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Making Sense of the City

Niharika Mathema

The parameter of Sensescape, ie. sensory experience, in the city

The quality of space can be affected by various parameters which play a crucial role in enhancing people’s experiences and lead to their greater well-being. One such parameter is “Sensescape” i.e. Sensory Experience. Each time we move through our towns and cities, we are inundated by sensory input that shapes our perceptions of place. It is important to address these spatial elements since every sense can be significant in perceiving a space and thus play a key function in transforming the experiential qualities of spaces and in shaping the public realm by strengthening the connection between people and place. These include the five senses as viewscape, soundscape, touchscape, smellscape and tastescape i.e. sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste.

Digo Bikas Institute (DBI) in collaboration with KMC and with support from Placemaking Nepal, ENPHO and FHI 360 Nepal organized a series of “Mahasus Yatras" i.e. "Sensory Walk" events on 24th Mangsir 2079 (10th Dec, 2022) from Jamal to Basantapur and on 27th Mangsir 2079 (13th Dec, 2022) in Hadigaun on the occasion of Mahanagar Diwas (28th KMC Day). The basic concept of this walk was to allow our senses (including also the perception of pain or body awareness, mental senses, etc.) to connect with the surroundings and explore varieties of experiences through the given routes. The major objective of this activity was also to bring about a brief experience event from the participants and investigate some specific characteristics that enhance or undermine spatial quality in Kathmandu's traditional urban landscape. The aspect of senses is important to be looked at in depth, as it will later provide implications to the broader topics of Placemaking, Sustainability, Inclusivity, Walkable Streets, Cities for People and Green Mobility.

The Event

More than 50 participants of diverse age groups and gender participated in the Walk at Basantapur. In Hadigaun the target group was children. These participants explored the core areas documenting their sensory experiences based on a qualitative questionnaire survey which consisted of questions like: What can be seen? What smellscapes can be identified? What do the touchscapes consist of? What can be heard?

What does Core Kathmandu look, smell, sound and feel like?

In today's busy lives, people have become so used to just looking at the city, as vision is the most dominant and complex sense, while forgetting to hear, smell, touch and feel it. With Kathmandu Metropolitan City, we organized a series of "Sensory Walk" Events to understand people's experiences, identify paths and points of sensory interest and assess the quality of public space and its everyday uses in Kathmandu's traditional cityscape.

Phase 1: Activating the Senses (Orientation)

The event started off by setting the tone and providing participants with a general understanding of sensory urbanism. The following questions were given as a conversation starter:

  • What are the words that come to your mind when you think about this Place?

  • How do you “feel” about the Place?

Participants were then eased into a state of guided, mindful meditation for reconnecting their senses with the built environment enabling them to slowly begin to notice the lights, sounds and smells enveloping them. In this way, participants could become more present and open to the world around them and focus on their sensory experiences more deeply.

Participants were allowed to walk together in groups but they had to stick to a uniqueness of their experience without any distractions.

Phase 2: Mapping Senses (What sensescapes can be identified and how people feel about the space)

On the Walk participants were asked to notice the following things:

  • What does the neighbourhood, streets and public plazas look like?

  • What are the textures you cannot resist touching?

  • Notice sensations you like and dislike?

  • What sounds would you like to amplify and quieten in the place?

  • What are the smells that describe the place? How does the place smell?

  • Discover the tastescapes of the place.

  • Sensory Interest, Absence, Obstacle?

  • Take photographs and videos of things that are important and note down your experiences.

Making SENSE of Basantapur and Hadigaun

Findings of this participatory walk brought to the foreground the subjective evaluation of the quality of Core Kathmandu’s historic built environment, exploring its spatial quality based on the sensory experience of the citizens and their perceptual memory. The sensory walk enabled a more conscious, deliberate immersion in the surroundings, focusing on sound, touch and smell, as well as visual details to expand even a short walk into a multisensory, multidimensional experience.

The walks revealed diverse sensory mappings for different areas of Kathmandu. The walks were especially useful in revealing how important an individual's memories are to their experience of the places. Older participants evoked the places of times passed as they strolled, overlaying the present pedestrianisation and local shops with a memory lane of streets full of traffic, tower like buildings and dull public advertisements and signs. The specter of modernity has affected the identity and character of these places over the years. They have fundamentally changed in aesthetics due to increasing building heights dominating the temples, uncontrolled commercialization, vanishing of traditional trades and high traffic volumes; all contributing to declining authenticity.

Phase 3: Sense-Making

In this phase, all the participants reflected on the walk and shared their unique sensory experience.

The majority of participants described the overall atmosphere in Basantapur and Hadigaun as unmanaged, grey, noisy, polluted and unsafe. However, this was punctuated in specific spots with a greater sense of imagination and appeal: temples and traditional courtyards mingled with the sounds of temple bells; the gust of wind from pigeons flapping their wings, prayers and hymns, the fragrance of fresh flowers and incense, the aroma of tea, local spices and Newari foods like gwaramari and sel. The latter food item was described by one participant as “Kathmandu as Kathmandu.” Locals exchange greetings, there is warmth from butter lamps, a magical feel of old vermilion bricks, intricate wooden carvings and rich architectural details; these all add character and tell stories from the past, sensations enriched by topophilia.

It was observed that the built environment produced a multiplicity of patterns of walking, oftentimes quicker, then slower, as individuals react to different forms of sensory constraints and obstacles encountered, including: high traffic speeds and volumes, dangerous streets, poor quality of sidewalks and uneven paths (leading to feelings of isolation and displeasure), obnoxious smell from trash and strong fumes. Participants had to constantly ‘look down’ while walking which indicates that the places do not facilitate walking, placing the pedestrians in a dangerous place vis-a-vis heavy traffic.

A more general sense of these places contains a spirit and history carried in the memories of the users. This was also clear during the walks, where many people remarked on the multiple transformations that the built environments have undergone. These included the fast changing experiences of rapidly urbanising Kathmandu indicated by interrupted vistas, neglected heritage, disappearance of traditional buildings and the altered appearance of the ones that remained, the dominance of motorised traffic over human traffic; as well as Kathmandu’s fading authenticity.

Most of the participants told us that they are so used to these places that they often don't pay much attention to details.

In the final phase, the participants sat down together to discuss their impressions and to draw some conclusions on how the senses shape public space in the different places visited.

Participants sensed things they had never experienced before by having their attention drawn to the different layers of history and interpretation.

They were also invited to document by camera the spaces they were exploring and record their sensory experience.

Prepared By: Ar. Niharika Mathema

Program Officer, Livable Cities Program, Digo Bikas Institute (DBI)

Initiator, Placemaking Nepal

+977 9818863100

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