Public safety for all: “Inside out development” is the key

“Inside out development” strategies ensure guardianship of heritage and history, embrace the future through planning, save lives and protect the tangibles, the intangibles and way of life in this immensely culturally rich country

The Nepali people and governing representatives are entrusted with the stewardship, guardianship and custody of some of the world’s most precious history, art, architecture and way of life. Ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites reside across this most diverse, exquisitely beautiful, gifted and spiritual Nepali landscape. Failure to preserve, conserve and protect these very fragile and extremely valuable “maaries (precious and rare jewels) for the future generations will be unfortunate.

A recent sharing and training programme on “Public Safety for All including the Elderly and People with Disabilities (PSAF), Earthquake Safety Engineering (ESE) and Heritage Reconstruction (HR)” was a small effort in that direction. The sessions discussed the prevailing reconstruction and Nepal’s post-2015 Gorkha Earthquake recovery efforts with focus on public safety that is inclusive, earthquake safety, fire safety, disable accessibility in both heritage and non-heritage settings.

Lalitpur, including its Patan Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is bestowed with its share of tangible heritage - temples, durbars, squares and other heritage and historical structures.  Similar environments exist in Bhaktapur and to a lesser extent in Kathmandu.

During a 2017 visit to Mul Chowk at Patan Durbar, Austrian student volunteers were diligently engaged in pasting thin gold sheets onto the statue of King Yoganarendra Malla. This demonstrated dedication and volunteerism cemented the belief that the world community is concerned about these fragile and priceless “maaries ” under Nepali custodianship.

Why have the residents of the Kathmandu Valley simply forgotten the jewel in their heritage? Passion for modern “outside in development”, including disharmonious and discordant construction of buildings and structures in the Kathmandu Valley, is destroying its precious unique heritage and culture.  Saving the precious heritage will require development based on “inside out development” philosophy.

“Inside out development” strategies ensure the guardianship of the heritage and history, embrace the future through planning, save lives and protect the tangibles, the intangibles and way of life in this immensely culturally rich country, and is based on the needs of the present to create smart, safe and harmonious developments in the cities and community.  “Outside in development” sows dissent and results in strategies that impose, ignore, destroy values in the existing tangibles and the intangibles of culture and heritage of any society or community.

Can one simple component of the PSFA – fire protection safety - be ensured in the iconic heritage and historical Asan Chowk area? Community objection over “outside in development” was recently demonstrated by the uproar over a project proposal to replace the existing heritage and historical structures there with a tall modern shopping complex. “Outside in development” would suggest widening the existing Asan to Bhotahity corridor and demolish obstructing heritage and historic structures.

“Inside out development” would accept no widening of the existing roads. The fire-load between each chowk would be determined, limitations on the type and size of houses would be mandated to meet fire-load hazards without destroying the history and heritage straddling the entire Indra Chowk corridor.

The road widening controversy at Sunaguthi exemplifies “outside in development”. For Sunaguthi, “inside out development” would keep, develop and rehabilitate the existing road corridor, dating back to Lichchhavi times, as a tourist pedestrian walking mall with unaltered heritage ambiance.

Keep the heritage architecture intact, seismically safe, fire safety and accessible to the disable in the bahals and gullies of Kathmandu metropolis, Patan city and Bhaktapur. Asan, Maru and the innumerable bahals at Patan can be turned into centres of refuge and rescue during disasters by simply placing all electrical utilities underground.

Using modern earthquake engineering knowledge, buildings can be reinvigorated and retrofitted to maintain the traditional architectural ambiance and create modern utilitarian configurations inside older heritage and architecturally endowed buildings. Tall concrete jungles that overshadow heritage can be avoided by keeping density within limits and designing public service infrastructure, such as roads, sewers, drainage and water and fire-fighting systems without completely destroying the 5000 years of history.

Another example of “outside in development” is the proposal for “lifts” or “escalators”, “cable cars” at the heritage site of the Swayambhu Mahachaitya. “Inside out development” would ensure access without hampering the world heritage requirements at Swayambhu, maintain the existing ecological and heritage configurations and style and ensure safe access for the elderly and the disabled at a nominal cost.

Knowledge about topics on wood (timber), steel and masonry, and earthquake engineering in heritage and non-heritage buildings for earthquake safety through modern earthquake engineering knowledge can be transferred through the expat organisations.

Baidya is a retired US-based licensed civil engineer