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Species selection a must for Kathmandu's urban greenery



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By Shaurya Kshatri
Kathmandu, July 20: Old monochromatic photos of Kathmandu depicting vast acres of verdant fields with a smattering of mud houses often invoke feelings of nostalgia and loss. Rapid urbanisation has inflicted irrevocable damage to the once pristine environment of the Valley.
Only 2.2 per cent of the entire Kathmandu Metropolitan City is covered by forest area, as per the forest mapping statistics of 2018 published by the Department of Forest Research and Survey under the Ministry of Forest and Environment. Likewise, Bhaktapur Municipality has green space expanding to no more than 0.2 per cent while Lalitpur Metropolitan has forest coverage of a little over 2 per cent. In 1961, only 2.9 per cent of the total population was concentrated in urban areas. Today, over 54 per cent Nepali population reside in sprawling cities and metropolises. As a result, vast swathes of arable lands have been replaced by concrete driving the once-thriving forest areas to the Valley’s periphery.
There is no denying the benefits of urban forests and the critical role they play in augmenting city life. Metropolises worldwide are thus increasingly creating urban forests.
Although urban forestry is still in its infancy in Nepal, roadside plantation is said to have begun from the time of the Rana regime. Then Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher Rana is often pinned as one of the pioneering figures in introducing the concept of urban forestry, as per Hari Prasad Pandey, Under Secretary at the Ministry of Forest and Environment.
In recent years, Kathmandu Valley has become slightly more aggressive in promoting urban forestry. Just a year ago, the government introduced an ambitious scheme to plant 50 million trees from the fiscal year 2019-2020 as part of its ‘year of plantation’ campaign. “By the end of the campaign we were able to reach 92 per cent of the goal by planting about 46 million trees,” explained Devesh Mani Tripathi, Deputy Director-General of Department of Forest and Soil Conservation (DoFSC).
Currently, DoFSC is shouldering the responsibility of landscaping more than 10-kilometres of the Kalanki-Koteshwor stretch of the Ring Road. Tree plantation drives in the city have been in the news. Especially, during international environment week, plantation campaigns move at full throttle. Side streets are filled with green-painted tree guards bearing the name of the companies that installed them.
But growing more trees simply isn’t enough. Kathmandu’s recent history holds many instances of hapless plantation schemes gone awry. Shrubs grow quickly reaching for the skies only to get entangled with overhead wires. Roots spread across the streets, grow through fences and even destroy boundary walls. Many unplanned plantations have also damaged hume pipes buried beneath the ground, claims Tripathi.
For roadside plantation to be successful, a scientific approach is required including planting the right kind of saplings at the right place, coupled with proper care and timely maintenance -- all of which have been sorely lacking.
One of the biggest reasons for unplanned urban forestry, as Tripathi suggests, is a lack of coordination among stakeholders. Previously, under the Public Road Act 1974, only the Department of Roads was given the responsibility to plant trees next to roads. “Today, there isn’t just a single authority responsible for roadside plantation. There are diverse stakeholders from the Ministry of Urban Development to the Department of Roads, to countless community organisations and local clubs,” he adds.
With varying groups carrying out plantations, adequate guidelines are necessary.
In the early days of urban forestry during the Rana regime, trees were planted without any guidelines. Most of the trees were exotic kinds imported from foreign countries like jacaranda. “Jacarandas are from South Africa. Such non-native plants can reproduce readily and spread rapidly. They can be invasive at times, often causing harm to the environment by outcompeting the native plants,” informs Sangeeta Swar, Planning Officer and Researcher at the Department of Plant Resources.
Much like jacaranda, poplars, silky-oaks (Grevillea robusta) are aplenty in Kathmandu’s streets. However, the problem is that these trees are deciduous or seasonal. Therefore, most of the streets in Kathmandu, which are lined with jacarandas and poplars exude a sombre look during off-seasons when they are stripped bare of blooming flowers and leaves.
“Evergreen trees are recommended for roadside plantation because they provide year-round green effect and are pollution resistant,” as per Swar.
Likewise, in many parts of the city fig trees like Banyan and Pipal stand side by side on sidewalks that are less than two feet wide barely leaving any space for pedestrians to pass through.
To minimise such cases, the DoFSC along with Story Cycle, an NGO, and the British Council has recently published an elaborate ‘plantation toolkit’ to encourage planned urban plantation.
The guideline specifically encourages using native species over exotic ones. As a rule of thumb, the kit encourages using native species over exotic ones while also endorsing evergreen trees.
The toolkit provides a detailed list of 34 species of plants suitable for plantation all around Nepal while also laying out a checklist of things to do before planting a tree.
The Kathmandu of yesteryear is long gone, and we can’t turn the clock back to revive its former ‘green’ glory. But we can at least begin by planning a well-maintained urban forest.