At six every morning, Salil Kumar Thakuri jogs slowly to Dhumbarahi's Sankha Park from his home in Mandikhatar. In the park, he runs laps. Each circuit takes him past other runners, people practising karate, people stretching, and the occasional couple holding hands.
Salil is training for the British Army entrance test. Others come to catch some exercise before their stressful day begins, or to get some fresh air before the traffic starts up. Over a hundred people crowd into this small space every morning-it's all they have.
Kathmandu's few parks and commons, hemmed in by high buildings and potholed streets, are the only legroom and free spaces for socialising most city residents have. Part of the problem is that Kathmandu has never been a 'green' society-our traditional public spaces were typically stone choks and courtyards.
In recent years, some neighbourhoods have begun creating and maintaining small immaculate parks such as that in Gyaneswor, or handkerchief-sized green patches with swings and benches in Maharajgunj and Ekantakuna.
Kathmandu's most famous commons, Tundikhel, has seen a revival in the last year. The middle-aged exercise junkies out are out in the morning, running laps, doing yoga, practising breathing exercises as suggested by Guru Ramdev on the Astha Channel. After school there are cricket and football games and the evenings are for amour-the crowd ensues a kind of privacy for couples to hold hands and swap kisses.
But though Tundikhel is still the largest open public space in Kathmadu, it's a shadow of its former self-it was once almost 5km long and 300m across and the biggest parade ground in all of South Asia, says architect and urban planner Prabal Thapa. Millions were spent erecting barricades around the grounds to prevent encroachment, but successive governments have themselves been responsible for trimming down Tundikhel. First land was taken for wider roads at Shahid Gate, then the army commandeered half, and finally, half of what remained became Khula Manch.
Sometimes the government gives back too-the Garden of Dreams at Thamel is a good example of a collaborative government-private effort to work together. You have to pay to get in, but the recently-renovated garden offers blissful respite from the heat, dust, and dirt of the inner city. It's also fast becoming the top choice for a cheap and sexy daytime date. There is ample cover behind the trees and bushes and the other visitors are too busy reading, playing with their children, or just staring into space.
Less well-planned is the random clearing of squatters. Six years ago, Maitighar was a treacherous roundabout of shops and businesses complicating a busy intersection. The municipality razed what it said were illegal constructions and after it was given its current form, the mandala has become the site of often-spontaneous gatherings of civil society and protest groups-not quite a park, but it is open. It's too early to say what will happen to the swathe of land in Koteswor cleared of squatters earlier this week. The ruins look surreal now, but perhaps in time it will turn into another civic centre.
The city's open spaces are always multipurpose. The grounds in Pulchok's Engineering Campus often host casual football and cricket matches. Challenges are thrown down-the wager could be money or just plates of momos and cold coca colas-and accepted with alacrity by teams are from as far afield as Bansbari, Baneswor, Jawalakhel, and Boudha. Cricket enthusiast Bishal Adhikari says he plays at Pulchok, the grounds in front of the zoo, or even at a club grounds in Chettrapati.
Surprisingly few people know about the lovely Raniban in Lazimpat, where you can watch groups practising tai chi chu'an, as you take your morning constitutional. Because this little park seems so hidden away, chancing upon the occasional mass bratabandas or bel bibahas, or a wedding, feels like a delightful find.
In a cramped city where real estate is scarce and expensive, it's not surprising people want to use-or profit from-every available inch. This is why the so-called green belt around the Ring Road is largely a sad joke, in some places an overgrown tangle of weeds or a public toilet, in others a dumping ground or workshop area. Other public spaces are regularly commandeered for religious and political functions, or held tight by guthis that do not want to cede control. The appalling waste of space at Naxal\'s Naraynchaur is a prime example of how a large open space can be wrecked. The guthi-sanstha that owns the large triangle won't consider turning it into a park. It would rather lease out the empty space as a dumping ground or for ear-shatteringly loud religious ceremonies, while it waits for a lucrative mall deal.
"If we don't wanted to be overwhelmed by this urban jungle, the municipality must allocate specific public green spaces for each ward," argues Thapa. "Local communities can mange them; that is the only way to go."