17 August, 2013

China's Ghost Cities: And Nepal's?

“First of all, there is a “fake prosperity” in many China’s cities. Typically, this is a result of over-exploitation of natural resources and blind capital investment. In some cities, borrowing money and selling land to property developers are the only effective ways to raise funds. But this is not sustainable…” the report added."

Read the Hindustan Times article, from which the quote above, and below, is taken:

“Ordos is the most extreme example of a Chinese housing bubble bursting, with unsold flats, unlet shops and empty office blocks. Most of the new buildings are empty or unfinished,” the report said.

While China's government has finally realized that building and building and building can be a destructive act, when will the Nepali government come to the same conclusion? Turning on the nightly news in Nepal is like looking at a horse race amongst cement companies. Each is eager to give gift vouchers, assurances of patriotism, and now free cash. It appears there are no other growth industries in Nepal at present, except for cement, steel rods, and plastic pipes. Rumors claim all these industries have been seized by Maoists and no doubt receive generous largessse in the form of loans from banks and private finance.

But to keep these industries afloat, the government has to destroy the heritage nature of the Kathmandu Valley cities and all other urban and rural settlements of Nepal, encourage the growth of mega "wedding cake" homes that people imagine will attract renters but are often under-occupied, attract "foreign capital" in the form of investors who have zero interest or knowledge in preserving the historical nature of the Valley or its architecture, and who are happy to build shoddy buildings with nothing more than flimsy iron frames holding glass together in the front, scare away foreign tourists, and in general create inchoate chaos in the name of progress.

I would hazard a guess that Kathmandu's old middle class has all but fled to the USA, Australia and other Western destinations, and this pace will continue at a furious pace until and unless there is a conclusive stop to the cultural destruction happening in the Valley. Walking around the city, I feel it is emptier than it used to be, despite the hordes of people walking around. This is probably due to the large number of empty units of housing and commercial development that are springing up all around. Bhatbhateni, once a neighbourhood of gracious tree-shaded private homes with distinct owners, has suddenly metamorphosed into a vicinity with commercial buildings (mostly empty) and giant clothing shops (with few buyers) and in general an aura of spooky emptiness, despite the hordes of shoppers in the supermarket, and the crazy traffic that hits it around 5:30pm every day. Box-like warehouses with iron frames holding glass together in the front are going up around what used to the residences of foreign Embassy folks, all of whom have now fled to Lalitpur. Walking past at night, I am reminded of the city of Providence, where I went to college, and whose downtown was an empty shell at night as people fled to the suburbs after work. It appears Baburam Bhattarai's New Nepal is already creating a core of urban emptiness even before the economic prosperity can take root. (Thank god the Patan people gave him the finger and told him to screw off!)

Meanwhile, the only signs of life linger on in smaller lanes and gallis that Baburam, thankfully, wasn't able to destroy. These lanes still harbor small shacks and teahouses and bhattis that provide the people of Nepal with a space to rest from the insanity of progress. Not all is lost, however. In private restaurants and newly built bars, political party members and the INGO set continues to party on merrily, mostly in groups of moustachioed men with the occasional female colleague, and where the alcohol, of course, flows most freely. How long this party will continue remains to be seen. Donors continue to pour billions of dollars into Nepal's "poverty reduction" strategies, providing most generous subsidies to this unending party, while most of Nepal's poor continue to flee to the Gulf, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia for basic employment. Surely this state of affairs shouldn't be able to last beyond this year.

14 August, 2013

A democratic society is a regulated one

With increasing numbers of Nepalis working in the Gulf in low paying jobs, the dream of every returned migrant is to make a house that mimics the architectural “grandeur” (some could call it tacky ostentation and bad taste) of Gulf architecture. What most Nepalis don’t realize is that the houses they want to build—with blue glass completely enclosing boxlike structures—may be suitable for the deserts of Arabia but is unsuitable for the temperate climate of Kathmandu. Along with the glaring blue glass that is popping up everywhere all over Nepal has come the need for air conditioning, which was not necessary in Kathmandu where the mercury hovered at a moderate temperate climate. Now we have a city that has more waterless desert architecture and less of the lovely architectural wonderland which was set besides lush forests and sparkling rivers.

One the temples that is affected by the roadbuilding in Kathmandu.

I looked up from New Road, a dense commercial district in the heart of Kathmandu, and saw that instead of small panes of transparent glass that are no larger than one square feet in size, the windows now have giant panes of blue glass. These panes are more than six feet high. The danger of this is quite obvious—in an earthquake, the level of injuries due to broken glass and panes falling on people on the densely populated streets below is going to rise exponentially.

I also noticed this blue glass, some of them in iridescent colors, in places like the historic areas of Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is often touted as the pride of Nepal, the one place in the valley where indigenous architecture has been preserved. But sadly it will no longer be so unless the residents agree to follow certain architectural rules and use local technology. Small panes of transparent glass allow for good flow of light and heat without being intrusive. Without that commitment to abide by rules from home owners, and enforcement by city officials, the city will not be able to hold on to its identity.

A German tourist I met told me recently: “You have these strange buildings all over the place. They are all facing in different directions. In Germany, there are rules and regulations about the ways houses can be build. We have to follow the architectural codes of the style of the city. We cannot do whatever we want.” This sort of disciplined behavior and abiding of codes, however, would be abhorrent to Nepalis, who would instantly take any sort of restriction as high-handed restrictions on their freedoms, rather than simply the workings of a democratic system.

This glass should be banned not just in dense neighbourhoods like New Road, in historic areas in Bhaktapur, but in general all over Nepal’s highways, where they are showing up with alarming frequency. The glare of non-transparent, reflective glass been shown to fatigue and disorient drivers. The blue glass reflects light on the one hand, but also absorbs the sun’s heat and contributes to the global warming effect on the other. It has been shown to be environmentally unfriendly by climate change activists. In fact, blue (and colored glass in general) should be banned completely in Nepal.

Lets hope the newly energized Kathmandu Municipality, which has been taking down the hoarding boards with zeal, takes a look at the Arabic Gulf and Europe and comes away realizing heavy colored plate glass is all very well for desert and sub-zero freezing temperatures but it should be banned in a city with a temperate climate where air-conditioning is not a necessity.

Imposing an architectural code would no doubt bring on charges of feudalism, regression etc. Not that a building and architectural code doesn’t exist— it does. Apparently buildings can only be built up to certain stories. But nobody is following these rules because its not enforced and there are no penalties for not following them.

Witness the rule which said buildings taller than the palace were forbidden in the Kathmandu Valley during the monarchy—the rule came to be symbolic of oppression rather than a measurement yardstick of earthquake safety. I have no doubt however that in all the most democratic of countries, from England to Sweden to the USA, there are rules that stop giant buildings with tacky blue glass to spring up besides heritage buildings, including the Buckingham Palace and the Swedish palace and the White House. Perhaps the day will come when our democrats will mature sufficiently to realize the difference between oppression and regulation—and will one day come to understand that a democratic society by its very nature must be a regulated one.

Does Kathmandu Really Need An Eight Lane Highway?

This summer, the world witnessed the extraordinary scene
of a Chinese boy frying an egg on a pan on a heated sidewalk. He
didn’t need a stove-all he needed to do was put the pan on the metal
manhole cover.  The temperatures had reached 42 degree centigrade,
lethal for some urban residents. A number of people died from the heat wave.

For too long, China has taken the view that growth at all costs is the
way to go. Economic growth, linked to multiple-lane highways, petrol
dependent transport, tall building with glass fronts associated with
“developed” economies, coal fueled factories was to be the model of
progress. Bicycles, that great Chinese mode of transport, was phased

But China has a billion and a quarter population—to imagine this
population should all own their own cars (or even two cars), as in
suburban America, is a mystifying and blind leap of faith in the model
of modern progress. Cars belch carbon dioxide. In a city that has
gotten rid of most of its oxygen generating trees, this can only mean
one inevitable equation: no oxygen giving trees+ CO2 exuding cars=no
breathable air. In the winter, we saw photographs of Beijing residents
suffering from dangerously high levels of air pollutants. Reports of
domed buildings in which filtered air would circulate so children
could play freely inside were reported. An MIT student project built a
nose plug filter for use in cities like Beijing that had tipped over
the edge in terms of environmental equilibrium. The cost has been
high- China now aims to spend roughly the amount of Hongkong’s GDP tofight air pollution.

And yet China continues to push this model at the cost of all else.
And not only in its own country, but beyond. The
Chinese governmenthas made an agreement to build an eight lane highway in Kathmandu’s
crowded transit points.
The plan, which the Nepali government did not request, includes
cutting down 1600 trees in a city where the recent road-widening has
already destroyed hundreds of trees. Kathmandu is a small city
compared to Chinese cities. To add an eight lane highway to an already
crowded small city would be, to quote a recent
thoughtfully written article: “To use gasoline toput out a fire.”
Another recent op-ed, written by a Nepali visiting the Netherlands,
noted that the bicycle lanes the Dutch have developed may be more
appropriate for the small scale cities of Nepal, rather than the direction
we have been moving towards.

For Asia, the model of sprawling car-dependent cities of the USA has
come to embody the ideal of urban progress. But its time now for us to
question whether this is the model we should embrace. Asia is dense
with people. What we need is mass public transport and bicycle lanes,
not eight lane automobile highways.

Asian cities also need environmentally conscious citizens who
understand the state may never deliver basic services to its citizens.
Electricity, water, cooking gas, sewage—all of this is already
provided by private homeowners. Civil society needs to invest in
private business models for rainwater harvesting, solar panel grids,
methane gas generation, and soak-pits for sewage. China’s vast
resources and cheap manufacturing is essential in developing these
four basic urban solutions. It is about time China started to look
towards the wisdom of local, indigenous architecture and city
planning. This is more sustainable than the model of “economic growth”
blindly being followed at the current time.