Green Streets: The Trees of Kathmandu

Features Issue 25 Aug, 2010
Text by Keshab Poudel

While extending the road along Tundikhel a few years back, the Kathmandu Metropolitan office removed a Ginkgo biloba tree (fossil tree). The specimen, which was apparently imported from Japan more than one hundred years ago, was the oldest tree planted along the roadside in the capital.

Under the Kathmandu Metropolitan government’s initiative, the tree was taken to the Royal Botanical Garden in Godavari, thirteen kilometers south of Kathmandu, where it was transplanted. “We spent a fair amount of money to transport the tree from Tundikhel to Godavari,” said Padma Sunder Joshi, former chief of the Urban Planning Division of the Kathmandu Metropolitan government. “Other such trees are felled and sold at throw-away prices; they end up firing brick kilns.”

The average age of the hundreds of trees along both sides of many streets in Kathmandu Valley is just fifty years old. Despite a law dating back six hundred years which banned the cutting of roadside trees, there are very few antique specimens. In fact, other than the Ginkgo, there are no roadside trees older than one hundred years, and evidently there was a period when the anti-felling laws were not enforced. “If you see photographs of Tundikhel and other streets taken a century ago, you cannot see any trees there,” said Padma Sunder Joshi, a Kathmandu-based architectural engineer.

History of Tree Planting  and Preservation
Jayasthithi Malla, a reform-minded Nepali king (1380 -1395 A.D.) issued a proclamation which levied fines of 5 Rs, a serious amount of money in the 14th century, and sent to prison those who cut trees along the sadaks or roadsides. Nepal’s first Civil Code Act of 1910 B.S. (1853 A.D.) had almost identical punishments of fines and prison sentences for those who felled trees located next to roads. In his Human Justice Religious Book, King Jayasthithi ordered his officials to encourage commoners to plant trees alongside roads and water wells, a practice which was continued throughout the Malla period and the Rana period.

While Malla kings such as Jayasthithi advocated the planting of trees, there were limitations in the design of their own settlements which prevented thick groves from popping up. “The inner courtyards of the old Malla settlements consisted of just a small area which was used as a garden. There was no provision for planting trees except in the ‘divine domain’ or outer circle,” remarked Joshi. People in rural parts of the Valley have a long-standing tradition of planting pipal trees (Ficus religiosa, also known as bodhi tree or banyan) in strategic places affording pedestrians a convenient resting spot.

Still, the concept of systematic tree planting is a more modern one, dating back to the rule of Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher (1901-1929 A.D.). During his tenure, many paved paths were expanded and extended (allowing him longer car rides) and trees were planted on both sides of the way. “With the objective of enhancing the roadsides, Chandra Shamsher had hundreds of trees planted. Influenced by his visit to the United Kingdom and other European countries, Shamsher tried to beautify the Valley’s roadsides and palaces,” said Shanker Nath Rimal, another of Nepal’s renowned architectural engineers. “Chandra Shamsher even imported new species like monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana) an evergreen tree from Europe,” stated Rimal.

Most of the old remaining roadside trees in Kathmandu Valley are testament to Chandra Shamsher’s vision. Species such as pine and monkey puzzle plus other varieties were planted along the Keshar Mahal in Lainchaur, Maharajgunj and other pathways connecting different palaces.

Juddha Shamsher Rana (1932-1945 A.D.) continued in the wake of his elder brother, Chandra, by encouraging government officials to plant more trees. The massive earthquake of 1934, which totally destroyed the Valley, provided Juddha Shamsher with a unique makeover opportunity. “After the devastation of the Valley, Juddha Shamsher restored Kathmandu by adopting new urban planning concepts. This included planting many trees to beautify the roads,” noted Rimal.

While Chandra and Juddha Shamsher reigned over Nepal, many roads in the Valley were transformed from walking trails to motorways. The Rana prime ministers took advantage of road expansion to order more trees to be planted. Even though some trees were uprooted during the course of road work, some older specimens which were planted during the Rana period can still be seen in various parts of the capital including Maharajgunj, Patan, Balaju, Lainchaur and Babar Mahal.

Inception of Modern Urban Environment 
From the time of Chandra and Juddha Shamsher’s reign, a strong tradition developed regarding the preservation of roadside trees. But this has been inconsistent. Just a few years back, hundreds of aged trees along Tundikhel in the heart of the city were removed to expand the road. And only a couple of months ago, the government hacked down approximately one hundred mature, majestic eucalyptus along the Chabahil-Boudha route, arguing that they disrupted pedestrian traffic. The result: the busy thoroughfare has been turned into one of the many un-shaded and ugly roads of the city.

With the introduction of modern urban-environmental planning in the 1960s and 1970s, the Nepali government renovated roads and trails throughout the city. In the process, many of Kathmandu’s older streets were expanded with an aim to protecting fully developed trees and plant new ones where none existed. The planting took a haphazard form, however, with a focus on fast-growing, big species like Populus, eucalyptus and monkey puzzle which were unappealing to many eyes.

It is difficult to imagine but today’s busiest and most polluted part of Kathmandu -  Putali Sadak - once had a section in the middle of the road lined with trees, flowers and various small plants. The original idea was to make the area green and attractive. Unfortunately, the green disappeared about three decades back as stores and traffic vied for space with the plantings.

In the 1980s, urban environmental planners in Nepal shifted their focus from a single line tree-planting concept to a three-line green belt. What this meant is that instead of planting only one line of trees beside a given road, the planners chose to install a three deep row of trees. The twenty-six and a half kilometer long Ring Road was constructed during this period with a provision for green belts to be developed on both sides of the circular way. More than one hundred thousand fast growing trees were planted along Ring Road with the intention of beautifying the Valley.

Trees were also planted along the highway from Kathmandu to Bhaktapur. But people started cutting them down as soon as road watchmen were removed. More than half of the trees were illegally felled before a recent government order went into effect, authorizing the removal of the remaining trees. The logic behind this order was that the trees had become safety hazards. “We don’t have an urban forest concept,” said Padma Sunder Joshi.  “As a result, all of the roadside trees were planted haphazardly. And since the trees are tall, they are at risk of falling which creates a serious safety issue,” he added.  (Note: the tree removal has been controversial and apparently has been temporarily stopped along the KTM-Bhaktapur road).

Types of Trees

In many parts of the world, safety concerns are taken into account by planting trees which do not grow to monstrous proportions. But in Kathmandu, “The government encouraged the planting of Populus trees, which are tall and seasonal,” explained Batu Krishna Uprety, senior environmentalist with the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation. Trees planted in Kathmandu belong to various species. The Rana rulers Chandra and Juddha Shamsher favored imported specimens like monkey paw and eucalyptus. Later on local types including birch (Betula alnoides), mimosa or silk tree (Albizzia indica), willow (Salix babylonica) and jacaranda as well as the fast-growing, imported Populus trees, such as poplar, were planted along roadsides in the Valley. The problem with these trees is that they are not good matches for their surroundings. Most of the trees remaining along Kathmandu roadsides are of the small leaf variety and are seasonal trees. It seems that somewhere along the line city planners lost sight of the forest for the trees. “Planting trees is not enough to beautify the roads and clean the air. We need to be aware and make proper choices concerning which trees are best suited for the surrounding urban environment,” expressed Uprety. “We need evergreen and broad leaf trees,” he pointed out; these trees have the capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and reduce noise levels.

Whose Responsibility ?
Despite age-old Nepali traditions and practices aimed at environmental conservation, there is no specified government institution which is responsible for protecting urban trees. According to the Public Road Act of 1971 A.D., it is the responsibility of the Department of Roads to plant trees next to roads. Curiously, it is the duty of city police to cut down those same trees, when necessary, and maintain the meridian.

The Local Governance Act of 1999 A.D. allocates responsibility to local bodies to protect and take care of trees and plants within their jurisdiction. Neither the Department of Roads nor the local bodies have any expertise in the matter though. And the Department of Forests, the sole body with relevant knowledge and experience, does not have any role in planting or preserving trees along the streets.

The ever-increasing pedestrian population boom is demanding more space in the city.  In the past few years alone, Kathmandu has gained over 100,000 people. “Due to crowded roads and sidewalks, there is no place to plant trees in Kathmandu Valley. The demand for walking space is growing and our priority right now is not trees but the expansion of sidewalks,” said Sunil Poudel, engineer at the Traffic Section of the Department of Roads.

There is adequate space to plant trees along some roads but few to do the planting. With pressure from a growing population and a construction boom that affects the entire Valley, government and local bodies are in the process of chopping down more and more healthy trees.

Non-governmental organization like Explorer Nepal, Save the Environment Foundation and Nepal Heritage Society have shown an interest in preserving the Valley’s greenery but they have a very limited role in the planting process. “Many NGOs want to plant trees along roadsides in the Valley but we don’t have any space,” said Poudel. “We have allocated responsibility to some NGOs to protect the green belt running alongside Ring Road but only a few have shown interest in taking up the matter.”

Save the Environment Foundation (SEF) is one of the NGO’s which is actively working on addressing the urban tree loss issue. “We have planted more than 1,400 different species of trees like Ginkgo biloba, Salix and silver oak along various roadsides around Kathmandu including a stretch from Singha Durbar to the road leading to the airport,” said Chanda Rana, Chairman of SEF. Save the Environment Foundation is also responsible for replacing trees along Tundhikel.

Other NGOs, such as Explorer Nepal led by tourism entrepreneur Bharat Basnet,  have taken up the conservation challenge. Explorer Nepal is taking the lead in generating awareness among the public regarding the degeneration of Kathmandu’s environment through public hearings, seminars and rallies urging people to preserve Kathmandu’s greenery.

 Centuries ago, chopping down roadside trees was considered a crime. It is unfortunate to see that the government is now encouraging the removal of  streetside trees. “If the government does not have the ability to plant trees, it should not chop down the remaining green trees,” said Badri Prasad Khatiwada, an environmentalist.

Thanks to contradicting (or at the very least vague) roles among different government agencies, no local or national department has made an effort to stop the encroachment of trees such as with Ring Road’s green belt. Although fast growing, short leaf Populus trees occasionally threaten human life along Ring Road, they also play an important role in extending life, namely in the form of reducing air pollution.

At a time when Kathmandu is facing tremendous pressure from a burgeoning population, promoting ‘green’ values is a challenging task. Perhaps we cannot turn back time and restore the Valley’s condition to what it was in the heyday of the Ranas, but we can maintain the remaining green trees by resurrecting the traditional Nepali value of environmental concern and stewardship.