Wide, open spaces: the state of public land in KathmanduOpen spaces are vitally important to the social, cultural, environmental and aesthetic life of a city but in the Kathmandu Valley, they’re fast shrinking.
Open spaces play a vital role in the life of a city and its residents. They serve as places for people to rest, relax, and meet others and talk. Ancient squares, including durbar squares, chowks, bahals in Kathmandu Valley, are perfect examples to showcase the political, commercial and cultural significance of open spaces.
But open spaces don’t just have historical or cultural value; they become lifesavers in times of disaster. During the devastating earthquakes of 2015 that claimed over 8,000 lives and destroyed thousands of homes, people gathered in open fields, parks, squares and chowks. These spaces also acted as vital staging grounds for disaster response.
For a city as crowded and polluted as Kathmandu, open spaces provide breathing room, quite literally. The greenery and trees in many open spaces can help revitalise the city’s air. These spaces, if properly built, can also facilitate urban commingling and social interactions. They help bind communities together and turn a city from an unfriendly space of cement and brick to a welcoming open space of greenery.
But Kathmandu’s open spaces are shrinking, and rapidly. As the building spree continues unabated, the few open spaces that remain are being encroached upon from all sides. Even government land is being illegally parcelled off and sold to the highest bidder. If the current trend continues, Kathmandu will soon turn into a city of just buildings and roads.
Here is everything you need to know about Kathmandu’s open spaces.
What is the status of open spaces in Kathmandu?
Following the disaster of 2015, the city authorities realised the importance of open spaces and as a result, designated 887 spots, identified by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, as open spaces. Among these, 488 are in Kathmandu, 346 in Lalitpur and 53 in Bhaktapur. Unused or unregistered public lands, public school grounds, and riverbanks were recognised as open spaces that need to be preserved.
Even before the earthquake, a USAID-led project had identified and plotted open spaces across the Kathmandu Valley.
But, as Kathmandu continues to expand rapidly, these public spaces are growing smaller by the day. Tundikhel, possibly the largest remaining open space in Kathmandu, is also shrinking as the government and private actors take over bit by bit. Open spaces in the periphery of the city are also being rapidly built over, turning into residential homes and commercial buildings.
According to the Kathmandu Valley Open Space Roadmap, published by the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority, open spaces account for just 2 percent of the entire valley.
Why are open spaces important?
Educator and researcher Rajjan M Chitrakar, an architect and urban designer, in his research paper 'Urban open spaces in Kathmandu Valley: Contemporary problems and historic precedents', writes that open spaces are “more than breathing spaces, these are living rooms of a city for they are the centers of urban activity”.
Open spaces improve physical and social inclusion while providing children and young people with a recreational space. For school children, open spaces can even be used as outdoor educational facilities while durbar squares and bahals promote understanding of historical, cultural and archaeological values. They also facilitate social interaction and promote social understanding.
Apart from being a space for recreation and leisure, open spaces serve as a meeting space for people to partake in various communal, religious and political affairs. Each year, people from various communities gather at Tundikhel to celebrate various festivals while various political movements and gatherings have taken place at Khula Manch over the years.
The open spaces, if planned properly, can also be useful in protecting and enhancing biodiversity and ecological habitats. The Taudaha lake in Chobhar and its environs are one such example.
On the other hand, open spaces are also economically important. Research has shown that areas near open spaces have economic potential for tourism, leisure and cultural activities, which in turn raises property values and aids in urban regeneration.
How are public open spaces being encroached upon?
The limited availability of prime land has meant that prices have skyrocketed. The land mafia and the private sector, in collusion with government officials, have long been carving out every available inch of land in the city proper into plots to sell.
In Kathmandu Valley, Tundikhel is just one instance where collusion between the land mafia and government authorities can be seen.
Tundikhel, one of the largest and most important of the Valley’s open spaces, once spanned nearly four kilometres, all the way from Rani Pokhari to Dashrath Stadium.
Beginning in the 1960s, Ratna Park and Khula Manch were separated, as was Dashrath Stadium. And successive governments have consistently chipped away at this prime land, cordoning off portions for private parks, roads, and for the exclusive use of the Nepal Army. Now, Tundikhel is barely half its original size, hemmed in on all sides.
The army occupies a significant portion of Tundikhel. The national defence force uses a part of the land adjacent to Khula Manch for its ‘Sainik Manch’ where it hosts events. The public is barred from entering the Sainik Manch premises. The army has also encroached upon the portion south of Shahid Gate for its headquarters and what started off as a recreation space for army officers morphed into a banquet hall for private events. Against all protest, the army continues to build new structures, further encroaching on the public land.
In 2016, Kathmandu Metropolitan City had contracted Jaleshwor Swachhanda Bkoi Builders to build a view tower in the old bus park, leading the bus park to move to Khula Manch. The theatre space is now a parking lot for buses and an informal dump for construction materials. In late April, Manoj Bhetwal, the owner of Jaleshwor Builders, had rented out the remaining open space to 50 temporary businesses. After a vocal protest, the city demolished the illegal structures.
Other open spaces, especially public land, are also increasingly under the crosshairs of the land mafia. A report published by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in 2018 stated that the grounds belonging to the Pulchowk-based Madan Smarak Secondary School, which was designated as a public open space by the government in 2013, was leased to two separate construction companies to build a business complex.
As per the report, the school management had signed an agreement with the construction companies in 2012. The move not only allowed the construction of a commercial complex near the school, but it also robbed the students of their playground.
Why have riverbanks not been spared too?
Riverbanks are similarly unsafe from encroachers. Squatters have encroached upon the banks of various rivers for residential purpose.
According to a 2016 report prepared by the High-Powered Bagmati Civilization Integrated Development Committee, as many as 1,465 households have encroached the banks of the Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers. As per the report, the encroachment began in Kathmandu Valley in the name of landless squatters 26 years ago, but there was a spike in the numbers after the pro-republican movement of 2006. Riverbanks, which accounted for 3.38 percent of total land in 1980, had shrunk to just 1.98 by 2012, according to the Kathmandu Valley Open Space Roadmap. That percentage is certain to have decreased in the years since.
What impacts does a lack of open spaces have?
The encroachment of open space in Kathmandu Valley is not new, and over the years we have seen the impact that it has had on the urban fabric. With people scrambling for shelter during natural disasters to people being stripped of open spaces for recreation, leisure and social interaction, a lack of open space can have various impacts on individuals as well as society as a whole.
According to urban planner Suman Maher Shrestha, open spaces provide breathing room for congested urban areas.
“Having open public spaces improves the air quality of the area,” said Shrestha. “And without adequate urban spaces, we can witness how rapidly Kathmandu’s air quality is deteriorating.”
Shrestha further noted that a lack of open spaces can have a psychological effect on urban residents because open spaces act as stress relievers from the monotonous city life and architecture.
Another impact of the lack of open spaces can also be seen in the decrease of groundwater availability, says Shrestha.
“Our ancestors knew the value of open spaces and hence they incorporated them while planning settlements,” he said. “There were plenty of ponds near human settlements that would replenish water bodies such as natural wells and springs.”
As concrete is impermeable, it doesn’t allow water to percolate into the ground. Groundwater, which is already being drained rapidly by Kathmandu’s population for household use, does not get a chance to replenish. If this continues, Kathmandu could soon face a deeper water crisis.
How can open spaces be preserved?
The onus lies on the government, whether local, provincial or federal, when it comes to the conservation of open spaces. But with little action from the government, concerned citizens have taken it into their own hands to try and preserve open spaces.
The renovation of Narayanchaur in Naxal is an exemplary instance of how a community can come together to preserve open spaces. The Narayanchaur public grounds were once a garbage dump but in 2013, the community came together to turn it around. Led by artist and writer Narendra B Shrestha, the Naxal-Narayanchaur community pulled funds together and completely renovated the grounds. Now, Narayanchaur is a vibrant park with a playground for children and spaces for people to sit and relax. The park even has emergency supplies in case of a disaster.
When it comes to Tundikhel, a group of conservationists, environmentalists and citizens has had enough and, over the past few months, launched Occupy Tundikhel, a mass awareness campaign aimed at building public pressure to reclaim the ground. Though the campaign has been running for over three months, there seems to have been little to no progress in reclaiming the encroached space.
Environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar points out three ways public spaces can be preserved. First is their identification and documentation.
“The metropolises, municipalities and local units should conduct a study and find out where and how many public open spaces exist,” said Tuladhar. “The authorities should also identify and differentiate between public and government-owned lands so that the general people can have unrestricted access to public spaces.”
Second, the ownership of public spaces should be granted to locals.
“Public spaces constitute areas that are culturally and ecologically important,” said Tuladhar. “Transferring the ownership to locals would revive their importance.”
After the two are achieved, the concerned local authorities should focus on making certain that public space remains public and is utilised properly. But all of this can happen only when the authorities in question prioritise the intangible importance of open spaces over commercial interests.