Building better citiesThere is still a looming possibility that if building codes continue to be ignored, as they have been in the past due to both corruption and laxness, Kathmandu will not fare well in the next big one
The title of this piece is taken from a TED Radio Hour podcast from NPR that was aired earlier this year in January and a must listen for anyone who cares about urban planning. Almost a year now, after the earthquake, Nepal has yet to rebuild. People in the hardest hit districts remain without shelter, relying on the makeshift homes that they have managed to patch together through monsoon and winter, and most schools are still a wreck.
The term “Build Back Better” is being used, in regard to Nepal, with good reason. We have an opportunity, now, however unfortunate the reasons, to use better urban and rural planning policies to rebuild communities with stronger buildings, better water and sewage systems, better roads, more access to roads, and with more attention to how schools and government health posts are placed within communities.
Even while Kathmandu, with the exception of some debris and a few public walls that are yet to be rebuilt (most private individuals have constructed their own fallen boundary walls) appears mostly recovered, now is not the time to forget the horrors of last April—memories are short, and there is still a looming possibility that if building codes continue to be ignored, as they have been in the past due to both corruption and laxness, this city will not fare well in the next big one.
So, how can we build back better? In a sprawling city of what some estimate could be as high as 4 million people, it is hard to fathom how and where public policy can impact to make a difference. And yet we have to start somewhere. Cities are systems, and so problems can be approached discretely but always with an eye to improving the whole.
Let me give you an example: can you imagine Kathmandu today without the road expansion efforts that were both respected and reviled a few years ago, and yet have markedly improved the quality of life of every single citizen who commutes within our chaotic metropolis? People lost part of their homes, there was not even a murmur about government compensation; Kathmandu looked more like a war zone then than it did after the earthquake, and yet, a few years later, traffic runs more smoothly, and urban centres are less messy than they used to be, making for easier commutes, easier walks (albeit with masks), and just more…space.
My point is this: without a shift in how people in public offices think about how to make Kathmandu more livable, there is not very much that individuals can do. When was the last time you saw an Opinion piece calling to task the lack of public green spaces, bicycle lanes, and haphazard buildings that look ready to topple even without the help of a natural disaster? Our moral compasses are pointed towards the injustices of exclusion and marginalisation because of gender and ethnicity, we want to talk about poverty and food security, but the quality of our lives is also very much linked with the environment we live in: the air quality, the public transportation systems, access to water, proper waste disposal, and finally, to beauty.
Kathmandu is no longer a beautiful city, and while it is a more inclusive one today than it was even 10 years ago (though it still has far, far to go), like it or not, we do need to think about key issues such as architecture, further planning, the second outer ring road, and how to keep it from becoming unlivable; a trajectory that it is currently on.
Recent visits to Thimpu and Jaipur, both cities that depend upon tourism like Kathmandu, are very good examples of what not to do. Thimpu, and Bhutan in general, is much too controlled. The state requires you to slap a traditional façade on every single building, be it a high rise or a bus station, making for a fake uniformity that is as ugly as it is boring; there is no vitality in the cityscape as a result of these measures that were put in place with a view towards conservation. Jaipur, the pink city, on the other hand, could have done with a little more protectionism, for outside the old city walls the urban landscape is, at best, extremely messy, jarring visitors as they emerge from heritage sites.
These two reductive summaries, in the interest of space, of two fascinating cities can be used however, as guidelines for our own capital. Kathmandu must be allowed to grow; after all, it is due to our own doing, the centre from where things are run. However, the growth of Kathmandu must be carefully planned by people who have the right skills and a real will to improve our quality of life. The lack of local elections in over 13 years has resulted in the Kathmandu Metropolitan City (KMC) being mayor-less for over a decade, a vacuum that has very seriously affected its residents. Without an elected official in charge, there is no one who can be held responsible for this kind of egregious neglect of sustainable urban renewal.
Cities like New York, Rio, Chicago, and Delhi, have all improved vastly in the 20 years that it has taken to make Kathmandu the mess it is today. There is a moral that lies within this timeline; given the political resolve, it just takes a few decades to save or ruin a city.
We need our politicians to step up, and outside of their tinted vehicles and motorcades that flag down traffic to clear their way. We need people in power to structure our growth both economically, but also socially, and with attention to the environments that we live in. Without this kind of awareness and driving force, we cannot build back better and move towards becoming a better city.