The massive earthquake has wrought huge devastation but it has also imparted lessons on how we need to build our cities. From the first second that the ground beneath us started shaking, we had realized the importance of open public spaces. We realized how important social capital—community bonding—is to make us resilient. But we are yet to understand that some physical structures, which we refer to as fruits of modernization, are in fact destroying the social fabric and livability of our city.
As unplanned urban areas grew and lands came to be seen as no more than monetary commodity, open spaces were rapidly turned into concrete jungles. Apparently the only public space we have is sidewalk, which is often poorly designed. Lack of open space has restricted people from outdoor activities and from building social contacts. Children are either forced to remain in large gated houses or play outside in unsafe roads. If only we could have planned our city for children! While rebuilding our city, we need to ensure that each community has plenty of open public spaces with proper land-use planning. They not only provide spaces for people during disaster but are also great place for outdoor or social activities.
After the earthquake, people have realized the vulnerability of high-rises in Kathmandu Valley. Even though high-rises are said to be earthquake resistant, they will always be at risk as the valley occupies high-risk seismic zone. Despite this, some experts suggest more high-rises to accommodate increasing urban population, and people are equally fascinated with them.
Although high-rises can accommodate large numbers of people per acre, they undermine liability and destroy social fabric of the cities. They are also energy intensive. When I lived in a high-rise in Jakarta, Indonesia for almost a year, I realized that while high-rises may look stunning from a distance, the microenvironment is ugly. I never saw people living next door. Apparently, neighbours don’t exist in high-rise apartments. People are forced to live in capsulated space with no chance of meaningful social contact. Those who think high-rise apartments are fantastic are yet to stay in one.
In contrast, a small community next to the high-rise was vibrant and lively. Although it didn’t look clean, you got a sense of community and safety there. Their multi-functioning human scale buildings and infrastructure gave opportunity to make meaningful contacts and social bonding. It made me realize how high-rise apartments contributed to more inequity—the rich live in high-rise and the poor in low-rise.
Some architects refer to high-rise apartments as vertical sprawl. A renowned Danish architect Jan Gehl in his book Life Between Buildings: Using Public Space writes, “I would say that anybody living over the fifth floor ought generally to be referring to the airspace authorities. You’re not part of the earth anymore, because you can’t see what’s going on the ground and the people on the ground can’t see where you are.”
People living in high-rise are detached from street level social activities. They are less likely to leave their rooms for outdoor activities. Similarly, walled and gated houses create physical barriers that segregate the community. No wonder you don’t know your neighbor! They obstruct visibility, disconnect people and make street unsafe and uninteresting. People feel safer in the streets when they are surrounded by many people.
The key to creating livable and vibrant cities lies in building human scale, dense and mixed urban settlements with no more than three to four storey multifunctional houses. Traditional Newari urban settlements and planning are the perfect example for our cities. You may be surprised that traditional Newari houses had no boundary wall or gate.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, discussions have started on building bigger roads. But the car culture and bigger roads have not only made our cities unlivable but also ripped cities apart. They have destroyed the social fabric by dividing neighbourhoods and isolating communities.
Gehl writes in his book Cities for People: “For decades the human dimension has been an overlooked and haphazardly addressed urban planning topic, while many other issues, such as accommodating the rocketing rise in car traffic, have come more strongly into focus. In addition, dominant planning ideologies—modernism in particular—have specifically put a low priority on public space, pedestrianism and the role of city space as a meeting place for urban dwellers.”
We need to move from car-oriented to people-oriented urban development by building more walkable and cyclable communities. They make the space vibrant and livable, and bring people together. We need to invest on public transportation rather than making more rooms for cars. Apparently, cars take much more space than people. If planned well, inefficient use of private and public spaces for parking could be turned into housing and open spaces.
From time to time, some professionals and politicians would have us dream of metro train in Kathmandu Valley, not looking at how expensive the dream is. Building underground and elevated metro in an earthquake and geologically sensitive area is risky. Now many cities around the world are investing in Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, also referred as surface metro, which provide comparable service and efficiency at fraction of the cost (50-100 times lesser than metro). Another important thing to consider is that metro will take at least 10 years to plan and build whereas BRT can be built within two to three years. Unlike metro, BRT will take up the road space currently occupied exclusively by cars and will contribute to more humane and safer roads. Surface-based transit system is also more resilient to different disasters including earthquake.
The social fabric and community we have developed for centuries are now threatened. Our obsessions with cars and physical structures that are not people- or community-oriented have all contributed to the fragmentation of the society. It’s time to learn from our mistakes.
The human scale, compact and mixed-use development with plenty of open spaces is the key to sustainable and livable city. Walkable and cyclable communities and infrastructures to move people (not vehicles) are the key elements of a future humane city. We can’t afford to let few experts decide on how to build our city. We need communities to participate. Let’s learn and build back better together.
The author is associated with Clean Energy Nepal and works on clean air and urban mobility issues.