I’m not an engineer by profession, but I find cities of any kind very fascinating. And exploring videos and maps of cities and playing city-building simulation games used to be my favorite past-time (before I was caught up in some career work).
I’m a fan, especially of cities with less horizontal sprawl and more vertical elevations – such cities take up less space, cut transportation time significantly, and save energy and water distribution costs drastically. And of-course: I particularly have a crush on well-designed cities that have an organized mass-transit system, my personal favorites: the city of Kobe in Japan (Trains everywhere!!!!) and the city of Medellin in Columbia (Cable cars!!!!).
Cities are multi-dimensional, that is – despite them being established mostly in a top-down manner (like planned cities of Barcelona or Manchester or Seoul or Singapore), they can also be improved via a bottom-up approach (Rio de Janerio, Brasil or Medellin).
By bottom-up approach I mean – to improve, with minimum demolition, cities that are already overcrowded and seemingly unmanageable; and to give them their own unique identity along with improving its citizens’ overall well-being. The city of Rio and Medellin have done it in a uniquely Latin-American way. They improved upon their slums (Favelas) that were already there, without destroying them (now some of them are crime-free and pose as tourist attractions), they regulated housing in other areas and made it affordable so newer immigrants need not further expand the slums, and they established a mass transit system unique to the topography that could carry their citizens efficiently, for low cost, connecting the thriving city-center to the developing Favelas on the hills: via spacious cable cars!!!
When I look at my own city of Kathmandu valley, I see no alternative to the bottom-up approach. We simply cannot afford the top-down approach anymore – there are too many heritage sites and monuments and people live everywhere in a haphazard manner. Everything is jam-packed and we surely don’t want more dust. We simply cannot afford to press the ‘reset’ button for this city. Innovation is a key figure for bottom-up approaches and we all know it can bring us around traditional problems just as in Latin America – without the need for destroying anything of significant value.
It’s a shame that in my city they had to destroy historical landmarks such as “Sohrakhutte” just for the simple task of expanding the road by a few meters. There is also another talk of building satellite-cities outside ring-roads by destroying historical Newari villages and towns. These are examples of a top-down approach – where an authority figure (government or a company) have complete authority and control in development projects, with little regard for the citizens themselves. Top-down approaches are more suited for building newer cities such as Navi-Mumbai, or Singapore or Songdo-city outside Seoul; all of them being built from scratch out of land reclamation or on top of wastelands. In older cities with historical significance or over-crowding, only the bottom-up approach makes sense. And let’s be honest, regardless of the federalization the the country, Kathmandu valley will still have significant influx of people for many years into the future.
So one example of a bottom-up approach to improve upon the aesthetics of Kathmandu city could be by completely doing away with cables or wires (many cities around the world have shifted to wireless or CDMA and we can get rid of wires in due time as well). Just getting rid of obsolete data transfer systems would free up much needed spaces, exception only being for electric cables. Another method would be to employ smart transit systems requiring minimum infrastructure – such as relatively cheap-to-build (compared to underground metro) yet large enough cable-cars to connect commuters from dense areas like Sitapaila or Budhanilkantha to somewhere near Line-chaur or Ratna-Park. To aid rush-hour traffic, we can instead turn towards local shareable vehicle technologies (Tootle is one example) which would allot an idle vehicle not just for one person – but for any going in the same direction for a small price, as long as there’s space inside. We don’t always have to widen the roads, as we can learn from old cities in Europe – we can restrict vehicles to promote alternate methods of transport within set areas.
Even if we just improve upon the sidewalks and crossings, many people would opt to walk short-distances instead of using vehicles (which we currently do with micro-buses, even to travel a distance of only a kilometer). We can replace the clutter of small-size buses or micro-buses with bigger scheduled buses in a way Sajha yatayat are doing. Big buses free up traffic by fitting in more people per square meter on the road. Instead of allotting massive budget and energy for constructing underground metro systems (which would also require a lot of demolition) we could opt for skylines such as heavy-capacity monorail systems which occupy less space and can cut across dense areas of the city with minimal invasion (Like those being modeled or tested in Mumbai, Bangalore and Guanzhou). And these are to be connected with each other – such that a person living in Koteshwor could ride a monorail upto Lagankhel and then switch to either a bus to go into the city or a rope-way to get to Lamatar. We need loops of transit systems. And all these can be approached only by means of a considerate bottom-up approach, not really top-down. A bottom-up approach also saves us more money and time for construction compared to top-down ones. The philosophy should be to turn Kathmandu, not into New York or Osaka (because we are never going to achieve that in a reasonable way), but into a livable, more efficient Kathmandu.
Of course these are just my amateurish assumptions and it will be harder to implement these changes in practise and people do exist in our country who know more about this than I do. But we just ought encourage ourselves to think outside the box once in a while. We could also benefit from sending our technical people to train in Latin america or china where innovative concepts for both new and old cities are being explored on a regular basis. We need to learn from the people who got it right, so that like them, we can also pull our city out of the dust and into the 21st century.
And last but not the least, I think we need to participate ourselves, as citizens, for the betterment of this promising city.