Nepali Times
Public domain


PARKS, NOT MALLS: A slice of green, thanks to the United Nations Women's Organization

Early in the morning, a young woman on crutches enters a gated park in Jwagal and slowly walks around for half an hour. She has been doing this twice a day, every day, since she slipped and fell a few weeks ago. Her physiotherapist recommended that she get some exercise. Grateful to be living close to the so-called UN Park by the Bagmati river, she says even when she was not injured she used to come here for morning walks.

She's not the first. As the sun comes up, morning walkers trudge up and down the paths alone or in groups of six or seven. On the side some are quietly practicing their yoga positions or doing tai chi while the runners run their umpteenth laps around the park. Some use the little sheds installed for meditation and breathing exercises. Others just get together with neighbours to talk about politics, work and family. The park paths are teeming with people until about 9AM when high-school children start trickling in.

Little benches that have been put up recently are well utilised by lovers snuggling up to each other. During the day the park is mostly quiet except for students hanging out and eating cheese balls or late risers running laps. In the evenings the park gets busy again, with little children rolling on the unkempt grass, dog walkers taking a long evening stroll and others who've escaped to the park to alleviate the boredom of loadshedding.

Very few people outside of the surrounding areas know of this little green space tucked away from the city. This land was converted into a park by the government before the squatter invasion. The park may not have manicured grass, exotic flowers or well-trimmed trees, but it is clean and well used.

Kathmandu has never been a green city. Our public spaces were the bahals and chowks. Our modern architecture and the unplanned mushrooming of houses everywhere have left very little room for public spaces in the Valley and even the courtyards in the neighbourhoods have disappeared. Through personal initiatives, little green spaces have sprung up in Thapathali, Gyaneswor and Maharajganj, to be used by dog walkers and joggers. In recent years Tundikhel has been revived by Guru Ramdev's followers for yoga but Bhugol Park is no more, Ratna Park has been encroached upon by the microbus stand, and Godavari and Thankot parks are just too far away.

Tundikhel was always known as Kathmandu's lungs but it has been progressively encroached upon by the army and it is now a shadow of its former self. Yet, Kathmandulays make full use of what is left. After the 1934 earthquake, this was where the city's citizens fled to wait out the aftershocks. If an earthquake like that happened today there would be nowhere to go.

As land to build houses becomes scarce there is less space for public parks. Even the schools do not have enough space for children to play in. With chaotic traffic and missing sidewalks even walking is a dangerous pastime. Lack of exercise means obesity and health problems.

Public spaces are not just used by communities or individuals to hang out in. Kathmandu has always used them for festivals and could be even more creative, with concerts during the warm winter afternoons, theatre performances during the late summer evenings, carnivals and open air film screenings. And who says fashion shows have to be organised in the cramped environs of BICC every year? Temporary tents could be installed with ramps under them for models to sashay on in the latest spring collections.

It is obvious that Kathmandu's residents need open spaces: Ratna Park, Tundikhel, Maitighar Mandala, and the green belts around Pashupati are in heavy use, despite everything. We need more of the same to escape our sedentary lifestyles. And perhaps a little breathing space will open our minds too?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)