The right steps

  • Kathmandu requires a bold vision to achieve a model of development where benefits are equitably apportioned
- Madhab Mathema

Oct 10, 2017-

Once an ancient city famed for the beauty of its urban landscapes and surrounded by small hamlets and farming land, Kathmandu today has lost most of its old charm. Since Professor KP Malla labelled it a “muddle, an absurd city” 50 years ago, Kathmandu has deteriorated even further thanks to the Capital’s haphazard growth and paucity of public services. Open spaces are devoured, creating life-threatening pollution and causing horrendous traffic jams that stifle urban mobility. In the absence of well though-out solutions on how to deal with these problems and with a lack of appropriate lifestyles that are befitting of the cultural heritage that Kathmandu has been blessed with, the Valley continues to suffer.

One would be remiss in saying that there were never attempts to plan the growth of Kathmandu. Since the Physical Development Plan for the Kathmandu Valley (1969), five major plans and four important institutional changes have been introduced and many projects carried out to address the growth pangs of the city. However, the overall impact of these plans and projects has been less than adequate in managing Kathmandu’s zeal for growth and preservation of its rich endowments.

Sustainable projects?

Of late, we hear much talk about mega-projects like Smart Cities and the Outer Ring Road to make Kathmandu a ‘modern city’. We sometimes worry if some of these 

initiatives, once implemented, will have similar unintended consequences (as so many other initiatives in the past have had) and further compound the existing urban problems.

Lack of definition aside, it is not yet clear what benefits Smart Cities programmes will bring to Kathmandu Valley. A Smart City is not just Information and Technology (IT) friendly; it is also an environmentally responsible and socially pleasant place to live in. The footprint of such a city and the type of lifestyle it promotes must be consistent with the objectives of saving the remaining arable land in the Valley, promoting non-motorised commuting, releasing pressure on city cores and fringes, and establishing a model of development where economic and financial benefits are equitably apportioned across different stakeholders. 

The Outer Ring Road (ORR) project seems to serve little purpose other than offering real estate agents opportunities by opening the surrounding hills and foothills for regimented and exclusive housing projects like the ones that have sprouted up in the Valley. Few questions must be answered before the City leaders get too excited about such projects. How will this complement the new policy of disallowing ‘plotting’ of arable land in the Valley? What impact will this project have on the existing urban traffic? What mechanisms are there in place to minimise the hoarding of land made accessible by the ORR for speculative purposes? And how will this project help in meeting the housing demands of lower income families? 

How do expensive interventions like the ORR fit into the larger vision of making the Valley a liveable place ready for the 21st Century? Who should set the vision for the city—the bureaucrats or the citizens themselves? If the latter is the answer, then does our civil society have enough tools and processes in place to empower the users of the city to define their own future?

Areas of focus

As we mull over these mega projects, the government and the municipalities should 

focus their resources—time, money and public trust—on three areas of critical priority. 

First, a platform should be created where ordinary citizens, intelligentsia, public agencies, the business community and politicians can come together in various forums to discuss plausible solutions and come up with a set of planning principles on which to base the long-term vision of the Valley. This will not be a one-shot affair; it demands continuous follow-ups and calls for cascading teams to deal with different aspects of planning at different tiers. Once these processes take root they will take institutional shape and current urban planning will advance from its ad hoc, legalistic, capricious, project-biased and centralised state.

Second, wards should be made the principal platform for local level planning and decision-making. This will entail deputing planners and other professionals at the local level along with necessary tools and authority. 

Third, retool existing legal instruments (bylaws) to prioritise the ‘liveability’ aspect of the Valley, also by defining compatible land use, minimum requirements in land development, interlinked public open spaces and protected green areas.

Daniel Burnham, the architect of Chicago city, admonishes city planners, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Kathmandu too requires a bold vision that is futuristic and not just isolated interventions like Smart Cities and the ORR initiatives. There is no shortcut to success. Only persistency and hard work results in the making of great cities. All journeys, no matter how long, must start with a single step in the right direction. 

- Mathema served as urban planner with the Nepali government and UN HABITAT

Published: 10-10-2017 08:47

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