As trailed in last month’s Spotlights, this month’s blog has been prepared by our intern Ross, and draws on his experience of visiting Kathmandu (something he recognises was a privilege to be able to do), what he saw of urban planning there, and what we might learn from that … On which, over to Ross!
Is there a method to the madness?
Nepal, home to Mount Everest and some of the most breath-taking places you can find on Earth, is also home to one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited. Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, has a population of 1.5 million people and is a chaotically beautiful mishmash of buildings, public spaces, and historic sites. A visit to Nepal in 2018 piqued my interest in this city and its urban planning, making me wonder, how does this all work? Is there any method to the madness seen in the city?
On my visit to Kathmandu, amidst admiring the natural beauty and vibrancy of the city, I also wondered how urban planning works here because, as I meandered through the sprawling landscape of what felt like endless buildings almost built on top of each other, there didn’t seem to have been much thought given to the layout and planning of this. And, whilst this created character and a place full of soul and community, it did have its down sides. For example, I saw many densely populated areas which lacked adequate infrastructure, with roads and waste management facilities often left unmaintained, creating a rather unsustainable and disruptive place. This lack of infrastructure and densely populated areas (not just in Kathmandu but also in other Nepali cities) may have contributed to the country being hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with Nepal having the highest daily infections in the world in May 2021. And, whilst it is hard to tell if better planning practices might have prevented this, it is nevertheless a timely reminder of the potential role of planning in improving people’s health, which was of course the driver behind the introduction of planning in the UK.
Investigating as to why I observed these, although beautiful, poorly planned places, I found poor urban planning practices, especially from government, both at a local level in Kathmandu and at a national level across Nepal. A fragmented Nepali government, in which there are numerous layers of bureaucracy, each of which has different priorities, has been partially to blame, with this having created a lack of coordination, slowing down decision making, and leading to people forgoing submitting planning applications and seeking government approval, and instead building what and where they want. A struggling national and local government, containing many who put their career projection ahead of all else, also means that planning applications are more likely to be approved, with it reported that bribery is rife and that the government is seeking to make as much money as possible, such that planners will do their utmost to keep government officials and landowners happy. This has led to a Kathmandu which is urbanising rapidly and unsustainably, meaning its overdevelopment and infrastructure related problems are only going to worsen if not addressed.
To counteract this, in 2017, the Government of Nepal published a National Urban Development Strategy (NUDS), a similar document to the Scottish Planning Policy and National Planning Frameworks seen in Scotland. This document aims to control urbanisation and provides a strategic framework to achieve its vision of a desirable and realistic national/sub-national urban system. To achieve this, the framework sets out a number of strategies including, for example, promoting environment, heritage and tourism friendly economic functions, upgrading connectivity standards, and planning, designing, and promoting the unique identity of cities in accordance with endowed and built development context and potentials. These strategies, along with their associated activities/inputs cover varying topics including infrastructure, sanitation, housing, and many more. Through implementation of these strategies, Nepal’s NUDS aims to introduce a method to the madness, good and bad, that I experienced in Kathmandu. If implemented successfully, this will help unlock the full potential of Nepal’s cities by improving their infrastructure greatly, controlling urban sprawl and improving the lives of those who live in, and the experience of those who visit, the country. The NUDS reflects a move towards better planning practices in both Kathmandu and in Nepal as a whole.
Whilst I support the need for improvements to urban planning practices in Nepal, and specifically in Kathmandu, I do hope they work to protect what they currently have. It is a city brimming with history and character, a city that seems built on community and heritage. Walking through the winding streets, dodging people, vehicles, and even animals, was a truly unique experience, where you didn’t know where the next turn would take you. In a 5-minute spell in Boudha at the heart of the capital you could pass a monastery, shops, houses, hotels, restaurants, and a giant Stupa, all easily accessible on foot. Indeed, this is a great example of a 20-minute neighbourhood, a concept which is currently gaining increasing traction in the Scottish planning system, as touched on in our blog “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
I believe we can learn something from studying Kathmandu in terms of urban planning. Yes, there are a lot of problems surrounding overdevelopment and a lack of infrastructure, but it has resulted in a unique character which can’t be replicated. Ultimately, character should be individual to every city, or any place for that matter, and I believe this, along with the allowance for individual expressionism, needs to be given more weight in urban planning. Planning doesn’t have to be all about straight lines and perfectly planned places. Sometimes a bit of mess is good and, as seen in Kathmandu, it can create incredible places. But this city and its problems do also illustrate the importance of urban planning in creating successful places. Thus, it’s all about balance, and if that balance can be found between the need for places to be well planned, and the allowance for places to be expressive and imperfect, providing at least some method to the madness, places will be better than ever before.
Thanks for reading!
It just remains for us to say thanks to Ross for sharing this, and to wish him all the best in finishing his planning course and in his future planning career following completion of his internship with us!
Meantime, if we can help with any aspect of the planning process, please visit our website or email us at email@example.com or, if you would like to see our other blogs or sign up for email bulletins, please sign up here.
Pippa and Maggie