Nepal is a small country squeezed between India and China, the modern-day giants competing for leadership in Asia, and that play a key role in Nepalese internal politics. Over the last four decades, the Kathmandu Valley (the most developed and populated place in the country) has changed dramatically and multiplied its population by 6, reaching above 3 million inhabitants in 2010. Increasing urbanisation has been driven by Kathmandu’s growing importance within Nepal’s economy, as a centre of government, industry and tourism, which has drawn increasing numbers of migrants from rural areas. This trend has been exacerbated by the Maoist insurgency (1996-2006): threatened rural communities migrated to the valley from the hills in search of a safe haven as the revolts escalated.
With urban fabric replacing farmland, the once distinct cities of Kathmandu and Patan have merged to form one urban mass. The third historical town, Bhaktapur, as well as the peri-urban villages studied during the November 2015 field trip remain on the fringes of Kathmandu’s urban expansion. However, the process of urbanisation is also putting pressure on the periphery and the traditional distinction between village and city is in the process of becoming blurred.
A thousand years ago the Kathmandu Valley basin was occupied by a lake. The topography of the area and fertility of its soil have been inescapably influential in shaping the growth and development of the settlements within it. With clay featuring predominantly in the landscape, the production and utilisation of brick as a building material has evolved and been the prevalent method of construction for at least two thousand years. The craftsmanship and articulation of traditional brick buildings, along with supplementary timber and bamboo, is uniquely mature, recognised and prized as a symbol of the identity of the Newari culture. Following the earthquake, and the failure of many traditionally built mud-brick houses, one of the biggest challenges has been how to reconcile and embrace this locally evolved form of architecture with global modern technology and materials.
A 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on the 25th of April of 2015 and a 7.3 aftershock followed on the 12th of May. 8,856 people were killed and more than twice as many injured. A large number of historic temples were reduced to rubble and many houses collapsed or were heavily damaged, leaving thousands homeless. These families are now living in temporary shelters.
Soon after the natural disaster, the country immersed in a political crisis. The dispute along Nepal’s border with India started on the 23rd of September and involved ethnic groups unhappy about the country’s new constitution. At the time of writing the dispute had stretched into its fifth month. Nepal’s border checkpoints with India have been blocked. The country has ground to a halt and is immersed in a humanitarian crisis. Landlocked Nepal conducts more than 75% of its trade with India and used to import all its petroleum from Indian refineries. After just two months of the Indian blockade, the impact on Nepal’s economy far outstripped damage from the earthquake.
2014-15: Bagmati Southern Ghats, Bansighat, Teku Thapathali Monument Zone, Jagriti Tole (Balaju)
This growth of the urban population has contributed to a surge in squatter communities. The majority of them, established along the river banks, are located on public land. Most of their inhabitants (locally referred to as ‘sukumbasi’) do not possess any property title and live in constant fear of being evicted whenever the government decides to build infrastructure, or develop or sell the land to private investors. The word sukumbasi is applied to displaced and landless people, as well as to families illegally occupying land. The term has also become synonymous in Nepal with an excluded person.
Stretching along the holy waters of the Bagmati River, from Shankhamul to Teku Dovan, the Bagmati Southern Ghats have an inherent cultural significance to Kathmandu. However, their proximity to the central districts of the city has led to their deterioration as a result of the booming urbanisation of Kathmandu in the latter part of the 20th Century, which saw the birth of many urban squatter settlements such as Paurakhi Gaun and Bansighat. The Kathmandu government is, at present, actively upgrading major riverbanks in the city and along the Bagmati Southern Ghats - new infrastructure and public spaces have been planned and are under construction. Together with the proposed restoration of various historic monuments and ghats (funerary stone steps) along this stretch of river through projects such as the Bagmati Sampada Path (by the Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office), the squatter settlements along these banks are under threat of relocation, or removal entirely.
Within this context, we investigated two squatter settlements, exploring the urban tension between the squatters and the rapidly growing city: Bansighat, which is situated adjacent to two historic ghats and was recently brought into the spotlight by local and international graffiti artists, and Paurakhi Gaun, which suffered devastating demolition by the government two years ago. At a larger scale, the Teku Thapathali Monument Zone, which stretches from Kalmochen, Thapathali to Teku Dovan, was also studied to understand the integration between history, cultural heritage and urban context.
Jagriti Tole, Balaju, is sandwiched between the Bishnumati River and the Ring Road in the Balaju district, located towards the north-east periphery of Kathmandu. A gateway into the city, for those seeking escape from the remote mountains which surround closely above, the settlement is over thirty years old and now contains over 150 homes. Jagriti Tole is a multi - faith community and is largely made up of Hindus and Buddhists, with smaller numbers of Christians and Muslims. The Jagriti Tole squatters face constant fear of eviction. Kathmandu Metropolitan City Office road development plans threaten to put the whole community and their livelihoods under threat, with complete demolition proposed to make way for a new road.
2015-16: Bungamati, Khokana, Imadol
Our areas of study: Imadol, Khokana and Bungamati are peri-urban villages located in the fringes of the valley, where the struggle between tradition and modernity is progressively more apparent. They can be classified as ‘urban villages’ due their proximity to the city, peripheral physical position within the valley landscape and the juxtaposition of urban architectural orders: of dense multi-storey buildings and narrow alleys, within the context of a society largely reliant on annual agricultural harvesting as a means of living. The modernisation of Kathmandu in general, and growing accessibility to amenities, higher education and job opportunities has had a significant social impact on these villages. Whereas many of the older generations continue to hold traditional occupations such as wood-carving or weaving; younger generations look for opportunities both out of their villages and out of Nepal.
In 2015, these peri-urban Villages were heavily affected by the earthquakes. Prior to the earthquakes, Bungamati and Khokana were hailed as ‘living museums’; traditional Newari villages whose medieval aesthetics and activities were frequently appreciated by tourists. Along with the threat of a generational loss of crafting skills, the significant earthquake damage to heritage buildings - such as the collapsed Machhendranath Temple - has thrown the historically accepted way in which these villages have managed and sustained themselves out of balance. The sudden shift in standards and way of living post-earthquake, led us to explore questions about how the communities will want to rebuild, where they will want to rebuild, and crucially, in what way will it be different from before?
2016-17: Bungamati, Kirtipur
We explored historic urban villages in the Kathmandu Valley (Nepal), where the dynamic city is extending via tarred tendrils out from high ridge roads, providing exchange assemblies on the edges of medieval urban villages perched on undulating plateaus, retained by wooded escarpments, above the holy Bagmati River. The field trip to the edgelands of the Kathmandu Valley expanded on earlier ARCSR investigations, specifically a summer survey in July 2016. The survey explored a way of developing a live project to rebuild houses for 17 families, following the massive earthquake in April 2015.
Kirtipur is the gateway to a new life through higher education. It is not only a unique hill town with a 3,000-year history but also the setting for the only postgraduate university in Nepal. Students come to live there for up to 5 years from all over Nepal, sometimes with young families, before moving on to work in the city or abroad to carve out a life undreamed of by previous generations. Friction between long and short term residents within this ancient urban metabolism will form a starting point for student projects. In Kirtipur, collaborative making projects have provided an opportunity for a more general debate about adapting the urban fabric to fit changing circumstances.