Monday, February 15, 2010

Copper Trees

Providing a bit of green in a park that is covered by snow perhaps 5 months out of the year, Vigeland cast his trees in copper for the Frogner Park in Oslo.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Open Space in Kathmandu - 2

Taking a short break from writing my latest research proposal, I just wanted to return to this Kathmandu story about open space which I have left to this point, unfinished on the blog. Realizing that some of the particulars of the story have also lead me to my current research focus, I hope that writing this will better help to sort the many ideas in my mind concerning public space, property ownership, and environmental stewardship in urban areas.

On one of our first days in our Kathmandu study site of Sawal Bahal, we found a very large green lot, backing up into the dense developed neighborhood we had been studying. As you can see in the photo below, the buildings of Sawal Bahal end at the border of this space with no windows looking out onto the rather lush green area.

In fact, the only way to see this open lot from Sawal Bahal was to climb a small ladder and peer over an 8' tall wall - the top of which was covered in shards of glass to discourage possible crossing. Upon questioning some residents, a high school girl finally gave us the story. When she was young, some 10 years ago, she and her friends used to play in the area. The farmers in the next community got upset by the children being on their land and built the wall which we had found - successfully closing the lot off from anyone in Sawal Bahal. Later talks with the farmers confirmed this, and further informed us that caste discrimination is still an issue in Nepal. The open space existed because the farmers had purposely elected to build as far away as possible from the lower caste neighborhood of Sawal Bahal. While only a small percentage of the open land was being used for farming (much of it stands overgrown), and all access to the space is now pedestrian only, the farmers had no intention of sharing the land or allowing its use by their neighbors.

So, I started to wonder where the children of Sawal Bahal now play. For the most part, the narrow streets are the only playground they have, as the lot sizes prohibit yards for most of the buildings. These areas are all paved over, and further, the height of newer construction blocks sunlight from reaching the ground in most of this community. It seemed disappointing that there was not a green field around where children could play, until we found a second open site.

Again, this site was on the fringe of Sawal Bahal, but unlike the former space, it held no immediate neighbors due to a steep change in topography down to the next neighborhood. While the condition was considerably less clean and less maintained than the former area, we did find that children sometimes took it upon themselves to go through the gate and use the space for play. More local interviews informed us that the land is held by several owners and changes hands too often to keep track of, but its history so far has made it rather taboo to build upon. I immediately wanted to clean up the space and find a way to give it back to the community - realizing that it was neglected because the owners were not local, and the local residents had no incentive to keep it clean.

The local community group also wanted the land, and expressed interest in using it as a place for play. The biggest barrier, however, was the complicated nature of the land ownership, doubled with high prices for land in Kathmandu. While the land should have been public land, but had been illegally sold into the private market some years before, the muddy local governance that existed did not provide a solid framework for attempting to return the property to the community. Any legal proceedings would be both costly and far outrun our few months in Kathmandu. Slowly, all hope of our group helping in the matter of the land was given up (our money was from the Norwegian government and the United Nations, so matters of legality and documents of ownership would have been necessary for the class to justify any expenditure).

While the focus of our class turned to other places in the community, the issue of the land was not forgotten by everyone. Just before we left, this lock appeared on the gate (which had never been locked previously). At first this scared me, I thought perhaps the owners had gotten wind of our interference and wanted to close the land permanently to Sawal Bahal. However, when we spoke to the local community group leader (who is also the area representative for the Maoist party), he told us not to worry, he had put the lock there. He and his peers had decided to take it upon themselves to clean up the land for the children to play, and had put the lock up so that people would stop dumping things in the meantime. He told us that he was confident that if they cleaned the space, local people would stop dumping garbage there. When we asked what about the owners, he basically laughed. "We in Sawal Bahal own the only road that accesses the open space, if the owners complain about us using the land that they are neglecting, we will simply block the road so they cannot access it," he said.

This all came about in our final days there, when the Maoists were making a lot of waves throughout Nepal blockading roadways and calling for massive strikes in transportation and other services. For better or for worse, it seemed a bit of empowerment goes a long way with members of this group.