What would have been a rather busy street became the playground for kids below five years of age in Handigaun. Children got their chalk and drew houses, trees and flowers on the asphalt road while others engaged in slow cycle race. This is not a scene from the Covid lockdown that shut the country down two years ago, but from a Saturday in the middle of autumn in 2023, where residents of the Handigaun area have been enjoying car-free Saturdays.
This Saturday, the residents even enjoyed a Tihar special bazaar targeting the upcoming festival and the preparations around it.
Under the car-free neighbourhood initiative, what Handigaun locals are witnessing and participating in is the playbourhood concept that integrates and prioritises outdoor play and community engagement to encourage creativity, social skills, physical health, and a sense of belonging. The initiative was introduced officially on World Carfree Day celebrated on September 22 by Digo Bikas Institute (DBI), in support of ENPHO and facilitation by ward no 5.
And after one and a half months of the initiative, locals and the initiator as well as the local authorities feel that they have helped them experience the community and reconnect with each other.
Locals, of all ages, are more than happy about the changes. For 16-year-old Sukriti Sharma and 20-year-old Neha Shakya, this is the first time they have felt peace and socialised in their neighbourhood.
“I enjoyed playing football with others and saw other younger children draw on the roads. The street was lively and there were so many food stalls; it was like a festival,” says Sharma.
Saru Khadka, mother of a five-year-old, is also happy to see her young one socialise and make friends with the neighbourhood kids, rather than stay cooped up alone in the house, engaged in mobile phones.
Is it a new concept?
Kathmandu is quite an ancient city with different civilisations and communities thriving in their ecosystem. The communities evolved in pockets at a time when modern amenities and transportation were not even developed. Today they are bearing the burnt of modernism that has compelled them to compromise on their old ways.
The initiator of this idea Niharika Mathema says she is only bringing back the same idea to the communities.
“The idea is not new. The community is already familiar with and has experienced it. I believe the Handigaun locals found it easy to accept and thoroughly enjoy the car-free Saturdays,” says Mathema.
Explaining further, she says, “Historically, the communities have been built around people, around the societies we have built, it was never built for roads. Wherever you see the stone pavements, it is an unspoken understanding that it was constructed for people and not with vehicular movement in mind.”
But what may be new for people is the concept of placemaking.
“The concept is gaining traction elsewhere, and it’s essentially about creating or redesigning spaces with people or the community at the centre. This has always been the focus of core city communities; it’s only now that we are seeing more encroachment and a focus on vehicle-oriented development,” says Mathema.
“But the vehicle-oriented approach is not favourable for the communities people had built in the earlier times. Yet it is also an ignored aspect of development. As more concrete buildings and vehicles are being misinterpreted as indicators of development. The reality is the more we add buildings and expand the concrete roads we are going the opposite way.”
Mathema and Digo Biskash Institute, through this car-free Saturday initiative, are promoting what she calls pedestrianisation.
“Old cities or communities like Handigaun, Ason and Hanmandhokha area, all have these stone pavements. Wherever the stone pavements are it is understood that the area is not for the vehicles, but for pedestrians,” she says, adding they are also proposing replacing the roads as stone pavements.
Ward 5 chair Birendra Prajapati confirms that in this fiscal year, they will begin and replace the stone pavements in the area.
The bigger impact
Mathema stresses that all this was held and organised on the initiative of the community.
“We held several workshops and brainstorming sessions with the locals to decide what they want to do. The initiative is after all about empowering communities to reclaim public spaces and fostering a sense of ownership, which should continue even after we get distant from the project later,” she says.
Coordinator of the community events Gopal Dangol, 50, says the initiative so far has been focused on highlighting the local culture and heritage.
“In the core area of Handigaun alone there are many culture, art and musical assets to exhibit. We have also encouraged the locals to exhibit their unique ancient idols and statues that people can roam around and learn about the history and culture,” he says.
Dangol adds that there are many local landmarks including the oldest hiti and a square well. “There are many examples and heritage that Handigaun houses, apart from the common Gahanapokhari or unique Handigaun jatra that people are familiar with, that can be used to attract tourists from all over to this area.”
Meanwhile, together with Kathmandu Metropolitan City, they are also trying to hold different programmes to promote communities’ cultural and musical heritage.
“We are still in talks with the officials to hold the events on Saturdays. It will also uplift the impact of the car-free Saturdays here,” says ward chair Prajapati.
They are also planning to hold exhibitions or tours of the heritage that is scattered throughout the Handigaun area and inform people about the folklore and its importance, informs Prajapati.
Prajapati says people have opened up and grown closer with the people around them, week by week. Khadka, who is also involved in event management, also says, “In the first week, the child was very hesitant to go out, play outside in the streets and talk with other kids her age. But now she is very excited about car-free Saturdays and waits for the day.”
After a month and a half, Khadka sees that her kid is very social and waves to the kids her age and is very happy about the change. “Letting them be in streets otherwise would be a bit risky and as a parent, we would not have allowed but with car-free streets, parents and children are both very happy.”
Connecting with the past
Having streets free of vehicles is surely great but to make the community familiar with and accept the concept again, Mathema has been supporting the community to organise different events and activities where they have something to contribute and/or enjoy.
She adds, “To first introduce the concept we started with a big event, on September 22, where a lot of people came and just a certain stretch of the community [from Dathutole to the Dabali area], was closed off as a car-free zone. In the following weeks, we slowly extended the stretch and demarcated the whole stretch around, up to the road leading to ward no 5.”
“On the first week, we also held a storytelling session, together with the team of the Baakhan Nyane Waa about the culture and the festival of the Handigaun area,” she says.
Explaining more on what they did, Mathema says, “The locals took the initiative to hold slow-cycle race, gatta (pebbles), dandi biyo, baghchaal, and drawing on the asphalt roads with chalk. And we wanted to introduce these old games because people know cricket and chess but not our traditional games. Not just the old ones, but the young ones also rejoiced in all the events, learning to play.”
On the Saturdays of Dashain, the community was immersed in the Handigaun jatra festival but they are looking forward to the next edition of the Tihar-special bazaar and activities including diyo-making and colouring, deusi-bhailo practice and making Tihar-special food items.
In the coming Saturdays after the Tihar, the locals and the initiator are very excited to give continuity to their car-free Saturdays and explore more about Handigaun.
Mathema adds, that the community is eager to focus on holding storytelling sessions where the different generations can come together and connect. “The sessions will highlight the role of the older generations in shaping the new generations, the knowledge they have along with skills and wisdom. Focus will also be on health and socialising.”
Apart from that they also want to bring back the old traditions of making cotton wicks, leaf plates and straw mats, she adds.
As of now, vehicles are blocked only from 3 to 8 pm every Saturday but she hints that they will extend the duration and possibly make permanent vehicle-free zones, with a consideration for the residents. They also plan to take this model idea and replicate it in other older communities of Kathmandu including Basantapur, Indra Chowk, Thamel and Ason among others.