Making city livable: Public discourse a must

Ranipokhari, Dharahara and Khokana of the Valley have been in the news in recent times. As the country pushes its development agenda, some issues surrounding these three icons must be taken into consideration

In recent times, Ranipokhari, Dharahara and Khokana have been in the news and it will be fascinating to contemplate on the fundamentals of a city based on issues surrounding them.

Ranipokhari is one of the most exquisite water bodies representing the glorious past of the Valley’s physical culture which became the central component of the beautiful architectural ensemble with the later additions of Durbar School and Ghantaghar on opposite sides. This is a perfect example of unity in diversity with different architectural designs that added charm to Kathmandu city. Dharahara is the newest object among these three, which by virtue of its form and location broke the traditional spatial planning culture of the Kathmandu Valley.

Khokana, on the other hand, is a silent and sleepy medieval settlement, famous for mustard oil. Surrounded by agriculture land, Khokana is an example of settlement planning of the Valley, which represents the ethos and sanctity of community.

The atmosphere of the lanes and squares and the condition of the buildings and structures caught me with surprise during my first visit to Khokana back in 1977. A settlement just eight kilometres from Lalitpur was a century behind Kathmandu with sewage-littered lanes and grim-looking faces of the local women labouring in the hazardous environment. This was an example of the absurdity of the myth of trickling down of development from big to peripheral smaller urban centres.

Before the 2015 earthquake, however, better drains and traditional residential houses professionally conserved by the house owners themselves were observed. The initiative was supported by UNESCO. So, how these three different objects can be encapsulated in one common frame?

Although issues related to conservation, reconstruction and development became hot news in recent past they also sparked a public discourse as to what a good city should look like.

We could appreciate from this discourse the fact that a town or a city is a complex part of human development where “spirituality”, “power”, “livelihood” and “sanctity of family” function in their strongest avatar and in perfect balance.

Ranipokhari embodies the sublime part of humanity and is a symbol of urban cosmology. The “spirituality” of this complex with aesthetically juxtaposed elements of water, a temple and a bridge uphold the qualitative value of Kathmandu’s urbanscape. This ill-fated Ranipokhari after sacrificing her bigger territory multiple times is now confined within an iron fence.

At the same time, the indiscriminately erected buildings around her provide limited openings for the people to appreciate and enjoy this icon of Kathmandu. Furthermore, the Gorkha Earthquake and subsequent attempts of conservation brought more disputes than solutions, and she is lying like an abandoned mining pit for more than three years. The traditional strength of Valley’s communities in conservation, accumulated through many centuries, was not used. And if the present stalemate is a harbinger of any predicament, Ranipokhari is at risk of being used for some other commercial purposes, which will further push her sublimity into ridicule.

Dharahara embodies earthly “power” imperative for a sustainable settlement. The motive of the selection of its architectural motif is not known. Nevertheless, a person like Bhimsen Thapa must have had a desire to show an ambition and hold of power. Moreover, even after losing all the power, specific structures like Dharahara can retain their historical influences. And the result was: this imposing structure dominated the skyline of Kathmandu. The power circle elites very readily took the initiative to reconstruct it, although it has no architectural value as such. Ordinary Nepalis also supported its reconstruction as it has dominated their minds and hearts through its structure, unique among those available around, which generated certain ecstasy and pride in them. For this reason, the reconstruction process of Dharahara is progressing without any substantial hurdle.

Khokana, an ordinary agrarian settlement, secluded with simple and subsistence lifestyle is a far cry from the energetic, fast-moving ubiquitous changes around. And the “change” came with a big bang associated with a menace to its livelihood and cultural heritage in the form of multiple roads (fast track, tunnel road and outer ring road) which usurped substantial amount of farmland.

The way the government handled the fast track portfolio sparked a series of protests. Contrary to the principle and guidelines representing the urban “power” prescribed by the government itself—to come to a committed understanding from all stakeholders before the start of any urban projects through dialogue and interaction—the government hastily moved in heavy equipment on locals’ rice fields.

Events in Khokana became one of the most controversial and disturbing aspects of the development of Kathmandu in recent times. With 293 municipal bodies, the government is in a spree to launch urban development in the country. Authorities engaged in this endeavour need to use the didactic value of the events in Dharahara, Ranipokhari and Khokana.

Gongal is the past chairman of SAARC Association of Architects