There is a finality behind the fast-paced alterations and destruction of the squares, streets and facades of the Valley towns. White the process of urban degradation started later in Bhaktapur than in Patan and Kathmandu towns, by the early 1970s it too was experiencing accelerating change that ignored the town´s character.
The Germ an-aided Bhaktapur Urban Development and Conservation Project, initiated in October 1974, sought to tackle the problem before it became unmanageable. Bhaktapur was considered ripe for an integrated town-wide conservation effort, and a comprehensive Town Development Plan was unveiled in 1977.
The Plan´s approach was to preserve and restore the historic environment of Bhaktapur without ignoring the need for urban renewal and economic development. The idea was not to stop growth and development, but to channel them so that the town´s character did not see drastic change. Conserving the architectural heritage of Bhaktapur was seen as part of the overall goal of improving the living conditions of the inhabitants.
The planners were aware that in their efforts to maintain the urban character, they could not avoid encroaching upon the house- or property-owner´s “freedom to construct”. The restrictions brought about by zoning and development regulations were bound to be perceived as “imposed” or “authoritarian”, especially by a community which has historically and culturally remained outside the influence of “national” institutions and administration.
Sensitive to these and other issues, the Plan sought to achieve “conservation through development”, emphasising control and positive action rather than blanket prohibition on any change.
THE THIRD CITY
Bhaktapur is the smallest among the three historic-royal towns of Kathmandu Valley, The most ancient inscriptions date from the 12th century only, but the town is believed to have been founded in the 9th century. It became a seat of cultural, economic and political power due to a number of favourable factors, particularly its location on the former trade route between India and Tibet and the extremely fertile agricultural belt around it. The town´s splendid temples, palaces and private homes date from the 14th to 18th centuries.
Bhaktapurs decline started with its amalgamation into the emerging state of modern Nepal in 1769 by Prithvi Narayan. Kathmandu town became the administrative and political power center, and Bhaktapur, being further removed than Patan, suffered the most. The opening up of new trade routes which bypassed Bhaktapur further affected its economy: The consequent urban impoverishment, combined with disasters like the great earthquake of 1934, led to a great deterioration of Bhaktapur´s urban infrastructure.
Today´s Bhaktapur, perhaps because of its depressed economy, remains more “homogeneous” than its companion towns. For example, in 1971, it was ethnically 99 per cent Newar, the comparable figure being 85 per cent for Patan. Eighty-five per cent of Bhaktapur residents are Hindu compared to 42 per cent for Patan.
Archi-tecturally, according to a 1976 survey, only seven per cent of the houses in the town were in the “modem style” that clashed with the traditional urban environment.
Bhaktapur has a population of about 40,000 within an urban area of 153 hectares. Patan and Kathmandu have 60,000 and 150,000 residents within an area of 254 hectares and 450 hectares, respectively.
A TOWN OF CHARACTER
While it might have suffered more deprivation than Kathmandu and Patan, Bhaktapur still re tained all the appearances of a traditional Newar town when the Project began. The organisation of space within the town and the relationship between the streets and squares remained true to history. The to wn´ s distinctive skyline was unique and virtually unchanged, and the various urban forms maintained much of their integrity: private dwellings, the Durbar Square, and the many maths (priestly dwellings), inns, cremation grounds, ponds, and kiikis (sunken water spouts).
Butitwas clear to the observer that Bhakta-pur, too, was going the way of its two sister towns. By the mid-1970s, some major problems were becoming apparent old houses were being replaced by new structures which departed from traditional designs and the use of building mate-rials. Even Government-sponsored construction showed scant respect for historic appearance of the streets and squares. A survey carried out among all the 5,500 houses of Bhaktapur showed that as many as 700 were so-called “modern” buildings which cluttered the traditional townscape.
A survey of building authorisations granted by the town authorities in the year 2034 B.S, showed that 48.5 per cent of all permits was for building new houses, and 35 per cent for rebuilding front facades. All the alterations and rebuilding was, of course, carried out without architectural sensitivity to tradition. The Project´s surveys showed that the construction of “anti-context” buildings was accelerating. Only two per cent of the permits was for rebuilding old houses, presumably with traditional designs.
THE COMMON GOOD
The Project worked out control measures to check the uneven and haphazard growth of the town and to preserve its historical character. It emphasised the welfare of the community and asked the individual ho use-owners to compromise their personal interests for the sake of the com¬mon good. The Project developed land-use regulations which divided areas into residential, general-use and other zones. The goal was to control population density by limning the habit¬able space in buildings, providing a good micro¬climate within the town, and maintaining Bhaktapur´s traditional panorama. The aim was also to reduce urban sprawl by concentrating building activity in the already built-up areas.
The design standards set by the Project sought to guide the development of roofs, win-dows, balconies, terraces, and sanitation units. The standards applied to all the town precincts and to all new building activity. The Project managers stressed mu Itifaceted long-term bene-fits that would accrue from the zoning proposals and sought to convince the people that conserva-tion of the existing urban landscape did not imply continuing backwardness. Selected members of the town assembly and top policy makers for the Project were even taken on a lour of historic towns of Europe to help them understand how modern developed countries preserved their historic towns.
The Project also tried to sensitise house builders, skilled masons, carpenters and craftsmen. When those wanting to build new houses came to file their applications, Project-trained technicians who worked for the B haktapur Municipality were there to try to interpret and apply the land-use plan and design standards.
Because it would be unfair to expect house-owners to bear the addition al costs of preservation measures, the Project also provided financial and technical assistance so that architectural features which required additional financial burden could be more easily retained. Technical and financial assistance was provided to owners of traditional houses in the “monumental zone” at the historic city core. Unfortunately, this subsidy scheme was never extended to other areas of the town.
The land-use plans and design standards were meant to help preserve Bhaktapur´s character as a Newar town, but the results were not encouraging. The citizenry did not respond with the kind of enthusiasm that had been expected, as could be seen from the number of violations of the land-use arid design standards.
Even some of the most important private buildings underwent significant changes during the Project years. A hundred and twenty of the most valuable buildings were- photographed in 1976 and re-examined in 1985 with respect to change. It was found that key features such as clay tile rooting, wood carvings, heights – all were undergoing changes. There was negligible restoration taking place.
WHY DIDN´T IT WORK?
Any measure which seeks to restrict the individual´s freedom for the long-term good of the community obviously meets with resistance. The citizens of B haktapur did not see the various actions proposed by the Project from the same platform as the planners and preservationists. Many, in fact, found it absurd when asked to integrate traditional features into their contem¬porary constructions.
Control measures were the key in the plan to retain Bhaktapur´s historic character. The unfortunate assumption was that untrained administrative staff members, many of whom could not even read the building maps correctly, would be able to isolate, identity and analyse false signals in an environment as complex as that of Bhaktapur´s. When confronted with a decision, the site inspectors preferred to look the other way, either out of embarrassment or for personal gain.
While the Town Planning Implementation Office looked quite powerful on paper, it was a paper tiger in front of higher authorities. Additionally, the Town Controller and his supervisors, as well as high-level bureaucrats in the national Government, were highly susceptible to the influence of vested interests. Finally, at the apex of the power pyramid, the Minister of Works and Transport was arbitrarily able to reduce or cancel the fines and penalties recommended at the municipal level.
Even the legal validity of the introduced regulatory measures was subject to challenge in the courts since they did not have the authority of duly enacted laws. With weak implementing machinery and with ineffective legal instruments, the task of preserving the architectural integrity of Bhaktapur town ended as a failure.
In fact, things went from bad to worse when the full responsibility for implementation of the Plan was transferred from the Town Planning Implementing Office to the Municipality (Nagar Panchayat). The members of the Municipality proved reluctant to impose control measures againstconstttuents. The Municipality has never had the qualified manpower, the awareness, and the political will to guide the continual development of Bhaktapur.
As for the subsidy scheme worked out by the Project, it discriminated against house-own-ers who did not live in the historic city core. The amount of subsidy was small and the bureau-cratic procedures for approval were lengthy. Besides, subsidy schemes represented a whole new approach to housing that was alien to policy makers.
According to one senior Project manager, the problem was not wifli the citizens of Bhakta-pur, but with the planners who lacked the under-standing of the social consequences of a subsidy scheme designed on the criteria which were not understandable. The public, for its part, saw the preferential treatment of city core residents merely as adistribution of favour to influential individuals.
After five or six years of experimentation with subsidies, the Project dropped the scheme altogether, at about the same time that the focus had shifted from preservation to infrastructural works. This shift resulted due to a change in the supervising authority — from the Ministry of Education and Culture to the Ministry of Works and Transport The Project was now considered a local development project rather than a national-level preservation and restoration effort Local socio-political and short-term economic dimensions now came to determine priorities. Because the benefit of overall urban preserva¬tion can only be felt in the long-term, and that too indirectly, it was natural for economically de-prived inhabitants of a historic town like Bhakta-pur to focus on infrastructural projects which held out the promise of immediate benefits.
The Bhaktapur Project emphasised a bottom-up approach, which incorporated awareness-raising and voluntary participation.- That such an approach might not work in com m unities such as Bhaktapur´s, where the traditional social and cultural values were changing, was not realised until it was too late.
The solution might seem overly harsh to some, but there is no denying the fact that strict and, rigid regulations should be designed and imposed from the top if the continuity and sur-vival of traditional townscapes of Kathmandu are to be guaranteed. The town-people must be made to accept the zoning and building regula-tions as they would be of any other civil regula-tions. They must be persuaded to accept these regulations as an integral part of their duties as citizens. In parallel, the measures must take full account of the genuine aspirations of the resi-dents to benefit from modern facilities.
If urban conservation endeavours are to be more than experiments — and the Bhaktapur Project was an experiment, albeit a large one— a- better way must be developed. Every urban service and infrastructure development project, whether funded nationally or internationally, must have a conservation component built into it. A portion of every urban-based project´s cost must be reserved for preservation work.
The institutional base required to implement conservation measures must be strengthened, particularly at the town level, and conservation regulations must be given legal validity. All efforts to control building activity, or to provide information or assistance, must be sustained and backed by political will.
Lastly, every conservationist must understand that urban preservation efforts will require restricting individual freedom to build and to alter, which will never be popular. Impractical philosophies that are fashioned to cater to the uninformed public can never lead to successful conservation. There must be firm enforcement of regulations that are considered necessary. National politicians as well as those active in the town must rise above the political interest and understand the long-term vision of the preservationist. Only with their support can efforts like those of the Bhaktapur Project ever hope to maintain and restore the old glory of Bhaktapur.