How do we make Kathmandu valley the most beautiful city in the world (again)

Kathmandu Valley, View from Nyatapola

I recently came back to Kathmandu valley after traveling to a few other towns in Nepal which included Butwal, Bhairawaha, Narayanghat, Tandi, Palpa, Syangja and Pokhara. As we entered Thankot, I had this feeling that I was entering a dusty over-sized shanty town or even a ghetto at a few instants. From my bus window, the sight looked like an incomplete slum-city gone hay-wire. It did not look anything like the Kathmandu Valley which just 5 centuries ago was hailed by travelers as one the most beautiful cities in the world!

Chaos has replaced order here. A well-built temple city has turned into a partly built maze. An open orderly city of green neighborhoods transformed into ash colored concrete jungle. A lean town morphed into an obese city. A wonder to behold slipped into becoming to a wonder to avoid.

Its been a slow realization for me, that this city is simply a manifestation of its citizen’s attitude, behaviors and their way of life. Today’s Kathmandu is an accurate reflection of our attitude to our lives, our focus, our mental state and our beliefs.  And sad to say that it’s current state reveals that we seem to have become mindless,numbing sheep focused on our self-destructive selfishness. Simply, Kathmandu visualizes you and me in a grand mirror. As citizens of Kathmandu, it is in our blood to blame others for the problems that we face here today. Many times we blame the government, the city authority, the donors, the insecurity or the gulf between the rich and the poor. Yet it is our own lack of civic sense and irresponsibility to our society and environment . Kathmandu has become a city that blames, that avoids responsibility, and a city that doesn’t seem to love itself. (i.e a reflection of our behaviors).

As Kathmandu valley citizens  ( residents of Kathmandu + Bhaktapur + Patan and adjoining towns) we have failed so miserably that this has become a place, where citizens actually bribe officials so they can build unsafe houses  to put their own families in  (i.e put their families in mortal danger!) So how do we turn back this clock? First of all, I believe, Kathmandu can still be turned around.

And here are a few ways our generation can turn back the clock on our Kathmandu turning it back into one of the most beautiful, responsible cities of the world.

Kathmandu, a heritage valley?

Maybe one reason we have failed is because we have forgotten our heritage. Our heritage is the collection of our past, our culture, generations of life lessons trickled down to us, based on simplicity, creativity, communal living, co-existing with nature, and our obsession with ‘creating’. With time, we have forgotten our heritage, our strength, and simply become lazy copy-cats with little inter-faith and short-sighted vision. Simple examples of how stupid we have become such as building the new concrete houses that are colder in the winter, and warmer in the summer. They use marble or tiled floors and cemented walls.  How could we have built color-less concrete boxes here, instead of beautiful colorful homes of the past, you can see in old houses.

Don’t you wonder how we have stepped back, from being creative Nepalese to becoming lazy and boring Nepalese? Just look at Krishna Mandir and the Patan Durbar square. Built more than 500 years ago by our very own ancestors, they are by far more beautiful than the modern buildings we have built-in the years since.

It is hard to swallow that our entire generation has nothing to show in terms of aesthetics or beauty. In the span of each passing generation, we have turned from creators, builders, innovators, and concerned citizens to copycats, followers, sheepish, apathetic citizens prone to a passive tendency to be dependent and even bent on making their families live dangerously.

In the past few years, look at the worrying trend of the sky rocketing high-rises being built without proper consultations and homework being done on massive earthquake resistance and contingency plans.  All of us here, know ‘Kathmandu is the number one earthquake vulnerable city in the world.’

I recently talked to an earthquake specialist in town who says more than 200,000 will die if the expected earthquake stress that is building up under the seismic zone in Western Nepal, hits (and it is much over-due to hit us). There is an eerie silence from real-estate developers who are yet to convince us about their sincere commitment to earthquake proofing when they advertise for the sale of their high-rise apartments. It is rather unfortunate to see their focus on the superficial beauty aspect of these high-rises, and their beautiful kitchen decor or spaciousness of their interiors or their view.

Shouldn’t we learn from our past, and preserve, evolve and enhance our heritage, i.e make it better, make it safer? Shouldn’t we have something for the world to come and see in awe?  Shouldn’t our generation be the ones to help Kathmandu grow into a heritage city the world comes to watch, enjoy and be safe? After all it is in our very selfish interest to do this.

Kathmandu, a trash free city?

20 years ago, I don’t recall people dumping their trash out on their street blatantly. Actually many here would turn it into waste by digging holes in our gardens and turn it into manure for our garden vegetables. At the least, they would burn it. There were no plastic bags then, and we still managed our ways. 20 years ago, there was enough space for us to live a simple life. Now people are cramping around in houses that get smaller and smaller, and higher and higher on to the sky. And we grow stupider and stupider, throwing trash right in front of their doorsteps. We are stupidly selfish enough to play with health of their own family.

It is time for us citizens to own up, be responsible for our fellow citizen’s lack of civic sense and responsibility. Sitting by silently is not an excuse anymore. Lets take initiatives in our neighborhood, partner with local governmental bodies, (fight for them if they are not functional). Majority of the trash we have at homes are bio-degradable (turns into manure or safe by-product). Lets work with our neighborhood entrepreneurs and make it easier and profitable for these social ventures like trash businesses to come in and actually profit from our wastes. Ask not what your city can do for you. Ask what you can do for your city.

Kathmandu, a breathable city?

Don’t laugh if I say, Kathmandu could easily become a leader in alternative energy sources and as a result become a clean, breathable city. In the coming decades, solar energy will become the primary source of energy in this city. We can set the global trend by allowing alternative energy vehicles to become the primary means of transportation on the streets of Kathmandu. Lets own our streets by taking responsibility of their maintenance and rules locally in the neighborhood. Now that’s local governance. lets hold real-estate builders accountable to the construction pollution they are responsible for.

Follow the mantra: ‘If you spread dust, you pick up dust’. We only need to unite neighborhoods to turn back the toxic Bagmati River into a river where we can swim once again. This is not an insurmountable task. The huge advances in waste technology can treat our own waste much better, if only we come together and say “Yes we can, together”.  Shall we once more unite for the sake of the health of our families? The key is for Kathmandu neighborhoods to unite with each-other and with local leadership. For a change, Lets stop demanding just for our rights. Lets demand responsibility instead. And get working on it!

Kathmandu, an open city?

If you have been to New York in the USA, they have a beautiful park smack in the middle of the city. They call it the Central Park. It is true that in the most developed and beautiful cities of the world, there are lots of open green breathable spaces. In Kathmandu, we all complain that we have very little of such spaces, so we tuck in our children and leave them to watch TV or play their computer games all day. Yet if you look closely, you will find that this city has a lots of huge open spaces being curently misused or un-used. Where?

Believe me, when I say, we already have our Central park right here in the city. Imagine the public space we can create, if we joined Tudikhel, Ratnapark, Rani Pokhari and link it to the former Royal Palace, by building a big overhead (or a tunnel). You could have a huge park that serves as a beautiful space where Kathmandu citizens can relax, enjoy, meet, run, sing, dance, play and take their children, their pets for a picnic. This is possible to do today with few changes, and since it is in the middle of town we can sustain its maintenance just like how Garden of Dreams has worked out.

Other open spaces around spiritual places like the Pashupatinath, the Syambhunath, or huge swathes of land along the Bagmati River, can be easily converted into clean, elegant, vibrant green spaces. Add to this, Gorgeous green hills all around surround us. The way we turned the northern Shivapuri hills into a national park and by default, into a water reservoir for the valley, let us turn all other hills along the east, west and south of the valley, into national parks as well, so that we can hike, bike or wander in nature’s fresh air. while building up the water reservoirs that help towards ending  our fast increasing water shortages. Remember Kathmandu’s non-renewable water reservoir deplete every day!

Kathmandu, a 24/7 city?

Did you know Kathmandu is even more beautiful during the night? Have you walked in its streets during midnight in summer? Every corner of this city is reachable within an hour in most places during the evenings. We are damn lucky that our weather is perfect for most days of the year? So why then, do we shut most of our city by 7 in the evening and completely die down by midnight? Why don’t we just re-operate ‘Saajha Buses’ and allow other public transport systems to run in the late evenings so that we solve even our traffic problems that is threatening our health, our mental state and our city’s beauty. This solves our current and future traffic problems by spreading traffic over a longer period. Some of us might shop at Asan at 10 am while others will shop there at 10 PM at the night market.

How do we make this possible?  Let’s empower our local city government to partner with social entrepreneurs to make public transportation an enjoying experience. This is a win-win situation for the local, the tourist , the small entrepreneur, the street vendor, the street-side cafe, the taxi and the youngsters with ideas to make this all fun. A 24/7 city reverberates with more ideas and innovation. This starts infusing creativity and innovation into our culture once more. A 24 hour open city would become a statement of how we are a youthful, friendly, trust-worthy, safe city full of positive energy.  These very attributes are what others around the world would be attracted to. Let all our friends from  around the world choose Kathmandu, a 24 hour  happening youthful city, as their next place to wander around.

Kathmandu, an energy rich city?

Don’t laugh. If you think we are energy starved, yes, we are now, but this is only because of the choices we have made, i.e we choose to be energy starved. We have a clear powerful sunshine most days of the year, however, instead of harnessing this power, we are on a spree to buy gas-heaters. We complain of load-shedding, yet the best alternative, the sun, shines upon us almost 12 hours a day every day. Instead of using efficient light savers, we use energy-wasting ones, we steal electricity and we abuse it. So, rightfully, we reap what we sow.

Kathmandu is perfect for solar energy as it has visible and strong sunshine almost throughout the year.  Let us turn our homes into electricity producers. No more relying on others for our basic needs. Let us rely locally!

Lets bring local governance back and let one of our very own elected city officials, a local Kathmandu ‘baasi’ work with the neighborhoods, to becoming energy rich city within this generation. With energy comes prosperity and innovation. Lets transform Kathmandu into an energy hip, energy rich, energized city!

Kathmandu, a wander-lust city?

A few weeks ago I walked from Patan to Maharajgunj. It took me less than 2 hours. I realized we are a walkable city. In-fact with our exciting alleys, and back streets we have a perfect place to walk or bike around.  Do try walking around the city in late evenings. This is a great wander-lust (great to freely wander around) city. If only we could light up the evenings.and build more responsible traffic sensibility in ourselves, we can with ease, transform our city into a walkable, bike-able city. It starts with each of us contributing to our city’s benefits. And, as our behaviors change, our city prospers.

In the end, as citizens become responsible and together press for accountable leadership, we can change Kathmandu valley, and help it prosper. We can once again reclaim Kathmandu’s glorious past, when we were one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is now our generation’s moral duty to restore Kathmandu’s glory once more by uniting and working hand in hand.

So here is our challenge.

Will we (you and me) bring Kathmandu back again to become among the most beautiful cities of the world? Shall we?

Let’s take up this challenge, let’s govern locally, lets elect visionaries in our Kathmandu. Let’s govern our city ourselves. Lets bet on us together. After all it is our city and together, we can.

Here are some more ways we can make Kathmandu the most beautiful city in the world!

(Why don’t you add your ideas and campaigns to make our city beautiful below ?)

Comments

  1. Ujwal Dai,

    Thanks for such a beautiful and thoughtful article. I share your ideas and try to contribute for it. Currently I am in Chile, and I was amazed by the beauty of Santiago, how beautifully it is organized. It has almost everything you mentioned in the article. So, I can understand how beautiful Kathmandu will look.

    I have akin thoughts for technology and startups in Nepal. Will jot down soon.

  2. From my home there is no waste goes out at all for last 10 years in Kathmandu. We make organic compost with every waste, cultivate healthy vegetables and some send to recycle. I dream the same Kathmandu as you dream. Lets share this vision and start contributing to make cleaner, better and walk-able city. Good article.

  3. Ujwal dai, I am really really inspired by this article. I’ve been re-reading it all week. Just want to let you know, I am 100% on board with working on initiatives like this. I am so horrified to watch as amazing architecture gets replaced by ugly and unsafe buildings (all under some concept of ‘progress’), when people switch from cycles to cars or motorbikes, and nature gets trashed. It bothers me so much. I love Kathmandu and as a city that is not ‘developed’ it in fact has an advantage over cities that are- it’s starting afresh, so it can create sustainable energies, bike paths, good public transport. 

    I am personally very interested n promoting Kathmandu as a bike city, as well as creating clean green spaces. Sattya is also an organization and a place that is about those values as well, and are ready to help any way we can. 

    I wanted let you know about an initiative we are starting and will soon be fundraising for called Hariyo Chowk. 

    Full info here: http://sattya.org/2012/01/hariyo-chowk-sattya/

    This can be a place used by people from around the city for learning, gathering, planning, etc. Later, I hope we can clean up other green spaces around the city, starting with one particular patch of green land just outside our gate that currently is a place used for throwing trash and urination, when it could be a nice place to sit, with flowers and things like that. 

    Anyway, thanks for this article, and if you ever plan to take any initiatives, do let me know. Sattya will be glad to be involved if possible- this Do-It-Yourself spirit is something we are also really trying to promote. This is our city, so lets do our part in improving it!

  4. nice article dai… anything is possible , if we try to make it happen..

    well, i think this is time to think ahead… instead of decentralizing nepal.. why can’t we think about developing kathmandu with chain cities into the land of oppurtinity, a big city with 8-10 million citizens? we can develop a huge downtown area with tall buildings and corporate houses in dhulikhel, banepa valley then we can connect kathmandu valley with dhulikhel by 6-10 lanes of road connected to big inner and outer ring roads, 
    so that people can work there and return here …
    and we can connect valley with airport city which would get developed along with huge international airport at nijgadh..
    then we can develop kathmandu, bhaktapur and patan into a cultural centre , it can be a living museum.. 
    if we can develop other linked cities.. then we can have enough space to rearchitect the valley..

  5. I know its my Nepal………………………………………

  6. Thank you for your suggestion. Running cables down the ground sure helps in beautifying the city

  7. Well said Doris ! Please stay in touch and say Hi when you are here in September

  8. a beautiful article indeed. brought a lot of hope….we need to do away with the wires and cables that hang over our heads  in the electric poles where ever we go…this step will reduce visual pollution significantly…

  9. I just want to mention something that has already been mentioned in the article, mainly because i think it requires stronger policies from the government’s side (the government we elect..so of course it comes back to us)
    We need stronger traffic policies, better regulation on emmissions, more one ways perhaps, proper parking etiquette, proper pedestrian and street shopping etiquette, proper animal watch (cows in the middle of the road…). All this could be helped by non-corrupt traffic policemen.
     Perhaps some re-modelling/ restructuring or whatever it is called would help as well. (I know most people would not favor this..but i think we need it) Kind of like what Keshav Sthapit (when he was the mayor) did by creating the Mandala around in Thapathali after demolishing some houses there. That significantly reduced the traffic (jam) around that area, though it still seems very busy.

  10. On green spaces, one of the most impressive ones that have been built is the one that has been built in the Pashupati area. I was amazed and happy to see how well the entire space in the temple has been constructed, given the mess it was in even five years ago. We should use that as the example, and to prove that yes we can.

  11. Wonderful article. I am full motivated to do something. How to start! I will be in Kathmandu this year in September. I am from Austria. Let me know what i can do! But maybe starting with cleaning all the parks and put trash pins.

     I think a very improtant thing is to inform and teach people about this issues. they have to realize and understand the problems. Instead of just thinking about themselfes they have to think about the hole nation.

    So lets stay in contact.
    greetings doris
    [email protected]