14 August, 2013

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.

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