Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Want to see Kathmandu transformed? Land-use zoning for the win!

Raj Maharjan and Ujwal Thapa

[Link to a version of this published in My Republica on 7 March 2016 - http://myrepublica.com/opinion/story/38320/kathmandu-dreams.html]

It is the year 2030 AD in the future. As me and my partner arrive at the Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport after a decade abroad, we can’t help but be amazed when we peeked through the airplane window as we landed. Kathmandu which only a decade ago was a sore in the eye from the air seems to have transformed into a well-planned, organised and beautiful city. We soon exit the airport terminal through a breathtaking mural gateway depicting the cultural diversity of Nepal. The plethora of random shops from the 1990s in the vicinity of the airport had long been replaced with recreational parks, children’s playground, airport accommodation and other medium and small commercial outlets catering for the needs of national and international passengers as well as local residents.

The land use zoning laws of the "Vision Kathmandu 2016 Act", promulgated by the local government of the Greater Kathmandu Region has finally prevailed over the haphazard chaos and anarchy of the decades before. The international airport area was now designated as a strategic zone whereas the outlining Baneshwor area had been turned into a principal residential zone. As we move towards the Pashupatinath temple, we enter the cultural zone. Because of its World Heritage designation by the UN, the haphazard houses built to cater its devotees in the early 2000s have long since been replaced with systemized accommodation. There are now commercial outlet buildings that not only match but also enhance the unique architecture of the holy Pashupatinath temple and its spiritual essence. Building owners around this Pashupati Heritage zone received financial and technical incentives from the local government to rebuild and maintain the heritage outlook of their properties creating a win-win situation for the city and its residents.

As our electric taxi cruises alongside the holy Bagmati river, designated the nature zone, we couldn’t help notice that the banks of the river is now filled with recreational parks to cater to the young and old alike. Children parks with swings and other play equipments alternate with sport parks where we see  multitudes of teenagers with cricket bats, footballs and skate boards. Flower gardens with varieties from all over Nepal are favourite hang-outs for the senior citizens and young lovers passing time carefree. I couldn’t help notice that the street signs are written in 4 languages - Nepali, Newari, English and Mandarin. There are caf├ęs dotted along the river where people are enjoying the sound of flowing water and the scenery of the holy shrines in the background in the Pashupati area of Bagmati river.

Soon we enter in another area designated the strategic zone - the Singhadurbar complex where the country’s parliament and government building as well as judiciary complexes are located. The whole of Singhadurbar complex, adjoining buildings occupied by ministries and lands have been restored to look like the cultural mosaic the country represents. As we passed through them, we saw how rich the diversity of this country truly is!

Soon we arrived at the commercial zone, the business hub of Kathmandu, where the booming financial institutions are based. The buildings in the business district are compact and tall for efficiency of space. An architectural wonder-monument inspired by Dharahara now aptly called Dharahara 2.0, aka D2 among the youths, stands tall and proud. This tallest built structure in Nepal pays homage to the victims and survivors of the terrible 2015 AD earthquake. D2 is the main landmark and point of reference for the new-comers to the city. High rise buildings and towers like this as well as every other structures are now earthquake resilient. Older buildings have been retrofitted to strengthen them and make them earthquake resistant. Earthquake resilience is now a non-negotiable part of any new construction or old buildings, not only in Kathmandu but also in the rest of the country. The Universities in Kathmandu have vibrant research going on to develop cutting-edge technologies in earthquake resilience and architecture that blend in well with our heritage.

As we came to the posh Basantapur area heritage zone we could not help but step out to take a break. We were amazed that all the new buildings with centuries old heritage architecture have long replaced the obnoxious commercialisation and haphazard concrete boxes built in the early 21st century. The roads were completely vehicle free during the days. The private buildings are strictly required to synergize with the heritage monuments of the Basantapur Durbar Square that have the UNESCO World Heritage Sites status. This was made possible through declaring the area a heritage zone achieved after a series of delicate negotiations between the local government leaders and the property owners. The essence of a deeply spiritual, harmonious and entrepreneurial lives of craftsmen and traders of centuries old, now relives in greater Basantapur area where it has become a center of “Wanderlust” where anyone who wants to get lost in time travel can do so for days. An entire kilometer radius of surrounding area has been transformed into a open heritage museum. This whole restoration has ensured it as one of the most expensive real estate in South Asia.

As we near the organic farm, we had invested in while living overseas, in Chandragiri we pass through Kalanki area which a decade ago was infamous for its obnoxious dusty and cranky environment. We were elated to find it transformed into a mixed purpose zone, a hybrid for residential and commercial activities. Here, buildings on the road frontage have commercial use on the ground and first floor. Floors above are used for residential purpose. People in this area are happy that they get to live, work and play within a close distance. The area has higher density of buildings that are either attached or close to each other. To compensate for this high density, large parks dotted across the area to serve as "lungs of the city”.

In 2030, much of the Megacity Kathmandu’s 5 million-plus residents live in the residential zones on the outskirts of the old Ring Road around the valley. The residents are proud that their smart domestic alternate energy grids contribute their surplus energy to the national grid. Thanks to the citizens themselves, Kathmandu had transformed into an energy-plus city. I still recall the dark ages of Kathmandu when it was without 14 hours electricity a decade and half ago. A new Ring Road connects the newly developed residential areas at the foothills of the mountains with the older residential areas and business hubs located within the old Ring Road. I inquired with my taxi driver and found out that the new areas and the city hub as well as older parts of the city are well-connected with reliable public transports that runs on clean energy and is run under collaboration between the city and local social entrepreneurs through public-private partnership (PPP), which has greatly reduced resident’s reliance on private vehicles. The driver also informed me that all of the roads outside the new Ring Road and most within now have bicycle tracks. He highly recommended me to bike along the green paved cycle tracks.

The Greater Kathmandu Metro System (GKMS), the pride and joy of public transport of Kathmandu, is in its final stage of completion. Part of it is already under operation. GKMS is an exemplary PPP project funded partly by locals and expatriate Nepalis. It is a symbol of the contemporary progress this city has achieved in the recent times and the potential of its future. The high-speed metro is a hybrid of sub-ground and over the ground tracks owing to the geological complexity of the valley. GKMS not only connects major business hubs and the residential areas within the valley but also spreads across the regions outside Greater Kathmandu Region. A plan to extend to Hetauda and beyond the borders of Chitwan National Park connecting GKMS and national railway grid with the international railway lines in China and India connecting further to the Far-East and West Asia.

We arrive in the outskirts of Chandragiri. All of Kathmandu’s surrounding 2,000+ meters mountains (residents call them hills here) are off limits to development as they have long been a beautiful national park encircling all of Kathmandu valley from where you can see the panorama of the breathtaking himalayas. Hence any buildings located at the foothills of the surrounding mountains have to ensure that they are canvassed with greenery.

As our taxi finally stops at our farm lush with greenery, I eagerly step out to find the fresh breeze of Kathmandu greeting me. I must say I look forward to staying for a long time in my wonder-land, my beloved Kathmandu. Hmm… Maybe we should seriously consider migrating back to Kathmandu.

Raj Maharjan is a Planner practising policy planning in New Zealand and Ujwal Thapa is the President of BibekSheel Nepali Party in Nepal. Both of them dream of building Kathmandu as the most beautiful city of the world, within their lifetime. Contact them at info@leadnepal.com

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