathmandu Valley, and is partially responsible for the present loss of community spaces. A report published by the Department of Land Reform and Management in 2008 consists of a record of government and public land, but there is no exact figure available to indicate how much land has been lost to individuals, including land brokers and squatters.
Can we bring the public space back?
With the loss of public open space as a platform for social interactions, the sustainability of social life has gradually emerged as a considerable challenge in the Kathmandu Valley. But can we bring the public spaces back? This is not an easy task, given the unsatisfactory nature of the ongoing urban development. However, it is never too late to take proper planning approaches in the development of new neighbourhoods and employ a comprehensive residential development strategy. The strategy should discourage haphazard development of urban land for residential purposes and ensure a better provision of necessary physical and social infrastructure, including public open spaces.
In the existing neighbourhoods that are facing the loss of open spaces, there is a challenge to identify and develop alternative places (including government and public land) as a common social venue for residents to meet and greet.
While the richness of the traditional urban environment has been lost in the current urban growth pattern, it is still possible to win back public open spaces for the well-being of the community if policymakers, urban planners and designers work towards addressing the adverse effects of the current urban growth and change.
Chitrakar is an educator and researcher with a background in architecture and urbanism.