More than four years after the earthquake, Kathmandu is still fighting injustice to save its heritage

A Nepalese resident sits near collapsed and damaged buildings on Sunday. Image: Getty.

Four years ago last April, vast swaths of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, turned to rubble in a matter of minutes. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which wrought destruction on the city, was followed by hundreds of aftershocks. Just 17 days later, another magnitude 7.3 temblor felled more buildings and structures, which had stood through the first quake.

The human toll was catastrophic: across Nepal, 9,000 people died and hundreds of thousands more were left destitute, facing extreme poverty. The damage to Nepalese culture was also significant: hundreds of historic buildings, shrines and statues across the capital were reduced to dust.

Four years and hundreds of millions of dollars in donations later, Nepal is slowly recovering. Inevitably, though, a catastrophe of this scale has caused issues for the nation’s resource-starved government. Researchers have highlighted that political squabbling and a lack of local or regional governance have slowed reconstruction.

Rising from the rubble

When a city is damaged beyond recognition, the need to rebuild presents an opportunity to reshape and redraw the physical landscape – to make it stronger and grander than it was before. Catastrophic situations can bring about unexpected transformations, not just in a city’s design and architecture, but also in society – creating new identities and opportunities.

Faith shapes the city. Image: Michael Romanov/Unsplash.

Kathmandu has long grappled with the conflict between tradition and modernisation. For most of its history, it has retained its medieval urban culture: Hindu and Buddhist religious practices have long influenced the city’s layout and design. But there have always been parallel concerns that the city could be on the cusp of losing its historic character.

Even before the earthquake struck, unbridled and unregulated growth had been undermining the city’s historic buildings, draining its natural resources and disrupting the skyline, with tall buildings blocking views.

The city’s five major rivers have been reduced to drainage canals due to development pressure and inconsiderate sewage discharge, while hinterland on the outskirts was rapidly cleared to build houses for those displaced by political conflict over the last two decades.


A city on the loose

As far back as 1934, much of the historic city was flattened by another strong earthquake. That moment is now regarded as the advent of modernisation, which introduced new buildings, roads and technology to the city. The 2015 earthquake brought many urban issues back into focus, and for a moment, it seemed the city could have been a giant workshop to test solutions to problems, in housing, culture, transport and heritage.

But as before, Kathmandu continues to operate as a city on the loose. From my own observation of the city, it seems that new development continues at almost the same rate as the decade before the earthquake struck. The transport network remains asphyxiated by too many vehicles. And both local and federal efforts to fix the city’s urban planning problems and accommodate its growing population remain fixated on creating satellite towns, ignoring the potential of retrofitting historic neighbourhoods.

After they were damaged in the 2015 earthquake, city authorities wanted to demolish and redevelop historic buildings such as Singha Durbar and Bagh Durbar (which date back to 1908 and 1805 respectively) – though they were finally prevented by a supreme court mandate. Ranipokhari (Queen’s Pond) at the centre of the city – a crucial cog of the old city’s innovative drainage system – has been drained and paved over to make space for shops and cafes. And a central open space called Khula Manch has been turned into a parking lot resembling a dystopian scrap yard.

Locals rise up

Political conflict is rife and agreements hard to come by. For example, in the absence of any agreement between different public sector agencies (including the municipal government, the National Reconstruction Authority and the Department of Archaelogy) about how the city’s famous Dharahara Tower should be rebuilt, there are plans to build two towers and share the profits generated from construction contracts, to appease any dissent.

The reconstruction continues with little input from local communities, while international powers make their presence felt. Kathmandu’s Durbar Square has become a geopolitical playground, with an influx of donor agencies and countries rushing to prove their solidarity.

Gaddi Baithak: under construction. Image: Urmi Sengupta/author provided.

The renovation of Gaddi Baithak (or “royal seat”) has been completed with US support, despite controversy over its slightly altered facade. Likewise, Nau Tale Durbar (“nine-storey palace”), is currently being rebuilt with the help of Chinese investment, and has attracted local ire for lack of transparency.

Many citizens in Kathmandu are more impatient than ever to fix these problems. Yet the reconstruction is often an assault on their personal and collective identities, given that these sites carry significant religious, emotional and cultural value. A great sense of injustice has arisen over the way building contractors have ignored local techniques and values.

For example, the redevelopment of Kasthamandapa – the temple from which the city takes its name – has stalled due to disagreement over construction materials and methods. Kasthamandapa was built with wood from a single tree some 1,000 years ago. A new tree needs to be found and there needs to be a whole new system of extracting timber. It requires the best craftsmen in the country and significant skilled labour.

Kasthamandapa – before and after. Image: Urmi Sengupta/author provided.

The lack of assessment of what has been lost has also been a sore point for heritage campaigners. The absence of detailed historical plans for many important structures means reconstruction efforts are based on limited photographic evidence. Campaigners claim that, without local input into the rebuilding, the authenticity of the new structures will be undermined.

The government’s reconstruction plans are now being challenged by numerous grassroots organisations fighting to save the city’s heritage. Post-disaster reconstruction will continue in Kathmandu, even amid social and political upheaval. But while authorities appear insensitive to citizens’ concerns, a greater grassroots awareness of local heritage has clearly emerged – and that, at least, should be welcomed.

The Conversation

Urmi Sengupta, Lecturer in Spatial Planning, Queen's University Belfast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.