Saturday, 30 November 2013

Cities with Conscience (Bibeksheel Sahar): A Vision for Planning the Cities of Nepal

- by Raj Maharjan[1]

Executive Summary

The way we live influences how we think. How we think influences how we behave. How we behave is how we act. How we act is who we are. In that sense, the actions of our citizens can be traced back to our settlements. Our nation building starts with sorting out our home – our cities.

This paper discusses processes and framework of urban planning in Nepal. It proposes a vision for the urban areas of Nepal. 

The task of delivering vision into policies and plans should occur from collaboration among communities, experts and the government. A hypothetical outcome scenario is discussed in Section 6. The vision outlined here should be taken as a higher-order aspirational goals. The vision stands on fundamental premises of creating well-managed, sustainable and beautiful cities.

The ongoing political failure is responsible for the current sorry state of Nepal's urban areas. Amidst the chaotic political environment, Bibeksheel Nepali (BN) has emerged as a new political force of the young and the willing. A version of this paper was submitted to BN for consideration as their position in urban policy.

1. Introduction

This paper outlines a vision for planning and developing urban areas of Nepal.

The vision statements in this document are intended to serve as a guideline to pave way forward for formulation of detailed policies and plans and subsequently their implementation.

The power and desire to turn the dreams in this document into reality is vested on the future Parliament of Nepal who hold the ultimate mandate to promulgate acts, formulate policies and oversee implementation of plans.

2. Outline of the policy problem: urban issues of Nepal

Between the last two censuses growth rate of urban population of Nepal is about three per cent, which is an additional 1,297,908 people in our municipalities[2]. Most of the growth occurred at a few major cities within Kathmandu valley and a few other cities in tarai. Even at the steady rate of growth of three per cent, more than a million people are added in our municipalities every ten years.

Conventional wisdom, demographic trends of the past and outlook for the future suggest that the population growth in our urban areas will further accelerate in the future due to migration and natural growth. Most of the urban population growth will occur in major cities such as Kathmandu and those in tarai. The population explosion in our urban areas will further exert pressure on the already stretched resources and environment, thereby accelerating the urban decay that plagues our cities.

Due to the failure to plan in the past to manage the unprecedented growth, almost all of our urban settlements have today turned into what the United Nation (UN) defines as “slums”[3]. While we may passionately disagree and view the UN’s label as stereotyping, from an objective urban planning angle that is the harsh reality of our cities. Let us simply look around the way we live in our cities. Are there any signs of effort to make them livable human settlements? Unfortunately and sadly, the answer to that question is a resounding “No”. 

Nepali cities are a far cry not only from the world-class cities but also from those from similar sized cities in India. Our cities have never been approached as planned urban settlements. Our cities and in fact the whole nation, however, hold the potential to become the hub of regional activities due to our unique strategic location between the two emerging economic superpowers of the world – India and China. There in lies our strategic advantage. Nepal’s politicians are yet to proactively and strategically think about moving towards realising this huge potential both at the national vis-à-vis region and city scale.

There has never been a sustained and effective planning intervention to create a city in Nepal. The sporadic efforts such as those called “town planning” in Kathmandu’s Gongabu and Naya Bazar is an outright joke against the urban planning discipline. Such is the scale of the tragedy of our cities that the very areas known as “town planning” in Kathmandu themselves meets all the criteria of “slum” as defined by the UN.

3. Objective

The sole objective of “Cities of Conscience (Bibeksheel Sahar)” is “to facilitate appropriate actions to provide sustainable, well-managed, and beautiful cities”.

BN will deliver such cities by influencing and lobbying formulating and implementing robust acts (laws) and urban policies.

The Bibeksheel urban policies will be guided by a sustainable development approach[4], taking into account the need of the current and the future generations, while aligning with the eight pillars of the Bibeksheel philosophy for a Peaceful and Prosperous Nepal.

Those policies will also align with the characteristics of good urban governance, namely – sustainability, subsidiarity, equity of access, efficiency of delivery, transparency and accountability, civic engagement and citizenship, and security of individuals and their living environment[5].  

4. Policy Options

We basically have two alternatives.
·       to continue with the status quo, and
·       to introduce full-fledged Bibeksheel urban planning intervention.

The state of our current cities should be sufficient to justify a full-fledged urban planning intervention. It is the only rational choice we have. Any reluctance to embrace full-fledged urban planning now means heading towards disaster tomorrow. The “slums” of today need to be managed imminently before a natural disaster or an epidemic strikes. The rate of urban decay should be brought under control and reversed. We have no choice but to strive towards achieving sustainable, well-managed, and beautiful cities if we intend to live in a civilized society.

5. Implementation

The foremost step towards our journey to build great cities of tomorrow begins with the Government assembling a smart team for Urban Planning Commission (UPC). The UPC’s sole job is to investigate and recommend a suitable urban planning model for Nepal.

The terms of reference of this Commission will involve studying successfully working planning framework of various countries from every continent. The Commission will look at urban planning models from English and non-English speaking countries, OECD and non-OECD counties, and those from India and China too. The Commission will report to the Parliament with recommendations on legislative and planning framework for urban development in Nepali context. The Commission’s tenure ends after reporting to the Parliament. Parliament will then discuss the recommendations, enact an overarching legislative framework to facilitate formation of urban policies and finally oversee implementation of those policies through proper central and local government agencies.

The purpose of urban planning and how it is implemented will be greatly influenced by the structure and system of our governance. That is because urban planning policy formulation and their implementation processes are “heavily politicized struggles over distribution of resources”[6].

Formulating urban planning policies and their implementation “is performed through, and has effects on, a wide range of institutions”[7]. That means we have to get right institutional and regulatory framework to deliver on our promise of well managed, sustainable and beautiful cities.

Urban planning is not only a function of spatial development. It also involves political, economic, social, cultural and environmental functions. It is imperative to consider all those functions and their interrelations if we are to achieve a sustainable urban development. A silo approach of over concentration only on a few of those functions (say, economic) is a recipe for disaster. In that sense, urban planning is both a multi and inter disciplinary subject matter.

The role of governance is critical in achieving goals of any urban planning intervention. It is often the role of the Local Government (municipality) to deliver urban planning outcomes. This is both an opportunity and challenge. Success of Local Government in carrying out its urban planning function greatly depends on level of decentralisation and means to resources.

Local Government is where the rubber meets the road in terms of of implementing central govt policies. In urban policy terms, the conventional practice suggests that the Central Government promulgates laws and vests certain responsibilities upon the Local Government to implement them, including the major share of implementation.

Execution of the objective outlined in section 3 to achieve a sustainable urban development is intended to occur at following three stages –

Stage 1:
After debating and refining the recommendations of the UPC, Parliament to enact an overarching legislative framework to facilitate the formal adoption and implementation of the vision discussed in this document. The vision to be adopted as the National Policy Statement on urban planning. National Policy Statements are a set of outcome focused higher-level visionary principles that guides formulation of lower order policies, including that of the Local Government. This national level guideline provides clarity to Local Governments around the direction they need to head. Having said that the National Policy Statements allow flexibility to introduce local flavor in local level policies.

Parliament to truly decentralize its authority by vesting Local Governments the power and responsibility to implement this national policy statement. Resourcing needs of the Local Governments to carry out those planning functions will be ensured under the overarching legislative framework.

Stage 2:
Municipalities’ Planning Department (setting up of which will be one of the requirements under the overarching legislative framework) to flesh out the concept in the national policy statement into a detail spatial plan. The spatial plan may be at city, sub-region or regional level. The national policy statement is like the skeleton; the spatial plan is like filling in muscles and injecting life-blood.

Stage 3:
Guided by the spatial plan, Municipalities’ Planning Department to develop and implement City Plans that will include details of planning rules. This legal rule book will include detailed nitty-gritty of how to implement planning policies at the real world such as rules about where people can and cannot build houses, minimum and maximum height of buildings, where to build houses and where to put industries, and so on. A robust public process of formulating and changing the City Plans guided by the overarching legislative framework will ensure public engagement and good governance. 

The implementation process discussed above in the three stages is purely and highly political. Due legislative process is necessary to legitimize the urban planning policies. Once they are legislated, only Parliament itself may change them. This will address the issue of successive governments haphazardly changing legitimately enacted acts and policies by previous parliaments. Equally important is the public buy in. Active public engagement in this whole process must start from day one. Without public participation, we would be heading towards utterly miserable failure. After all, the policies and rules we are talking about will, in one or other way, have impact on an individual’s property rights. It is thus not only politically makes sense to engage the public from the beginning but also becomes our moral obligation. Public engagement is a Bibeksheel way forward; more so in terms of urban development.

6. How does a Bibeksheel City looks like?

This section is a journey through a Bibeksheel City along the political, spatial, economic, social, cultural and environmental functions of urban planning.

Our Bibeksheel City, in addition to embracing the characteristics of good governance discussed in Section 3, is committed to ensure fundamental principles of democracy such as respect, dignity, justice, fairness, equity and equality.

In our Bibeksheel Governance model, there is true and meaningful decentralisation of power from Central to Local Government (Municipalities). This enables and empowers the municipalities to carry out their urban planning functions. The two layers of government (central and local) complement each other than compete for resources and power. The Central government formulates national level policies; the local government gives effect to those policies at the local level. There are effective and efficient mechanisms to ensure the flow of information between the two layers of governance is seamless. Tensions are kept at bay or solved by talking and listening to each other.

The governance and bureaucratic arms of our Bibeksheel City are clearly defined and support each other. The elected Mayor is the leader of our City who heads the governance arm. S/he has a vision for the City that majority of citizens buy in to. The Mayor along with other elected representatives form a Municipal Council. The Municipal Council is vested with the responsibility of making decisions on civic matters, including that on urban planning. The Municipal Council is ultimately accountable to the citizens and the voters.

The municipal bureaucracy, under a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), assists the Mayor to achieve his vision for the City. The CEO, directly reporting to the Municipal Council, is responsible and accountable for the bureaucratic arm. Under the CEO of our Municipal Council are various departments. Each department has a policy and operational wing. The municipal policy wing implements the policies inherited from the central government. The operational wing is responsible for the day-to-day civic function of the Municipality such as collecting tax and providing services. 

The municipalities are entitled to raise local tax to fund its urban planning and other civic functions. This resourcing is critical for the proper functioning of the local government machinery. Without financial independence the Local Government will merely be a dog without teeth. This resource independence from the Central Government is one of the reasons that neutralise the inherent tension that tend to universally occur between central and local governments.

Our Bibeksheel City strives to be sustainable, well-planned and beautiful.

The City’s urban policies and operational models seriously take into account the sensitive issue of intergenerational equity. The City’s politicians and bureaucrats understand that they have the moral obligation not to compromise the well being of the future generations while meeting the need of its today’s citizens. This is not only preached but truly reflected in their policies and day-to-day operation. For example, the City has embraced a “compact city” model rather than allowing the settlements to sprawl. A “compact city” allows the city to grow vertically rather than horizontally over space. A “compact city” also addresses many issues associated with urban development in relation to climate change and peak oil. The “compact city” model along with a well-defined city boundary has allowed the peri-urban areas on the outskirt of the city to function as green belts. Those green belts serve multiple purposes, including the following: 
  • define the city’s boundary
  • keep the urban environment pure and clean by naturally filtering air and water
  • safeguard biodiversity and water catchments
  • provide source of wilderness and leisure to its citizens
  • act as food basket of the city.
Our Bibeksheel City practices the cutting edge 21st century innovative practices when it comes to urban planning. On top of the conventional pragmatic branches, it has experts in the fields of emerging disciplines such as place making and urban design.

Place making brings together learning from many disciplines to create urban spaces at various scale (local to regional) that are responsive to the environment, need, and demand of the current and future generations. Urban design is a more specialised discipline focussing on assembly of components (buildings, roads, trees etc) within a spatial boundary with intention of focussing on sustainable and aesthetic outcomes. Design of our City’s public spaces ensure that they serve the democratic (such as freedom to assemble and protest without compromising others’ rights) and civic (such as organise concerts and street festivals) needs of its citizens. Our public places are designed in such a manner that they facilitate spontaneous exchange among strangers. Such spontaneous exchanges are indicators of a healthy relationship among city’s inhabitants and that between the urban spaces and people who use them.

Our City works closely with the central government to allow every citizen in its city to achieve economic prosperity. It actively promotes Public Private Partnership and entrepreneurship to assist small and medium businesses. Our City is serious in ensuring an environment where businesses flourish. Bandhas and coercive donations are things of the past. Our City politicians have worked hard with the central government to forge a coalition to cut the roots of these fatal practices. Bandhas and coercive donations are now not only rejected at civic level but the culprits are liable to harsh economic and legal consequences. The law around this allows prosecution of the organisers of such economically and socially disruptive activities. Culprits may be liable to financial compensation, imprisonment or even expulsion from the city. 

Our City has many sister cities around the world for economic cooperation. The City strives to maximise its comparative advantage with other cities within the country and that with the cities of neighbouring countries. It closely works with Central Government to become one of the important nodes of the South Asian region taking advantage of the current and projected economic prosperity of India and China. Our City has been preparing to gain from the economic prosperity of India and China by investing in physical infrastructure, attracting multi-national businesses and investing in human capital. The impact of which are visible in our City in the form of more jobs and healthy terms of trade.

Our City is proud of its contribution to the national GDP. The Mayor and other members of the Municipal Council tirelessly lobby to ensure that the city’s contribution to the national treasure is filtered back to its citizens through various central government projects such as roads of national significance and good governance. The central government acknowledges and reciprocates our city’s contribution to the national economy by duly responding to its sensible demands such as better schools and a sub-ground metro system.

Today, it is hard to believe that only a few decades ago our city did not have even the basic city infrastructures such as scientific numbering of houses, sewer treatment plant, recycling facilities, proper roads and libraries. 

Citizens of our City are civilised and care for each other. Crime rates are one of the lowest in the world. They strive to live a peaceful, prosperous and meaningful life.

Our City truly embraces that children are our future. Our urban planning interventions put the children at its heart while formulating and implementing policies. We have targeted programs and policies to address youth issues such as drug abuse and bullying. Our social mobilisers ensure that the youths are involved in various activities such as sports and music. We respect our senior citizens. There are many projects, programs and activities that allow our senior citizens to age gracefully. After all, we all will get old one day. Citizens of our City view this as investment in their own future.

Our City manages the free libraries dotted in every tole within our municipalities. The library is also a hub where other municipal services such as paying bills can be taken care of. Activities such as paying bills have been greatly simplified anyway. Thanks to technology, financial transcations with our municipal office can be completed electronically via online banking, text messaging or the latest smart phone apps. Applications such as that to build a house may be lodged electronically. Our City has well and truly adopted e-governance which has proven to be hugely effective in terms of cost and time.

Our City cherishes its rich cultral heritage. It sponsors and promotes a large number of events such as jatras, street festivals and exhibitions. The City has programs that encourages the younger generation to learn about their culture. It provides scholarship to students of Nepalese History and traditional music in the Central University. One percent of the revenue gathered from tax payers is contributed to the Central Museum.

The City’s urban planning rule book (City Plan) has a dedicated chapter on cultural heritage. This chapter has detailed outcome focussed planning provisions that ensures the City’s rich cultural heritage is protected, maintained and managed properly. For example, special permission is needed to change the façade of houses within 200 meters of the historical City Square. Similarly, a number of private houses has been identified as having heritage and architectural significance. Special permission is required to significantly alter these buildings and their surroundings. The urban policy rules around building new dwellings encourage façades with traditional Nepali architecture.

Our City’s one of the guiding principles is care for the environment. It is engrained in the culture of our City that development at the cost of environment is actally destruction. The City’s political and bureaucratic arms are committed for not compromising environment in the name of development.

In the past our City’s rivers were turned into open sewers. Thanks to our state of the art treatment plants (that treat the sewer and wastewater) and the tireless environmental recovery efforts of the municipality’s Environment Protection Unit, biodiversity is back in our rivers. After more than three decades the water in the City’s rivers is once again crystal clear. A recent research of Ministry of Health suggested it is fit even for drinking purpose. The once on the verge of extinction breed of fishes are back in our waters. Its banks are full of indegenous and exotic species of birds, plants and flowers once again. A stroll along the river bank is one of the most popular activities of the city dwellers. People of all ages are seen relaxing and playing in the river bank parks. Lovers are seen busy dotted along our parks enjoying the romatic vista.

Our municipaltiy has adopted the policy of reduce, reuse and recycle to manage household and industrial waste. City dwellers are encouraged to sort their rubbish at their house. There are campaigns to encourage reuse and recycle. The municipality joins hand with the local clubs to organise awareness campaigns to keep the city clean.

On the economic aspect of waste management, our City adopts the “polluter pays” principles. This principle has been integrated into the City’s revenue collection mechanism. Households pay an annual revenue which includes charges for all essential municipal services from waste disposal to libraries. A household generating 5 kg of solid waste a week pays significantly less compared to an industry that generates 500kg.

Environmental friendly and Green practices such as solar energy, recycling and responsible citizenship are cornerstones not only among the citizens of our city but also that in the municipality’s machinery. For example, the municipality has its own targets of significantly reducing solid waste and fossil fuel consumption within the next five years.

7. Conclusion

Where BN heads in the future is for everyone to wait and see even the BN leaders and members themselves. The reality of Nepali political climate is that, if ever BN achieved a major player status in Nepali politics, BN will have to most probably forge a coalition of the willing with other political parties to form a government. At this negotiation position there is going to be a lot of give and take. BN should be so flexible that not only the coalition of willing partners but also even the opposition shall be approached to get “buy in” through a sensible bipartisan dialogue for collaboration in their policies including urban policy.

Nepal ko sahar haruko jai hoss! Nepal ra Nepali ko jai hoss!!

Note: A version of this paper is a working paper under discussion within Bibeksheel Nepali  ( Feel free to use this document without being obliged to quote.

[1] Urban Policy Planning practitioner in Auckland, New Zealand; MPlanPrac, The University of Auckland; MSc, University of Copenhagen
[2] Central Bureau of Statistics online resources
[3] UN-HABITAT ( defines a slum household as a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area who lack one or more of the following:
1. Durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions.
2. Sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room.
3. Easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price.
4. Access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people.
5. Security of tenure that prevents forced evictions.
[4] The term 'sustainable development' was used by the Brundtland Commission which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition of sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (Wiki)
[5] Characteristics of good urban governance burrowed from UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 p.74. It is interesting that many of the characteristics of good governance overlap with BN’s eight pillars of philosophy for a Peaceful and Prosperous Nepal.
[6] UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 p.74
[7] Ibid, p. 75


  1. Sir thank u for your valuable article. Sir today we can see the number of population centers emerging in Nepal. Can you share with us what are the implications of emerging population centers on sustainable development?, what are the challenges of urban development and urban planning in Nepal?

    1. Kamal ji, My apologies I had disabled my blog account. let's discuss in facebook message about your question