A park of our ownWhy public spaces matter for a city’s civic culture.
Last Sunday, on May 19, Sri Lanka celebrated Vesak, the annual commemoration of the life and death of Shakyamuni Buddha. As 70 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, Vesak festivities in the past have been grand in scale. This year, however, the day came a month after the deadly Easter Sunday bombings that killed over 250 people, and deeply shook millions more into a state of fear and insecurity. What used to be characterised by a week-long celebration on the streets and temples was this year visibly muted.
When I arrived in Colombo nearly a year ago, it was difficult to believe that this was a country that had gone through one of the longest civil wars in the world, which had ended only in 2009. Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic conflict lasted for almost three decades, with a casualty figure that is several times that of Nepal’s armed conflict. Like in Nepal, while memories of the wartime still persist, the immediate fear of violence had subsided over a decade of relative peace. And so when the series of bombs exploded through Sri Lanka last month, including in several places in Colombo, one of the first things that came to my mind was what would the city’s public life, its buzzing parks and seafronts, look like in the days and weeks ahead. The atmosphere of freedom and calm that I had noticed in Colombo’s public spaces ever since I arrived now seemed to be in peril.
As someone who has grown up and lived through the shrinking public spaces of Kathmandu, what has impressed me the most about Colombo was the availability of open (and free) spaces for the public. Despite visible gentrification of the city, Colombo’s parks, squares, beaches, playgrounds and seafronts are occupied by a wide spectrum of people.
On weekends and most evenings—whether it’s the Viharamahadevi Park in the centre of the city, the historic Independence Square with its cycling and walking lanes, or the famous Galle Face Green that stretches 500 metres along the coast—these spaces come alive with people. Friends come in for a stroll, health-conscious young joggers whiz past elderly walkers, groups congregate for a round of Zumba dance, and children take turns in swings or ride their bikes; all the while as many couples dot the landscape without any apparent embarrassment and fear.
In Kathmandu, which lies on the other end of South Asia, there is a constant struggle to keep such public culture alive. There are notable exceptions like the old squares of Patan and Basantapur or spots in the greater Pashupatinath area. But more often, when friends plan on meeting, it is around restaurants, movies theatres or one of the several malls, places that are enclosed and will likely require some payment. Early morning stretches and runs are largely limited to the city’s dangerous roads or private gyms if one can afford to. Lovers, too, often opt for a tiny private garden near Thamel Chowk, after they have paid an entry fee. For a city the size of Kathmandu, the number of public spaces are neither adequate nor are they affordable for the majority of its dwellers.
Coincidently, around the same time as the suicide bombings in Sri Lanka, there were protests in Kathmandu regarding the illegal encroachment of Khula Manch. Vigorous activism, in this case, seemed to have won out, as the municipality ordered for the halt in construction activities in the area. It is unfortunate that the only spaces that have chances of survival are the ones with some historical or cultural value.
For open spaces and enclaves in lesser known and not as ‘prestigious’ neighbourhoods that are also in danger of encroachment and need protection, the hope is much bleaker. This, even as we witness an increase in high rises, luxury hotels and constantly hear borrowed rhetoric of smart cities.
Events in Colombo also brought up an often ignored aspect of public spaces: they are a good indicator of the robustness of social fabric. Cities are made livable with their parks and squares, but they also provide a sense of safety and security. Beyond the question of urban aesthetics, they give us a subtle way of gauging levels of anxieties in the community. In a city made a home by thousands of various socially and religiously diverse groups that have intricate social dynamics, these spaces can help form healthy citizenship. Even a month after the attacks, which were rather targeted in nature, the sparsely populated parks and seafronts of Colombo indicate the continuing unease among the residents.
There is also a political implication of access to open spaces, as was seen in Kathmandu last year when the government banned protests in Maitighar Mandala. Without the right to occupy public spaces, freedom of expression is limited to words on print or screen. Even worse, social anxieties and tensions will not find a space for release. At the same time, citizens merely become consumers, with public spaces being replaced by private, profit-making venues.
There will always be a battle between commercial interest and public space. And once open lands are acquired for private interests, it is difficult to bring them back to the public domain. However, if the government itself sides with commercial interests, at the cost of the public good, then these are worrying times. Given the state of affairs in Nepal, the need for activism to protect and enhance open spaces is even more immediate. Only vigorous activism and vigilant championing of accessible, open public spaces can save Kathmandu’s civic culture, and avoid the replication of its fate in Nepal’s emerging cities.
Shraddha divides her time between Kathmandu and Colombo.