Enhancing urban public spaces | Inquirer Opinion
Commentary

Enhancing urban public spaces

Kathmandu—Overhead bridges often become hangout spaces where people spend time observing the hustle and bustle of the city. Even in the small and noisy traffic island of Koteshwor junction, one can observe people resting and killing time. Similarly, plenty of people visit the open land of Koteshwor-Tinkune to play sports, and many more are there as spectators.

These examples indicate the growing demand and potential for public spaces in Kathmandu.

Having public spaces in urban areas has multiple benefits. Open spaces improve public health by providing space for physical activity and refreshment. They make places socially and economically vibrant by attracting people and activities. They serve as emergency shelters during disasters like earthquakes. If planned well, open spaces help in biodiversity conservation and groundwater recharge.

The UN-Habitat recommends 15 to 20 percent of urban land for open public spaces. But the irregular distribution of public spaces has also reinforced their unavailability. Advocates for urban public spaces recommend the availability of open spaces within walking distance, a 400-meter radius. However, many places in our cities do not have public spaces nearby, and even when they are available, they are usually gated and inaccessible.

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Public parks are confined within high boundary walls and gates. Shielding public spaces from the public is a paradox, although it is supported by common reasonings such as possible vandalism, waste littering, and maintenance difficulty. As a result, we are undermining the value of public spaces.

Similarly, unifunctional and exclusive planning approaches have also compromised the effectiveness of public spaces. Public parks designed for specific demographics, such as elderly people’s and children’s parks, have become a new trend. When this is not the case, the spaces still lack provisions for a diverse population: women, children, differently abled, and so on.

Furthermore, ecological dimensions are rarely considered during the development of public spaces. Local hydrology, geology, biodiversity, and natural ecosystems are disregarded. Approaches like the plantation of non-native vegetation for mere beautification, a large proportion of hardscape, and the absence of stormwater management systems show a superficial approach to public space management.

In addition to these issues, open spaces constantly threaten encroachment. Sometimes, encroachments seem like an act of conservation but end up with the controlled ownership of some individuals or groups. Despite all such challenges, urban public spaces can be enhanced in many ways.

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Existing and potential open spaces should be identified; larger parks, khya (culturally significant open lands), urban pockets, riverfronts, traditional ponds, courtyards, and other potential spaces should be mapped out and planned for. Encroached public lands should be reclaimed. As for new urban areas, the government should provide open spaces beforehand.

Identified public spaces should be managed, with due consideration of their typology and context. Larger parks can be developed with a significant proportion of native greenery and diverse spaces such as sports areas, recreational areas, water bodies, and gardens. Basic services like public toilets and drinking water services should be arranged.

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Smaller spaces can also be designed as urban green pockets.

Riverside landscape can also be capitalized as urban public spaces. Some riverside parks have already demonstrated the use value of riverfronts. However, the custom of retaining wall boundaries and ornamental landscape disassociates the river’s relationship with the land and people. Therefore, riverside development that promotes biodiversity and ecological sustainability and strengthens people’s physical and spiritual relationship with water is essential. We can also capitalize on traditional open spaces like ponds and courtyards. For instance, ponds can be revitalized with proper pavements, seating spaces, and safety.

Creative strategies are required to transform unconventional spaces such as overhead bridges, sidewalks, bus stops, and traffic islands into appealing public spaces. For instance, a pedestrian bridge, beyond its functional use of crossing roads, can act as a lively space if upgraded with public space amenities. Greenery addition, shed, carved-out spaces for interaction, seating spaces, and artworks are a few strategies. Likewise, wide sidewalks can be transformed into green infrastructure networks constituting rest spaces, kiosks, and drinking water fountains.

Providing open spaces is not enough in itself, though. Ultimately, public spaces should be physically well interconnected with existing urban networks to make them more accessible, practical, and contextual. The Kathmandu Post/Asia News Network(Like in Kathmandu, there is public clamor for more green spaces in Metro Manila and in major cities across the country, as previously published articles here have discussed. The positive feedback on the Iloilo River Esplanade and the ongoing Pasig River Promenade project is testament to this clamor for more open spaces as an essential part of urban development.—Ed.)

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