Print Edition - 2015-05-24  |  Free the Words

Free and open

  • The importance of open spaces in the Valley was aptly demonstrated in the aftermath of the Great Quake
Free and open

May 23, 2015-

Natural calamities are inevitable, but their disastrous impacts can be prevented. Numerous journals and newspaper articles attest to the validity of this statement in relation to the impacts of earthquakes in different countries. The impacts of Chile’s magnitude 8.2 earthquake (2014) as compared to Pakistan’s magnitude 7.6 (2005), Haiti’s magnitude 7.0 (2010), and Nepal’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake (2015) have been surprisingly different.

Despite the massive scale of the earthquake in Chile, relatively few people were killed, thanks to major improvements in buildings regulations, earthquake drills in schools, emergency procedures at the workplace, and a thorough understanding of earthquake among Chileans. These lessons were guided by a devastating magnitude 9.5 earthquake in 1960.

Similarly, our country too can learn from the current crisis and prepare itself against unpredictable disasters. In the context of the earthquake, urban centres like the Kathmandu Valley can go a step ahead in disaster response by promoting the creation and management of public open spaces. Such open pieces of land, sans buildings or other built structures, are spaces accessible to the public that can act as recreational areas along with fulfilling social, economic, and environmental purposes.

Disaster preparedness

While victims of the April 25 earthquake are dealing with the loss of their loved ones and property, people from various fronts, led by the government, are figuring out its impact and ways to deal with the devastation. Although our country was ‘well-informed’ about the risk of a massive earthquake, the authorities and citizens were both largely unprepared. In fact, some government authorities themselves confessed that they were shocked with the scale of the calamity and that they were not ready with a proper response plan.

The government had only recently started preparations for risk reduction with the launch of the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium (NRRC) and the identification of 83 open spaces in the Valley. These spaces were to be used as rescue sites for victims in case of calamities and could also serve as camps for displaced persons, as distribution centres, and as security and incoming military coordination sites. They were marked as spaces where victims could stay safe.

Planning, maintaining

Open spaces become important during unpredictable humanitarian crises, such as the one caused by the earthquake. The government had identified 83 open spaces but their use and planning had yet to be conducted. Looking at the current scattered and unorganised temporary settlements of the affected people, planning for new open spaces and managing current ones seems urgent for the next disaster response plan.

Kathmandu has a few open spaces, but we lack policies and implementing bodies that focus on maintaining and managing them. Initiatives such as the formation of a management committee by the government can definitely enhance the status of our open spaces. Such a committee can look after every aspect of open spaces, from its nature and structure to ways of increasing access. The committee can work on increasing its meaningful use and making it safe, further attracting visitors and encouraging multiple usage. Along with preparing a disaster response plan, the committee will also need to improve the social life of citizens and encourage them to collaborate.

Placemaking in urban centres

The management of open spaces can be more effective when coordinated with communities through the process of placemaking—a method that engages communities in learning about their needs and aspirations for an open space. With this, locals get a chance to work collectively on a common vision to shape their public spaces. Together, they can plan, design, and manage the use of these spaces and work towards building a strong urban community. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, placemaking can inspire people to reimagine their neighbourhoods and cities with fellow residents, subsequently improving relationships between people with the shared use of spaces.

James Jackson, head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Cambridge in the UK, argues that it is our responsibility to take precautionary measures because “the consequences are very much man-made”, although disasters occur naturally. Therefore, we can start being responsible for our lives as well as that of the others and hope for safe surroundings by starting to collectively rebuild our cities with better-managed open spaces. 

Tamrakar is pursuing an MPhil in Sociology at Tribhuvan University

Published: 24-05-2015 07:00

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