Walking in Kathmandu
Walking in Kathmandu has always been a challenge. In Kathmandu, like other developing country cities, government officials usually put the needs of automobile travel ahead of pedestrians and cyclists. Sidewalks are often non-existent and, where they do exist, they are in poor condition and inadequate to serve the needs of the volume of pedestrians. Although zebra crossings are located throughout the city, cars and buses speed through them without regard to the struggling students and elderly trying to reach the other side of the road. At intersections, rather than even attempting to stop traffic, pedestrian bridges have been created further inconveniencing walkers. In Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu, taxis and motorbikes use their horns loudly and frequently as they fight with pedestrians for space on roads that were never designed for vehicular traffic. Every attempt has been made to ensure that pedestrians are as uncomfortable and inconvenienced as possible.
The only places in the city where one could escape the noise and aggressiveness of vehicles were in the historic Durbar Squares. There are three of these squares in the Kathmandu Valley: Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu. These beautiful plazas are situated across from the former royal palaces and consist of temples, idols, and water fountains. They act as places for friends to sit and chat, children to play, couples to stroll, and families to collect water.
This was the situation that existed in Kathmandu in March 2015 during my annual visit to Kathmandu to meet with our local partner, Resource Centre for Primary Health Care (RECPHEC). In fact, the situation was slightly worse than normal as they were reconstructing the street in front of the RECPHEC office, which resulted in an even more unpleasant walk than normal due to the construction dust and the completely uncovered holes that kept cropping up in new places each day.
Then the earth literally moved on April 25th and then again on May 12th as Nepal was rocked with two devastating earthquakes that killed thousands, injured tens of thousands more, and seriously damaged the Durbar Squares for which the country was so justly proud. I visited again in June and, although it is still early days and the humanitarian effort continues, you can see the residents of the city slowly returning to their daily activities. My normally delightful and happy colleagues continue to be delightful and happy, despite many of them being displaced from their homes. And there’s an optimism that things can be different that I have not felt from my colleagues before.
Don’t get me wrong – people still honk and the pedestrians are still forced to navigate unsafe situations. But, there are signs that the people of the city are looking at their streets and public spaces in a new way. Neighbours are spontaneously erecting signs that encouraging drivers to “drive slow” on their streets, as they don’t want their houses (and fragile states of mind) shaken by speeding vehicles. People are talking about the importance of public spaces in a way they never have before. Local parks and open spaces acted as emergency locations in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. For the first time in many decades, people are asking what will happen if these spaces are encroached and developed. Communities are asking for car-free Saturdays as such days bring much needed joy to the residents of the neighbourhood.
So my visit in June made me feel hopeful for the people of Kathmandu. Although it was tremendously sad to see first hand the devastation in the city, I left feeling the enthusiasm and excitement of my friends and colleagues who believe they can create a new, better vision of the city. I feel hopeful that as Kathmandu rebuilds they can successfully advocate for public spaces and safe, comfortable places for pedestrians. For the first time in many years, it feels like they have public opinion on their side and communities that are ready to do something different.