At a recent event in Kathmandu, the speaker, an engineer-planner by profession, bemoaned the decline of public space in the city. In a nostalgic note, he yearned for the yore when Kathmandu boasted abundant public spaces, mostly squares. While the decline of public space is lamentable, such nostalgia for history does little to help us think creatively about new ways in which city inhabitants may use space, nor what new open spaces may be built. Without timidly bowing down to ‘modernization’ projects that offer short-term gains, if one would dare to think differently, the current road expansion drive underway in Kathmandu could provide creative openings for planning for public space in the city.
STREETS AND STOREFRONTS
After exchanging formal pleasantries at a bar in downtown Toronto, a stranger opened up: “I recently bought a condominium in Bloordale. It’s a nice place, you know. Different from how it was five or six years ago when I used to live in a rented apartment there.” As I asked her to expand, she continued, apologetically yet excitedly, “No disrespect, but we don’t see drug dealers anymore, which was the reason why I first moved out of the area.”
PHOTO: SURENDRA LAWOTI
Bloordale is a downtown neighborhood in Toronto. After spending many years in disrepair, it has been showing signs of revitalization. Due largely to efforts led by a local ‘Business Improvement Association’ (BIA), a Kathmandu equivalent of ‘Tole Sudhar Samiti’ but with a commercial focus, there have been investments in re-designing storefronts with arts and murals, and organizing street festivals. The goal is to commercially boost the neighborhood by commodifying local culture. It is a smart plan because it adds aesthetics to the place: fancy coffee shops, pet stores, trendy bars, upscale restaurants and art galleries all to attract a public willing to spend during weekend strolls. Some even move in as property value goes up. Others, however, get pushed out in the process.
Reports indicate that instead of reducing poverty, the plan designed to boost the local economy exacerbates poverty by promoting differential access to credits for struggling ‘inauthentic’ businesses as well as displacing the poor while aesthetically improving the area. The ‘drug dealers’ are now probably plying their trade elsewhere after making way for newcomers, such as the lady in the bar, who was pulled back to the neighborhood after the BIA face-lifted it. However, while being potentially exclusive and elitist, the BIA should also be credited for imbuing Bloordale with a vibrant sense of place, for some if not all. Bloordale is now aesthetically more pleasant, more people are found on the sidewalks, and there are more ‘eyes on the street’.
Annette Kim is an urban planner who combines visual arts, critical cartography and urban planning tools to examine ‘what is going on in the sidewalks’ of Ho Chi Minh City, through her project ‘sidewalk city’; a crucial inquiry at a time when the city government is actively introducing modernization projects riding roughshod over street vendors by clearing sidewalks to widen roads and ‘beautify’ the cityscapes. As her investigation charts new territory, she is able to make visible what traditional cartography renders invisible: street vendors and their myriad uses of sidewalks as part of Vietnamese cultural life that also contributes to local economy. Her findings have found a curious audience of professionals from transportation to tourism departments in the city willing to incorporate her findings in their planning visions.
Two years ago, a researcher friend stepped onto the sidewalks of Kathmandu with similar inquiry as Kim, albeit with a different goal: tracing the everyday life of street kids. As ‘informal’ as their use of sidewalks and streets is, he observed that it is also territorial and hierarchized. The arrangement determines who uses what part of the sidewalk, which in turn influences everyday income. A similar logic of regulated yet informal use of space may be at work for street vendors and sex workers in Kathmandu for whom sidewalks are more than just ‘time-pass’ zones.
The bulldozing of sidewalks is currently underway purportedly for relieving Kathmandu’s congestion. After displacing streets kids, vendors, and trees, widened roads are anticipated to create more road capacity in the beginning. However, as cars add up, they inevitably add more congestion. Examples elsewhere show that congestion is not always a technical problem in need of infrastructural quick fixes; in many instances they are policy-related that require accountable engagement with the public and nature. Cities such as Curitiba, Brazil and Bogota, Colombia have reduced congestion by regulating private automobiles while promoting the use of bicycles and public transit through policy reforms.
Similar citizen-led initiatives are underway in Kathmandu to revive cycling (kcc2020.blogspot.ca) and bussing (sajhayatayat.com.np). Finding the institutional will to support these initiatives might be the first step in the right direction for the state to set the right priorities. On this note, Prashanta Khanal (Cities for People, The Kathmandu Post, Oct 18) and Stephen Mikesell (Moving on, Republica, Oct 27) offer valuable thoughts that are worth considering. As for the roads that are being widened, they need not all be for cars anymore.
CONDITIONS OF POSSIBILITY
Every space being opened need not be blacktopped to invite more cars. Instead, leaving aside key areas like Kalanki, most of them could be reinvented into a more vibrant public space to invite more people to cycle, walk, or ‘time-pass’. Toronto and Ho Chi Minh City reveal evolving use of public spaces, imperfect although some may be. Similar initiatives are underway locally in Nepal. ‘Sattya’ is a media arts collective based in Jawalakhel, which organizes events that stimulate thought about the different functions of public space. Street theatre and public art in squares, sidewalks, and walls emphasize their use value: play, work, and have fun. Their on-going project ‘Kolor Kathmandu’ aspires to infuse these open spaces with murals and paintings to transform Kathmandu into ‘a public art gallery’ (sattya.org). It is an exciting project that could also provide a platform for organic-planners, like those of Sattya, as well as engineer-planners, like the speaker mentioned earlier, to collectively work for the common weal.
To realize this, the municipal state ought to imagine a different future for Kathmandu, by way of planning, collaborating and improving the public sphere differently. At the neighborhood scale, one of the many possibilities may be the harnessing of Sattya’s active commitment towards the promotion of mixed-use public spaces by providing funding, permits, and other professional services. At the municipal scale, it may mean reforming policies to regulate and relax the mobility of vehicles and people where necessary by engaging with the opportunities and challenges that cycle2020 and sajha yatayat present.
As we redesign our streets, or if we reinvent our sidewalks, let’s also be mindful not to push out those who already inhabit these spaces for livelihood, and not just leisure. As street vendors in Jawalakhel, children in Ratna Park, transgendered men and women in Thamel, young urbanites ‘hanging out’ in Durbar Marg, or elderly citizens ‘time-passing’ in Patan Durbar Square, we all aspire to have equal rights of access to enjoy and appropriate the public realm of urban life. We may all strive together towards instituting such rights. As the road expansion drive opens up anticipated physical space, it also creates unanticipated political space to reimagine and reinvent the city as a vibrant and just public space. The bulldozing state could find transformative possibility in such conditions if it were to make sincere attempts to interpret them with less hubris and more humility. It is never too late.