Monday, August 5, 2013

Kathmandu Valley : City of Hope and Despair

Article -'Kathmandu Valley; City of Hope and Despair',  Sahari Vikas, 2006 (April-September) Year 6, Vol. 11, Special Publication of GoN/Department of Urban Development and Building Construction to mark the UN Habitat Day, P. 38-41

Kathmandu Valley : City of Hope and Despair

Ar. Sanjaya Uprety
Cities in Asia and the Pacific are centers of both hope and despair: while being engines of economic and social development they are also congested centers of poverty and environmental deterioration. Despite the relative abundance of health facilities in urban areas as compare to rural areas, the quality of life is poor especially of those living below the subsistence level mainly due to the lack of 'basic level of urban infrastructures’[1]. This is quite contrast with many traditional towns where urban centers were planned to create a socio-cultural living with efficient management of inter dependencies between man and nature. Traditionally urban development efforts in Kathmandu Valley, especially in medieval period, had been envisaged with management of such inter dependencies and problematic of socio-cultural integration, as it was to be expected given the nature of the demand to which it was a response, a demand determined by the necessity of defense and continuity for survival through subsistence economy. Such effort testifies to urban planning that aimed at creating a city, which is economically viable, socially acceptable, culturally adaptable and environmentally sustainable. The continuity[2] of existence of medieval towns of Kathmandu Valley till date accounts for the success of these cities as self-sustainable “social units[3]” in time and space. Living in medieval towns of Kathmandu Valley was “social experience” experienced through the efficient functioning in terms of meeting human needs. However the departure from traditional urban pattern of Kathmandu Valley during the Rana Rule and the modern development that followed after the downfall of Rana oligarchy has been rather haphazard in terms of spatial expansion at the cost of limited resources due to rapid urbanization[4].

The increasing population size and consumption vis-à-vis limited resources have demanded urban management of Kathmandu Valley to be more efficient in terms of achieving goals of sustainable urban development. This paradigm of sustainable development aims, to quote the words of the World Commission on Environment and Development, to meet ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs’. At the same time it tries to define “present needs” as distributive justice of the wealth; that is to say, providing empowered access to resources for all section of society both socioeconomically and spatially. The urban development practice in Kathmandu Valley has not been able to create a balanced development between the valley and its hinterland in terms of creating effective demand for goods and services through planned economic investment in urban infrastructure and the housing sectors. As a result economic uncertainties marred by inflation, unemployment and poor living condition have made living in the valley very expensive and difficult. This has given rise to multitude of social problems which are evident in growing social crimes and evils in recent times. Similarly, the mismatch between the development goal of Kathmandu Valley and the subsequent strategies adopted has not contributed much to retain the cultural significance of the valley. In such a situation the inputs required for sustainable urban development in terms of socio-economic and spatial plane needs to be redefined rationally. In socio-economic plane, sustainability requires building a sense of community within the present society and the future generation who have equitable access to the wealth or development benefits for the continuation of new urban social order that is adaptable to change. This is not impossible if spatial character of the city is well conceived and dealt in terms of its linkages to the surrounding areas, preserving the cultural identity through planned economic investment and creating goods and services, especially the housing, for effective demand of the people. It is within this background; this paper attempts highlighting the probable factors that can contribute negatively to the sustainability of the valley. Degrading socio-cultural condition evident in the loss of cultural identity, social distancing of the populace through residential differentiation caused by poor infrastructure condition, unplanned investment of property capital and lack of access to housing has been taken as major factors for the discussion.

In Kathmandu Valley, contrast to traditional urban sustainability, resources is being depleted and living, especially for low income and poor, has become difficult if not impossible. The reasons for depletion can be attributed to inefficient and inappropriate use of resources that have contributed to environmental degradation and inequitable development. One of the major problems with environmental degradation and inequitable development in Kathmandu Valley can be related to the poor level of existing infrastructure and subsequent planning effort to provide access to infrastructure for all sections of the society. An example of skewed access to the infrastructure service can be noticed in the decreasing proportion of pedestrian walkways to vehicular roads. Such situation has contributed to inequitable distribution of services that have negative consequences manifested in increasing air pollution, accidents and traffic congestion.

Another important deterrent in making Kathmandu Valley a city of hope is material and non-material cultural degradation due to unplanned economic development, especially the commercial development. Since most of the urban areas of Nepal including Kathmandu valley are not industrial towns but more of consumer towns, where services are produced and consumed, the approach to economic planning needs a different outlook. The realization of this reality can be asserted in the form of past initiative to develop tourism related service industry in the valley for its obvious advantage of being heritage city. However, the experience indicates that this realization could not be realistically materialized due to the unplanned and incompatible economic investment.

Today Kathmandu as an urban area has a number of reference: it may refer to a spatial form, to a cultural pattern or to a structural from. But, essentially urbanism in Kathmandu Valley is the cultural expression of spatial form. However in contemporary context the cultural expression of spatial form of the city could not be continued due to unplanned economic, social and spatial planning. A clear account of this fact can be traced in the commercial development in and around the cultural towns[5] and its corresponding effects. The effect at its best could be noticed in the decay of traditional urban areas (today popularly referred as cultural heritage sites). In micro-economic sense, the huge investment of property capital in and around such heritage sites was initially encouraged by the tourism activity, proximity to infrastructure and dense settlement of the core and, later by the agglomeration of commercial and administrative units. Characteristically, property capital[6] favors buildings for administrative, commercial and financial activities that is to say office blocks, shopping centers  recreational and many other commercial spaces. The prime investment motive here would be guided by the maximization of the profit. With the locational and situational advantages developer enjoys, people are willing to pay high rent thereby resulting into astronomical rise in the cost of the land in core areas. This means the traditional core area remains impoverished due to the owners unwillingness to invest in maintenance and development causing the decay of urban fabric. Unplanned investment of property capital in incompatible commercial development in and around city core has largely contributed to the decay of such heritage sites in terms of urban spaces and built form. In the absence of timely planned economic investment in medium scale commercial development and failure to respond to the new urban dynamics through appropriate urban renewal plan has left Kathmandu city core to transform at random creating multitude of environmental problems (viz. problematic of congestion, open space encroachment, light and ventilation, architectural image, safety and security etc).

Another aspect that needs mention here is the shift from traditional concept of sustainable land development to the new paradigm largely guided by economic determinism, which at its best is for creating economic benefits at any cost. This is conspicuously prominent, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, in the nature of investment of property capital, which with profit maximization at the centre of development concept, is unwilling to invest in social infrastructure like housing. The end result is development of larger commercial spaces and luxury residential lots in central areas alienating and pushing the middle income, low income and economically weaker sections of society to the edge of the city in insalubrious housing conditions at the cost of fringe areas. Public sector’s financial limitation to extend the trunk infrastructure to these areas and distancing of populace from work place due to poor transportation system has had negative socio-economic and environmental consequences. The issue of housing, in Kathmandu Valley, has been debated on two grounds; one providing all urban dwellers access to serviced land and other is providing dwelling unit through improved land and housing market mechanism. However the experience to date reveals that this has not happened due to ineffective urban management caused by various limitations in local and central government levels. Public sector’s investment in urban land market has not been able to meet the growing demand[7] leaving the development practice to informal developers at large. Similarly the emergence of organised housing developers, largely acting in unregulated market condition, has limited their investment of property capital into luxury residential development which is beyond the affordability of the needy section of society. Such development has contributed to overcrowding in areas, which are considered to be ecologically sensitive and economically not viable. Such problem has its root to the poor and inefficient urban management that has contributed to differential social living. The growing differential social living in Kathmandu as evident in the residential development (in fringe, sub-urban areas) has been a key issue in the depletion of inelastic natural resources (over exploitation/pollution of water, soil, air etc) of the Valley.

It is thus seen that failure to address the problematic of infrastructure, socio-culturally compatible economic investment in urban areas and affordable housing development for creating multicultural homogeneity have been root causes that have hindered Kathmndu Valley’s quest for sustainable development. In spatial sense, urban planning aiming at spatial containment of populace for community living, preservation of utility value of cultural heritage, developing mutually dependable linkages to the resource base and planned investment for income increase through market economy to create effective demand for social infrastructure will be keys of sustainable development in Kathmandu Valley. It can be achieved, as done in the past, by creating balanced dependencies between Kathmandu Valley and its hinterland through graded linkage development. So, one of the desirable departures in bringing about sustainability in current pattern of urban development is re-densification of the city core and development of urban-rural linkage and nurturing the urban rural continuum. This demands an appropriate urban planning intervention, which should aim at developing Kathmandu Valley for its cultural identity[8] and socio-economic development through the realistic addressing of key development issues related to sustainable urban development. Then only Kathmandu Valley as a city can be argued as magnet of hope in true sense rather than resorting to argumentum at populum

Herbert DT & et. al.,  Social Areas in Cities; Process, Patterns and Problems, John Wiley & sons Ltd, UK, 1978
Lamarche, Francois, Property Development and the Economy Foundations of the Urban Question, Appeared in “Urban Sociology; Critical Essays”, edited by C. G. Pickvance, Tavistock Publication, UK,1977
Midgley James,  Fields of Practice and Professional Roles for Social Planners, appeared in the “Fields and Methods of Social Planning”, Edited by James Midgley & David Piachaud, St. Martin Press, NY, 1984
Tiwari S. R., Sustainable Urban Development; Lessons from Historical Asian Cities-Theoretical Elaborations and Past Parallels, based upon the papers presented in “International Conference on Culture in Sustainability of Cities II, Kanazawa, Japan. Oct. 2000, International Conference on Culture in Sustainability of Cities III, Chongju, Korea, May 2001(UNU/IAS & IICRC)
Uprety Sanjaya, Private Sector and Urban Land Development in Kathmandu Valley; Review of Policy Paradoxes, Research Paper, SONA Journal, Kathmandu, 2006.

[1] 30% of the developing world's population does not have access to proper sanitation-over 50% in the case of Asia
In the main cities of developing world, 40-50% population live in slums and informal settlements
[2] Continuity is not in the sense of the continuation of the traditional urban pattern but as an entity of medieval town
[3] Social unit may be defined as social system and system of action which when coincides with spatial units, the terms community and urban institutions are usually used
[4] The population of Kathmandu Valley grew at an average annual rate of 4.6% in 1970 and reached above 6% in 1980. In 2001, the growth rate of the valley is estimated at 3.36 with over 50% of the total urban population of Nepal living here

[5] Malla towns namely Bhaktapur, Kathmandu, Patan and other rural towns of the valley
[6] In Kathmandu Valley, other than property and labor capital, only service producing industrial capital investment(e.g. tourism industry) is as appropriate for its ecological vulnerability

[7] The attempts by public sector towards meeting the demand could produce only 6% (280 ha) in two decades
[8] The cultural identity in question is not the continuity of traditional culture but the transformation according to modern time, space and the existing conditions