Almost two weeks ago, I went on a walk around Patan, a predominantly Newari Buddhist community, directly South of and adjacent to Kathmandu proper. Patan is a major tourist destination, largely because its Durbar Square is one of the best concentrations of temples and palaces in all of Nepal. However, my trip to Patan was a little unusual, because Anil Chitrakar was showing me around.
Anil, who's somewhere in his late forties, was trained as an engineer and energy consultant and it can seem at times like he's worked for everyone on everything. He's been involved in a number of environmental engineering projects, including projects on sustainable forestry and alternative energy development. He received an Ashoka fellowship in 1989 for founding Conservation Camps for Children, a program designed to educate children in rural Nepal about environmental science. He was involved in a major hydroelectric project funded by the World Bank in the 90's. In addition to the World Bank, he's worked for USAID, UNESCO, various arms of the Nepali government and the Kathmandu municipal government. Together with his wife, he founded and runs Crafted in Kathmandu, a business designed to allow local artisans to sell their goods directly to Western consumers. He is also currently teaching a class on "Buddhism and Development" in Kathmandu.
In short, Anil is an institution. He has a wide ranging knowledge that comes directly from years of experience. He knows a ridiculous number of people and how to leverage those social connections to get things done. He is intensely involved in his community and he has a proven record of leading projects that make a difference there. I should probably also mention that he's a damn nice guy.
And he's the guy who is giving me a series of one-on-one tours around the Kathmandu valley. I'm not really sure how I could be so lucky as to have Anil take hours out of his (usually scarce) free time to teach me about Kathmandu, but that's what's happening. So Saturday, Yanik and I headed over to meet up with Anil. We met near the gate that marks the historic boundary of Patan. What ensued, was an incredible tour.
I've been thinking about how best to describe the way Anil thinks, and what I've come up with is a computer metaphor. Anil is equipped with the experience and knowledge to "decode" his environment. Think of it sort of like how in the Matrix, Neo is able to see through the Matrix's veneer of reality and instead view the underlying code vertically scrolling in green lettering all around him. Anil can walk through Kathmandu, and understand the reasons why the city is the way it is, how it's various elements relate, how these elements effect the day to day lives of it's citizens, etc. He is able to read off of his environment information that escapes more casual or inexperienced observers.
This well is a simple example of that phenomenon:
Here is what I, a casual observer, noted about this well:
- It is a well.
- It is covered with concrete and accessed with a pump.
- It has some ornamental snake statues on its side.
- It is publicly located, and probably serves several of the surrounding houses.
- This is an old well, that used to be accessed with a bucket and pulley. In other words, it wasn't originally covered with concrete, but has instead been retrofitted with a concrete cover and a pump.
- The concrete cover prevents people from falling in. But it also prevents people from throwing garbage down the well shaft. Government waste disposal services have been poor enough recently so as to make that a problem. So the concrete cap on this well is a physical indication that certain government services are working inadequately these days. More generally, this well tells a story about how government failure in some areas can lead to the degredation of seemingly unrelated public goods because of changes in the behavior of individuals.
- When the well was open, the constant lowering and raising of buckets naturally oxygenated the water. However, the pump does not provide the same service. Poor oxygen levels in the well water were an unintended consequence of the switch to a pump based system. You can tell this consequence was unintended and unforseen as the concrete cap had to be crudely cut open after the fact in order to allow access for oxygenation processes...
- The serpent figures on the side represent the water spirits of the Kathmandu Valley. Periodically, it would be necessary to send someone down into the well to perform maintenance on it. Before doing this, it was traditional to lower a lit oil lamp down into the well, to appease the water spirits and ensure the safety of the poor guy who had to go down the well. If the lamp went out during this process, the water spirits were believed to be angry, the man was not permitted to enter the well, and the maintenance was delayed. To modern ears, this story sounds like a bunch of superstition. But consider this: before anyone enters a well today, it's good safety practice to check the carbon monoxide levels in the well, because if your well technician inhales too much carbon monoxide, he'll pass out, fall further down the well, physically injure himself, and suffocate. Lamps need oxygen to burn, and will go out in a carbon monoxide rich environment. So appeasing the water spirits with a lamp is actually an ancient carbon monoxide test. Of course, people in the past had no idea what carbon monoxide was, but they did know that it was dangerous to enter a well if a lit lamp went out when it was lowered down the well. So this well is an example of how there may be important but non-intuitive reasons why things are traditionally done in a particular way.
Here's are some small things we passed on our walk...
This is an empty lot we walked past as we were moving through Patan.
This is a road.
Here is an unusual building.
To that discussion about cultural imperialsim you could also add this statue:
This is a small shrine that we walked past.
One thing that really impressed me was the architectural layout of the older areas of Patan. Basically, the older residential areas of Patan are composed of a bunch of adjacent courtyards. Like these:
The historical purpose of this road was as a service lane. It is there only to separate things like trash pick up, mail delivery, etc. from the more vibrant public spaces - the courtyards. So basically, Americans come to Patan, and they often spend most of their time walking around service lanes because they don't understand how this sort of urban space is organized.
This actually confuses a lot of American tourists because they see a passage like that and they say, "there is no way that's public space, so I'm not going in." Instead they walk around the exterior of the buildings that encircle these courtyards. In other words, they walk around roads that look like this:
And this is understandable, because the Patan model, couldn't be more different from how American urban spaces are typically laid out. In America, our public space is usually outward looking. That is to say that the external facades of our buildings are usually what borders the "real" public space, which in most American cities is inevitably a street wide enough for vehicles. If our buildings even have an internal courtyard, it's often private - restricted for the exclusive use of the building's residents.
In Patan, "real" public space is inward looking. As I've already explained, the courtyards are the really vibrant public space. The courtyards have green space, shrines, fountains, store fronts, and spaces for political meetings. They are the places where individuals meet. In other words, the community is centered in these courtyard spaces.
Oh, one other thing, these spaces usually aren't accessible by car. Which is interesting, particularly during a time when for a number of reasons, there is a lot of thinking going towards how to design or change communities so that you don't need a car to live in them. Patan's model might not be such a bad idea. I can think of a few advantages:
- Green space, such as courtyards, raises property values, provided that space is properly maintained and policed.
- If you have a city that is shrinking, courtyards are fairly easy to create by demolishing excess housing.
- Courtyards, because they place amenities on the interior of a space, are much more pedestrian friendly than the block model. Think of it this way, if I'm on one side of a block and I want to go somewhere on the other side, I have to walk around it. But if I'm on one side of a courtyard and I want to go somewhere on the other side of it, I walk across.
I'm pretty sure I read an article in the NY Times a few years ago about a German city that was trying something like this. But a google search isn't turning anything up right now...
I did notice one issue with Patan's courtyards, though. Over time, possibly due to poor or unenforced zoning rules, they've become congested. This large space, which used to serve as an emergency reservoir for Patan, is a good example.
Anil is currently working with the local community to restore this reservoir space. As part of that plan, the water quality has been fixed. Previously there was an oxygenation problem, and as a result the pool was just a large cesspool of duckweed and algae. To fix that, the water was cleaned, and a fixed paddle boat-like system was installed. Basically, people can come to the reservoir, get a little exercise cycling and this process oxygenates the pool at the same time. The next step has been to collect money from the community to repave the square. Then finally, the walls around the reservoir will be removed and replaced with stairs down to the surface of the water. The result should be a public space that is practically useful as a source of water and also aesthetically pleasing. That second point should hopefully make the space a good location for restaurants and cafes, which are well positioned to benefit from the large number of tourists who visit Patan every year.
At the end of our tour, we stopped by Durbar Square. It's a major tourist location, and with good reason. I'm not going to write much about it, but here are a few photos...