Building Sustainable Cities for Future

  24 min 31 sec to read
Building Sustainable Cities for Future

Nepal urgently needs to learn from its past mistakes in urbanisation as it prepares to develop new cities across the country. 


With the government announcing the development of 10 new cities each along the Mid-Hill Highway and the Hulaki Highway, four satellite cities in the Kathmandu Valley and eight mega cities, the discourse on urbanisation in Nepal has suddenly taken a new turn. Although it is not for the first time the government has declared such ambitious plans, the decision has allowed the debate on urbanisation to enter a fresh round of talks- talks that were earlier thought of as being meddling at best due to ineffective implementation. 

The rise in optimism is due to the fact that the announcement to develop new cities across the country has coincided with the ongoing local level elections and the restructuring of the state as mandated by the new constitution. It is also because of the problems created by haphazard and unplanned urbanisation over the years in many parts of Nepal including the Kathmandu Valley and its adjacent areas, Pokhara, Birgunj, Nepalgunj and Kohalpur, leaving many with the feeling that there is an urgent need to stop the urban environment in these major cities from degrading further. 

Changing Demographics
Known to many as ‘a country of villages’ just a few decades ago, Nepal is witnessing a rapid shift in rural and urban demographics. The change in demographics is attributed to the internal migration that has speeded up over the last 3-4 decades. Urban hubs are absorbing migrants and experts point out the factors that cause internal migrations.

 “Migration from villages to cities takes place basically due to the reasons related to the availability of economic opportunities, basic services in health, education, governmental works and security,” says Bhushan Tuladhar, Regional Technical Advisor, South Asia, United Nations Human Settlement Programme, Urban Basic Services Branch at UN-Habitat. 

According to a report published by the United Nations Department of Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA) in 2012, 43 percent of the migrants in Nepal enter cities for economic reasons and for better services in healthcare and education. 

As per the report, 23 percent are lifetime migrants who become permanent residents of the urban centres. A 2013 World Bank report titled ‘Urban Growth and Spatial Transition in Nepal: An Initial Assessment’ points to migration as an important driver of Nepal's urban transformation. The report states that migrants represent 45 percent of the country’s urban population.  

In 1990, urban areas accounted for only 8.85 percent of the country’s total population and now it stands at 52 percent. In contrast, the rural population graph has been trending downwards. In 2016, the rural population accounted for 58 percent of the country’s total population which was 91 percent in 1990. 

The changes in the urban and rural demographics may look dramatic but it can also be due to the addition of new municipalities (metropolitan, sub-metropolitan and municipal areas) in 2014, besides migration. Since 2014, the government has been declaring more areas as municipalities that were previously under the village development committees. 

In 2014, 133 new municipalities were added to the list of the then existing 58. Similarly, 26 new municipalities were established in 2015 and 46 in 2017 bringing the total number to 263. The decision of the government to add more municipalities, however, drew criticism as it was viewed as a move done without proper preparations as many newly announced urban areas don’t even have the most basic infrastructure and services in order to be declared as municipalities. 

According to the 2011 Nepal Census, 58 municipalities accounted for 17.1 percent of the country’s total population. However, with the announcement of 265 new metropolitan, sub-metropolitan and municipal areas, the urban population now accounts for 58.25 percent of the country’s total population. As of January 1, 2017, the population in Nepal has reached 29.18 million, up 2.69 million from 26.49 million in 2011 when the National Population and Housing Census was conducted.

As per a 2012 World Bank report, the rate of urban population growth in Nepal has averaged over 5 percent annually since the 1970s. In 2015, Nepal’s urban population growth was reported at 3.21 percent followed by 2.07 percent in India, 3.5 percent in Bangladesh, 3.26 percent in Pakistan, 1.13 percent in Sri Lanka, 3.22 percent in Bhutan, 4.32 percent in Maldives and 4.39 percent in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the world’s most populous country, China, saw urban population growth at 2.69 percent in 2015. 

Former secretary at the Ministry of Urban Development, Kishore Thapa links together the political and demographic dimensions of the urbanisation discourse. “Planned urbanisation has become a priority development agenda for the government and political parties lately. This is because of the rapid urbanisation due to the sharp increase in the urban population,” he says. 

Thapa, who was a mayoral candidate for Kathmandu Metropolitan City from Sajha Party in the first phase of the local level elections held on May 14, further says, “It has a political dimension too as a large number of voters reside in urban and semi-urban areas and the political parties have promised to address their problems.”

Urbanisation Drive: 
What Went Wrong 
A 2012 World Bank report lists Nepal among the fastest urbanising countries in Asia. Nonetheless, the push towards urbanisation has been more damaging than beneficial in the long run. Except for a handful of well-planned cities, many urban centres in the country were developed haphazardly without proper provisions for transportation, adequate open spaces, mechanisms to deliver basic services, waste disposal systems and necessary infrastructures such as hospitals and educational institutions that are considered essential to run urban lives. 

The unsustainable approaches in urban development ultimately resulted in ugly looking congested cities that are struggling to overcome various problems. Former secretary Thapa sees the problems arising from years of lax implementation of the rules that were formulated over the years for planned urbanisation.  

According to him, some innovative policies in urban development were introduced during the Panchayat era such as the Guided Land Development (GLD) which has continued since its implementation three decades ago. Many land pooling projects were started across various parts of the country back then. There were also building bylaws for proper construction of houses. Similarly, the categorisation of land for settlement and urban development as per the permissible and non-permissible land use policy was also introduced. The policy designated the flood prone low lying areas for agricultural land and greenery. 

“However, such initiatives were ignored after 1990 which eventually promoted uncontrolled, unregulated and haphazard urbanisation,” he says, adding, “This also led to the encroachment of the right of way of highways, roads and the violation of height restrictions enforced on buildings.” 

Thus, the urban centres such as Kathmandu and Pokhara have become concrete jungles. Thapa believes that it was weak governance that caused violators to get away with it encouraging other people to follow suit. He views the decade long insurgency followed by unrest in different parts of the country as other reasons for the haphazard urbanisation. “It was also due to the absence of elected bodies in the local levels for a considerable long time and also because of an unstable and inefficient bureaucracy,” Thapa adds.  

Environmentalist Bhushan Tuladhar says that urbanisation was not taken seriously by the policymakers in the past. “We didn’t really understand the process of urbanisation and let it happen on its own,” he mentions. 

The governments and policymakers did not even bother to evaluate and assess aspects of traditional settlement design, waste disposal, water supply system and open spaces. “We gradually began to forget the traditional and pragmatic aspect of urban development when the Kathmandu Valley began to rapidly urbanise over the last 3-4 decades,” says Tuladhar. 

Meanwhile, faulty design in essential urban infrastructures has also played a key role in making the cities unmanageable. Roads, for instance, were designed without properly demarcating pavements, sewage systems and mechanisms to distribute essentials like electricity, water and telecommunication services. 

The roads were constructed without assessing the carrying capacity and estimating future vehicular movements. These mistakes made in the past are evident in the massive traffic congestions and air pollution particularly in the capital valley we see today. Such mismanagement in infrastructure development still prevails despite the government’s commitment to not repeat the past mistakes. 

For instance, the current road widening programme (going on for a couple of years now) and installation of the Melamchi Drinking Water Project pipelines have led to an increase in the air pollution in the capital valley to levels never seen before. Statistics published by the Department of Environment show that the particulate matter (PM 2.5) measured at Ratnapark over the last few months has remained at a range of 75-103.5 µg/m³ per day which indicates a serious environmental crisis is ongoing in the capital. In late 2016 and early 2017, the situation was even worse with the PM 2.5 reading at Ratnapark increasing up to 109 µg/m³ in a day. PM 2.5 at a range of 40-60 µg/m³ is considered safe for breathing.  

All these problems have eroded the prospects of Nepal’s major urban centres being liveable. The Global Liveability Index 2016 published by the London-based Economic Intelligence Unit has ranked Kathmandu in the 124th spot out of 140 cities in the world, notwithstanding the country showing some improvement in terms of liveability over the last five years. The annual index which is a part of the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey ranks world cities on five broad categories of stability, healthcare, culture and environment along with education and infrastructure.  

The new urbanisation push 
Nepalis have long aspired for well-managed bustling urban centres in the country with congestion free roads, properly planned areas for residential and business purposes, sewage and waste disposable systems, effective water and electricity distribution mechanisms, efficient public transportation system, ample public spaces such as parks, parking lots, sufficiently available healthcare and educational institutions, governmental services and a well-developed IT and telecommunications infrastructure to cater to the needs of the city dwellers in the modern day world. After a long dillydallying, the government and policymakers seem to have realised the importance of these basic services and facilities to enable citizens to live a good urban life which will increase the country’s economic productivity. The plans to develop smart cities, satellite cities and megacities indicate this. The details are yet to come but if all goes as planned, 20 new cities will be developed along the Mid-Hill and Hulaki highways. “For the last 5/6 years, we have been working at 10 areas where new cities will be built along the Mid-Hill Highway. The work has sped up especially in the last couple of years,” says Shiva Hari Sharma, director general of the Department of Urban Planning and Building Construction (DUDBC).  According to him, among the 10 areas, six have already been approved for land pooling by the government. “The detailed reports for land pooling for two cities have already been submitted to the ministry,” he shares. Sharma says that a detailed study for developing 10 new cities along the Postal Highway will start from the next fiscal year. 

Similarly, the government has also decided to develop four satellite cities by the next eight years in the Kathmandu Valley. Though the locations where the new metropolitan areas will be developed are yet to be announced, officials at the Kathmandu Valley Development Authority (KVDA) say that studies have already been commissioned to identify suitable places to develop satellite cities. According to them, studies are underway in places including Manohara and Sundarijal in Kathmandu, Bhaisepati, Khokana, Bungmati and Chhampi in Lalitpur and Kharipati, and Gundu and Balkot in Bhaktapur. In the modern urban development and planning concept, smaller metropolitan areas which are near to but remain independent from large metropolitan areas are known as satellite cities. Following the government announcement to develop the satellite cities, the plotting of 100,000 ropanis of land in the northeast of the valley and 10,000 ropanis each in the other three directions have been stopped for the next three years for land pooling. “Doing so is important to develop the satellite cities in a planned and proper manner,” stresses Sharma. While the total cost of developing the new cities have not been revealed, the Ministry of Urban Development in a press statement has said that it will cost an estimated amount of Rs 500 billion to develop the proposed city in the northeast of Kathmandu of which the private sector and public sector will share Rs 400 billion and Rs 100 billion, respectively. MoUD is currently said to be preparing the funding modality of the mega project in urban development.  

Other works related to the development of new cities across the country have also gathered momentum in recent months. Developing new cities is a herculean task. "Foreign experts and consultants are being appointed to implement the plan. These new cities will be developed as green cities making them livable, systematic and safer with ample facilities for the residents,” says Sharma. According to him, the government is also planning land pooling at proposed new cities outside the valley as well. 

Areas of Concern
Nonetheless, concerns have been raised regarding the plans to create new urban centres particularly in the Kathmandu valley. “It is said that the carrying capacity of the Kathmandu Valley is close to exceeding or might have exceeded. The carrying capacity of a particular area is detrimental to the availability of natural resources, space and basic infrastructures and services that can be provided to the populace,” says Tuladhar of UN-Habitat. He thinks that the urbanisation drive will be unsustainable with the development of new cities as more people will be added to the valley. “Moreover, the development of satellite cities within the capital valley doesn’t make sense. The proposed satellite cities should be developed outside the valley,” he stresses, adding that true sense of decentralisation of urbanisation will only be achieved in Nepal when areas other than Kathmandu will have proper infrastructures to meet the needs of city dwellers. 

In spite of this concern, Tuladhar views the overall urbanisation plan as positive. “The details are yet to come and the implementation side will determine the success of the plan. If done correctly, it will have lasting impacts on the country’s economic, social and environmental development,” he says. 

Low level of institutional capacity is another area of concern among the experts. The often sluggish progress observed in the development of large-, medium- or even small-scale projects is pointed to the problems related to the capacity of concerned government bodies and private contractors, among other factors. Though the total estimated cost of development of new cities has not yet been finalised, it looks highly likely that the construction of the new urban centres will require hundreds of billions of rupees. “The problem is in our capacity to spend such a huge amount of money. It is the proper planning and other associated elements such as the lack of human resources that hinders the agencies to spend the allocated budget efficiently,” states former secretary Thapa. Thapa who has a long experience of work in government bodies related to urban development and planning says that both the government and private sector lack capacity to engage in efficiently executing such huge plans. “For instance, DUDBC and Department of Roads have been working with a deficient workforce over the years,” he mentions. According to him, DUDBC’s development side budget was Rs 50 million in 2001. “In order to spend the budget efficiently, an org chart was developed to restructure the organisation reducing the total number of staff to 700 from 1,000,” he recalls. “Now the annual budget of DUDBC has reached around Rs 10 billion but the workforce has reached about 1,000.”  According to him, with various programmes operational in the urban development sector, the workload of the department has increased 20 times compared to 2001 but the workforce has risen by just 30 percent. “Had there been a 10-fold increment in the workforce in the department, the sluggishness could have been avoided to some extent,” says Thapa.  

He also stresses the need for focusing on capacity enhancement of private sector agencies particularly in the areas of consulting and contracting. “Full government support is required in this regard as many private sector firms in the development sector themselves cannot enhance their institutional capacity as many of them have to work with low profit margins and overheads,” he opines.  The government over the last few years has taken some positive steps to facilitate the private sector development firms such as reducing import duties on machinery and equipment. This has caused companies to buy the necessary heavy equipment and machinery in plentiful numbers. Nonetheless, they do not have the human resources to execute development projects efficiently,” says Thapa. “Their workforce, be it low-skilled, semi-skilled or high-skilled, have gone to Gulf nations, Malaysia, South Korea, Europe, the United States and Australia. So it is up to the government to enhance their institutional capacity,” he adds. Thapa suggests that the existing workforce of the private sector companies be provided with the necessary procedures, preparing standard documentations and ideas in construction management which the government officials have learned here or abroad. According to Thapa, this will eventually lower the level of chaos usually seen in urban development projects.    

Using traditional ideas in modern context
Nepal has a history of urban settlements that dates back to 100 BC when Lichhavis began to rule the Kathmandu Valley and its present day adjacent districts which was collectively known as Nepalmandal. Historians say that three major settlements in the valley came into existence by the 10th century when the Malla era started. It was during that period of over 800 years when cities and towns in the capital flourished, architectures of which are still visible in the old quarters of the cities of the valley. The planners developed the traditional cities in such a manner that it avoided various problems seen in the urban areas today. “The people back then realised the limitations of the valley in terms of available resources and environment and planned the cities accordingly,” says Tuladhar, adding, “For instance, settlements of Kathmandu, Lalitpur and Bhaktapur were all developed as compact settlements on the hillocks, whereas the lower areas were used for agriculture. Due to this, use of land for settlement purposes was less, service provisions were more efficient which brought the community together.” 

From economic, social and environment perspectives, the cities were well planned and the people also intelligently managed the available resources. According to Tuladhar, they knew water was a scarce resource and built ponds within the city areas to collect the rainwater. The collected water used to be channeled through the aqueducts reaching out to ‘dhunge dharas’ (traditional stone spouts) that are still found in the old cities. Similarly, the old cities were developed with ample open spaces that can still be seen. The ‘bahas’ were the courtyards that serve as communal spaces in the compact settlements. Similarly, extended areas that are now known as durbar squares were for accommodating large numbers of people for big festive, cultural gatherings and also to shelter people in natural disasters like earthquakes. 

“Nonetheless, we gradually began to forget that traditional and pragmatic aspect of urban development as the Kathmandu Valley began to rapidly urbanise over the last 3-4 decades,” says Tuladhar. 

He sees the old values of urbanisation as still very relevant. “It should be kept in mind that the streets are also for pedestrians, differently able people, senior citizens and children. The roads constructed in Kathmandu during the medieval period and afterwards were meant for people to walk on,” he mentions.  Similarly, the idea of compact settlements is still valid, according to Tuladhar. “The delivery of services can be efficient in compact cities. For instance, services like waste management and water distribution are much easier and cost-effective than in scattered and clustered settlements,” he says, adding, “We need a fusion of traditional techniques and modern technology so that efficient, effective and environmentally sound cities can be developed.” 

For efficient traffic management
Apart from proper management of settlements and distribution of resources, equally important in the context of urbanisation is the management of traffic which has become a tall order for the authorities especially in the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys at present. With the increasing vehicular movement, the dirt-filled roads have become overcrowded where people often have to face difficulties while travelling and hours of traffic congestions at different parts of the cities have become a new normal that comes at the cost of economic productivity. To address this problem, the government over the last few years has been engaged in projects to widen the existing roads and construct new ones. Experts point out to the widening of the roads as a temporary solution which won’t be fruitful in the long term. “Expanding a road to take care of the traffic congestion doesn’t make sense. In fact, the famed mayor of the Colombian capital Bogota Enerique Peñalosa once compared the widening of urban roads to ‘buying new pairs of trousers when people get fat’ which does not solve the underlying problem,” expresses Tuladhar.  “People need to reduce their waistlines if they get fat instead of buying new trousers.”  

He gives the example of the road around Tundikhel in Kathmandu where huge traffic congestion has become a new normal. The road was widened to four lanes for the SAARC Summit in 2002. “Even the six-lane Tinkune-Suryabinayak segment is becoming congested,” Tuladhar says. “There are examples across the world such as major roads in Beijing and Los Angeles where vehicular movement often comes to hours of standstill due to the increasing movement of four-wheelers,” he adds.   

According to him, all these examples show that the widening of roads is not the solution. “It has to be a change in the transportation system to ensure the right of movement and mobility of the people. Establishing an efficient mass transportation system will provide the right answer,” he urges. 

Thapa agrees with Tuladhar. “Settlements should have a proper layout of roads, pavements and other transport infrastructures. Generally, at minimum, a four-lane road is required in all parts of a city to maintain smooth vehicular movement. According to Thapa, planners should also think about establishing an efficient public transportation system such as bus rapid transit (BRT) and mass rapid transit (MRT) for long-term sustainability of the cities. “Likewise, areas with favourable weather conditions like the Kathmandu Valley can be developed as ‘walkable cities’ with broad pavements enabling pedestrians to walk comfortably,” he shares, adding, “Broad and well-maintained footpaths also add to the beauty of the urban centres and leave a good impression on the lives of the city dwellers.” Ironically, the current road widening drive in Kathmandu has shrunken a significant portion of the sidewalks. The width of the footpaths in many streets across Kathmandu now has reduced to 1-1.5 metres making it difficult to walk in the already congested sidewalks.  

Experts suggest to the concerned authorities to keep in mind to make the proposed urban centres as ‘walkable cities’ while engaging with the new urbanisation plans. The world over ‘walkability’ has become an important aspect in sustainable urban approach. Different countries have benefitted from implementing the concept of walkable cities and the number of such areas has grown sharply particularly in the western hemisphere over the past few decades.  

“The problem with the New Road area of Kathmandu, for example, is that the whole vicinity has become overcrowded due to the lack of proper parking spaces for vehicles. The environmental quality and living standards there have largely degraded and children and elderly people are confined to their homes,” says Tuladhar. He recommends taking a look at and learning from the practices in other cities of the world. He gives examples of Gamla Stan, the old town of the Swedish capital Stockholm where alleys and inner streets are smaller than the old quarters of Kathmandu. “But the town has employed some of the efficient techniques in traffic management. The authorities have taken the cars out and made it a tourist friendly area for walking. Bicycles and a limited number of electric vehicles have been permitted,” he shares, adding, “Melbourne of Australia has adopted similar policies for the old parts of the city. Gangtok of the Indian state of Sikkim has also pedestrianised main roads like the MG Street making the areas walkable. 

The Sustainable Approach of Urbanisation  
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 global goals with 169 targets initiated by the United Nations for its 193 member nations in late 2015, has mentioned sustainable urbanisation as a major component to achieve the holistic development of the countries. “Sustainable development cannot be achieved without significantly transforming the way we build and manage our urban spaces,” it reads. The UN has listed Sustainable Cities and Communities as the 11th SDG which the member countries have to achieve by 2030. However, given the past mistakes and the current unclear approaches towards urbanisation in Nepal, doubts have been cast on the sustainability of such initiatives. Though the National Urban Development Strategy 2016 and Urban Development Policy 2007 are already in place, ineffective implementation of other urbanisation related policies in the past has raised suspicions regarding the sustainability of the development initiatives. Experts demand a firm commitment from the government in terms of the implementation of the policies so as to increase confidence among the citizens.     

They suggest the government to take people-centric development and planning approach while implementing the new urbanisation plans.  “The lack of proper planning leads to various problems such as declining health of citizens and a lower quality of life, and problems such as social unrest which will eventually cause a decrease in productivity. Therefore, now onwards, the focus should on a people-centred planning approach,” opines Thapa. 

Likewise, the mistakes can be taken as good lessons to embark on the new journey of urbanisation, say experts. “People-centric development approach is the only way to avoid the mistakes and malpractices that were done in the past,” says Tuladhar.