Right to the city
The city is a wholly human-made creation, the most brilliant and most sustained attempt at refashioning the world. In creating the city, humankind provided a proximate space where all social, cultural, economic, religious, technological and aesthetic values would play out. Since the very first city in history, the polis has been an intricate organisation of space, often overlapping, often exclusionary. Tied thus to the idea of the city is the idea of the citizen. In Greek, the polis is the city but it is also citizenship—there cannot be a city without citizens.
Neither citizens nor cities are homogenous. Cities, like citizens, are composed of multitudes. Each city is a microcosm of the grand differences that make up humankind. These differences are amplified in cities from the Global South, especially in underdeveloped countries like Nepal. Cities like Kathmandu are host to the richest men and poorest women. Mega corporate towers and gated residential communities stand cheek-to-jowl with the shabbiest of squatter settlements. You only have to stand on the southern bank of the Bagmati and look northwards. A cursory look at Kathmandu may end up concluding that gross inequality is its most explicit characteristic.
Cities have changed their character or perhaps their latent inconsistencies have now been brought to the fore, plain for all to see. Prodded by neoliberal capital, cities have turned into sites of consumption, catering to those with the greatest purchasing power. Cities are not public spaces of diverse interaction anymore; they have become regimental and compartmentalised. There are more and more places where the poor cannot enter and more and more places where the rich will not enter. There is no clash of class, no encounter where one sees the other and is forced to acknowledge each others’ inherent humanity. Instead, gazes are avoided, walls are built up and windows are tinted. Out of sight, out of mind.
The question, then, is: who is the city for?
Kathmandu has recently been blanketed in dust. It is now among the most polluted cities in the world. For those who cannot afford the comfort of an air conditioned car, travel is a nightmare. Whether on foot, bicycles or motorbikes, a sojourn in the city brings one home covered in a fine film of dust that flakes off with each rub and tug to form a hazy cloud. When the inevitable sickness descends, those who can afford it trudge to the hospitals and those who can’t have one more condition to live with.
Kathmandu is inhospitable to those at the bottom. It is fast becoming a city where a healthy existence is impossible for those without the means. The rich can always move farther and farther away, to the outskirts and to hills in an endless suburbanisation. The poor will have to stick it out in the city centre, huddled together in deplorable conditions. Just take Kathmandu’s roads, which are always in a constant state of being expanded. The major thoroughfares and the Ring Road are all wide lanes now. And yet, there are no proper footpaths, no properly marked, sheltered and lit bus stops, no attempt even to reign in the lawlessness of Kathmandu’s thousand microbuses. So who exactly are these roads for?
Marcello Balbo, who teaches urban studies at the University Institute of Architecture in Venice, writes that the city “is splitting into different separated parts, with the apparent formation of many ‘microstates’. Wealthy neighbourhoods provided with all kinds of services, such as exclusive schools, golf courses, tennis courts and private police patrolling the area around the clock intertwine with illegal settlements where water is available only at public fountains, no sanitation system exists, electricity is pirated by a privileged few, the roads become mud streams whenever it rains, and where house-sharing is the norm. Each fragment appears to live and function autonomously, sticking firmly to what it has been able to grab in the daily fight for survival.” Sound familiar at all?
The argument is that the city has become a repository for the needs and demands of the powerful. The right to shape the city is reserved for a few; everyone else gets little say. In recent times, take the road expansion, the aftermath of the earthquake, the planned demolition of Singha Durbar, the rampant breaking of the city roads to install pipes, all that dust in the air. The city has been co-opted; it has become the preserve of a few.
In order to counter this state of affairs, it is necessary to resurrect an old philosophical concept and apply it to how we see Kathmandu the city. In the late 60s, the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre proposed ‘the right to the city’ in his book Le Droit a la Ville as a radical demand to the production, access and use of social space. The Marxist geographer David Harvey puts Lefebvre’s conception of the right to the city as thus, “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanisation.”
There is therefore a need to reshape the way we see our city. Kathmandu is not just a canvas to be drawn on and it is not just the planners, bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and the wealthy who get to do the drawing. A city that is resilient, brilliant and sees all as equals reflects the values its citizens cherish. A city that privileges cars over public transport does not have everyone at heart. A city where one cannot walk for fear of respiratory illness is the worst kind of city—a city where one cannot breathe, a stifling city, a city of smoke, a choking city.
The right to the city is inalienable and it is collective. It is ours, as residents of this char-bhanjyang khaalto. But more than that, it is a recognition that in making the city, we make ourselves. As the city, so its citizens.
[Published on The Kathmandu Post, February 4, 2017]