Kathmandu is a city famous for plenty of its charms but its capacity urban planning isn’t one of them. In fact the city struggles with overwhelmed roads, lack of open spaces, mismanaged waste and other problems which often outspill into vulnerable communities. However, urban planning has been institutionalized in Nepal for more than a decade. This begs the question, what’s holding Kathmandu back from becoming a planned city?
In todays episode, PEI’s Sudipa is in conversation with Urban Planner Shrinkhala Khatiwada to discuss Kathmandu’s urban planning history, current state, unique challenges, and opportunities. The two explore the core principal behind how urban planning is approached in the city, as Shrinkhala’s own experiences working in the field. They evaluate the cities priorities as exemplified by its recent urban planning projects, and end with an exploration on potentials and possibilities.
Shrinkhala is founder of Gaatha, an architecture and design firm. She completed her Masters in Urban Planning from Harvard University. She has led multiple national and international architectural and urban planning projects, where she collaborated with a range of stakeholders including local government bodies, development partners, technical experts and community. She has a Masters in Urban Planning from Harvard University.
Sudipa Pathak: Hello, Shrinkhala. Welcome to Pods by PEI. I am excited to have you here and look forward to our conversation. To start, could you please tell us what drew you to urban planning?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: Thank you so much for having me here. To start with, I did my undergrad in architecture and to give you a brief idea, architecture mostly deals with individual projects. However, in 2019, after my Miss Nepal year was over, I participated in a voluntary organization called Riksha, where we worked with the Lalitpur municipality in identifying open spaces that had been misused. meant by misused is that they had either been used or encroached for illegal parking, or they were just underutilized.
So through rickshaw, what we did was we collaborated with this municipality and started working on three or four open spaces. And we worked on converting them into usable, publicly accessible green spaces. Throughout this year I kept realizing a few things. One is that a city was a very complex being and I was curious also because cities were not just about open spaces and to develop open spaces, you had to collaborate with communities, which involved a lot of social issues, economic issues religious and cultural issues.
So in this particular year, my curiosity towards cities and its ecosystem grew and I realized that I really needed to study further to understand how it worked as a whole. That led me study urban planning and led me to be more curious about urban issues.
Sudipa Pathak: These days, when I scroll social media, I get to see these beautifully nostalgic pictures of Kathmandu Valley and its settlement from the past, probably from the 50s or 60s. And when we look at the Kathmandu Valley right now, we see a completely different picture of the settlement and valley in itself. Can we quickly Touch on two key components, urban planning and Kathmandu. These are rarely spoken together. Can you provide a brief overview of the history and current state of urban planning?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: Sure. I think we all have gone through this, this nostalgia of the past. Like you said now and again this, this image of ancient Kathmandu, which kind of looks like current Amsterdam. Pops up on our social media and we suddenly start thinking what happened, right? What happened? We used to be such a beautiful city.
What changed? So to start with, we need to understand that Kathmandu is an ancient city and its history dates. Over 2000 years. I'm not a historian, but I can confidently say that Kathmandu is a city that was built before cars. What that means is that the buildings around Kathmandu, the public spaces, the roads that we see today, especially inside Ring Road, when they were built initially, were not built for cars.
These were cities built for people to walk. Later on they were used for bicycles, for informal vendors. In these old pictures, you see people carrying, their produce from, from their farms and bringing it into the city. So the city was built around people, their livelihood.
However, if you look at Kathmandu Valley, outside of Ring Road or outside of the ancient areas in Baghdad, The poor or Lollipool or Kathmandu, you'll realize that these are post car cities. That means they started to sprawl out after we, we got motorized access and people could travel longer distances for commute, for work, for livelihood, for education.
And they were dependent on cars, on buses, on bikes to do that. So these are two distinct facts we need [00:04:00] to understand at first. Second is we often think that Kathmandu was developed very haphazardly and there has never been any planning done. However, that is wrong. There have been many master plans in the past that has brought Kathmandu to be the way it is today.
For example There was a zoning done in Kathmandu, which identified areas for industries, for farming for airport as we see it today and as future expansion zones we also identified river corridors. So Kathmandu Valley in multiple phases in history has actually developed many master plans.
Some have been incredibly successful, some have not. Other example is the building bylaws that we see today. You can't build without building permits. You can't build buildings as tall as you want unless you are breaking the rule of law. You can't encroach. someone else's land. You need a certain road access to, to reach a [00:05:00] certain kind of land in Kathmandu.
So they have been building bylaws. You, you hear of GLD, you hear of many rules whenever. If ever you have planned to build an infrastructure in the valley, you'll realize that there are many plans in place. However, we have failed to incorporate these multiple phased master plans into into a sustainable, Vision and another important thing to understand why it happened or why we see a half a side development in Kathmandu is that during the most insurgency Nepal as a whole, so vacancy of local government leaders.
We didn't have a functioning elected local government or local body, which meant that the bureaucrats were a de facto government agencies, right? And, and they were courier bureaucrats. So there wasn't a public mandate or publicly chosen government to look after a lot of things.
And, and, 11, I [00:06:00] believe, was a crucial year when Baburam Bhattarai became prime minister, and he was one of the first prime ministers to actually be interested in urban issues.
He also has a master's in urban planning, I believe. So he spearheaded a campaign of road expansion in in Kathmandu City which was, I believe praised by a lot of people, but we can go deeper later on if we have time to why that had good and bad booth. But that was, I think, a time when KVPD, Kathmandu Valley Planning and Development Authority was formed.
That was a very important point in history because KVPD worked on creating many building bylaws and working as a, as a central government's agent in, in planning and development of Kathmandu Valley. So just giving you a brief idea of how Kathmandu Valley has been shaped today. Yeah, so that's like a brief snapshot of history.
Sudipa Pathak: On that note Shinkhala, you brought up a very important topic [00:07:00] of... 2011 road expansion project led by then Prime Minister Babu Rambhatta and we will definitely delve in the topic in depth later on. For now, in that light, in whatever we just talked about, maybe we can also talk about What are the unique challenges and opportunities the city faces?
And also, in what ways have you observed the scene of urban planning is different in Kathmandu than from any other cities?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: Like every city, Kathmandu Valley is unique. And it's also important to realize that there's never a one size fits all. When we talk about cities, every city has its own history, its own traditions, its own ecosystem. So it's important to realize that every city needs to have a specialized approach to development.
In that light, Kathmandu, I think is unique and special. I say special because it has a lot of intangible heritages apart from the tangible ones, which [00:08:00] intertwine very closely with the physical environment. So Kathmandu has if you talk about Kathmandu Valley, it has Three Darbar squares three ancient old town cities and settlements. Apart from that, we also need to realize that Kathmandu Valley, although we use it as a single entity, for example, when you say I live in Bhaktapur, it is also Kathmandu.
Or if someone asks, if you are someone who lives, for example, in Kirtipur, you'll say you live in Kathmandu, right? Kathmandu is synonym to Kathmandu Valley as a whole. However, in terms of jurisdiction, jurisdiction, Kathmandu has 18 municipalities. So each municipality has a different mayor, has a different budget, has a different areas to work with.
So 18 municipalities working together inside Kathmandu Valley, which intermingle together. So if you live in Lalitpur, you work in Kathmandu, you have family in Bhaktapur, you have friends in Kirtipur, it's a very natural intermingling that [00:09:00] happens between these jurisdictions. So Kathmandu is unique in that sense as well, because although you are a mayor of, let's say, Bhaktapur, you can't work alone.
You always need to work in collaboration of, of all these other municipalities as a whole. That's why Kathmandu is unique in that front. Second, like I mentioned, it is a old town, religious and cultural city. It has a lot of intangible heritages, which I mentioned earlier. What it means is that I'll show you a.
A small example inside Kathmandu Valley, there are different routes for chariot processions that happen for Indra Jatra, for Rathuma Chindranath Jatra. So even in the ancient town that created the city and that created roads as such that they could fit in the chariots, they could fit in the people.
And they also had. to take a rest. So they had little plazas where you could rest the chariot at [00:10:00] night, where people could do the religious offerings and all of that. So it was already planned around the religious activities of the city. So intangible heritages were shaping the physical infrastructure of the city.
So whenever we are thinking about planning in Kathmandu, you also have to think about these heritages, these cultural sites, the traditions and All that comes along with it. Furthermore, I remember I mentioned earlier that Kathmandu Valley, especially the old town Kathmandu, was designed for people, for people's livelihood to accommodate informal economy.
Because although we are moving towards formalization, majority of our economic activities happen informally inside Kathmandu Valley. So you see a lot of street vendors, you see a lot of stores that probably sometimes are not even registered. You know, you see these little grocery stores in your neighborhood that have been passed down upon generations and generations and, and it's like a part of your, your, your [00:11:00] community, right?
So you need to understand these nuances of Kathmandu when you see it. Furthermore, I think another important factor is Kathmandu is actually not a very big city, which makes it very ideal for active modes of mobility. What that means. is that it's a very walkable city. If we had the infrastructure for it, Kathmandu would have been a very walkable and bikeable city.
If you look at the size of Ring Road, the circumference might be 27 kilometers, but the radius, that means from the edge of Ring Road to the city center from any point, it's hardly four to five four Two five kilometers, which means it's very easy to bike across town to go to the city center, even if you're living in the edge of ring road.
So we have to realize that Kathmandu is a very it's, it's a perfect city to, to take up walking and biking. Another important factor is in terms of climate. We are [00:12:00] an ideal city as well, because our temperatures don't get very hot or very cold. It doesn't snow, neither does it get above 30, 32 degrees even in peak summer.
So Kathmandu is a perfect city in that sense as well. So that also makes it very, very unique. I think that the another important thing I realized, especially after studying in the US and working in Argentina, is that we have a very nice density of people living in the city. What that means is that we have an ideal number of people living in an ideal square footage of area.
And why it's important is because whenever we are building infrastructure like roads, sanitation, water supply, it's important that the buck we are spending for this infrastructure can reach as many people as possible, or this ideal number of people, which makes economic sense for you to build this infrastructure.
So having good density is also a very good thing. So [00:13:00] in my brief observation, I feel like these are some unique qualities of Kathmandu. Now moving towards
Challenges. These are opportunities. I mean, opportunities and challenges always go go hand in hand, but we do have a major challenge of basic infrastructure again of quality of life of people living in the city. I talked about Maoist insurgency earlier and how we had a void in local government. What that also did was it created a surge of migration of population into Kathmandu Valley at a very short time.
It felt probably safer for people to migrate to Kathmandu. Even I consider changing schools and coming to Kathmandu, but it, it, it failed for me. But a lot of my friends, I remember went to Kathmandu when we were in fifth or sixth grade. So there was a major flux, not just in Kathmandu. I know we are very focused on, on the capital city right now, but even throughout [00:14:00] Nepal in major cities, there was a influx of, of migration.
And this happened around the time when we didn't have a local government, when we didn't have a sustainable master plan for the city, when the city was not. ready to plan for this, this population influx. So during that time, we saw haphazard urbanization. We saw haphazard roads, construction.
We saw that these new settlements and communities were popping up every now and then without the necessary infrastructure that is Water supply, that is sewage line, that is even properly managed electric poles, waste management systems. We didn't have anything, but the need was so important and urgent that the city had to grow.
So during that time, there was some Very permanent damage made to the city, but I think it is reversible with very sensitive and planned action. That is one major challenge that the city still faces. And the, the... [00:15:00] Growing population is not going to stop anytime soon.
Sudipa Pathak: You gave a very important insight on how Kathmandu was planned for pre car era. On that note, the planning might have missed how Kathmandu might face a growth in population or sudden influx of the migratory activities that happened in such a short period of time and how modern technology and vehicles might take over the city very soon. With the surge in population, Kathmandu Valley now hosts over 3 million people in an area of less than 600 square kilometer.
This increase underscores the growing importance of open spaces. A few months ago I remember discussing with a friend how whenever we seek a breather, wish to go for a quick run or a walk, or even meet people, we find a noticeable lack of open interactive spaces. More often so, we resort to restaurants or cafes for such activities.
Earlier you [00:16:00] mentioned that green and open spaces are one of your areas of interest. Could you discuss the significance of these spaces in urban planning. Also, what does a green and open space mean to an urban planner like you?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: For me, green and open space is the soul of the city. So buildings are the physical body and all the spaces in between the buildings for me signify the whole essence and the soul of the city. Right now, unfortunately, in the name of open space. We only have roads and our roads are dedicated for vehicles and not for people, unfortunately. So for urban planners, I think a city is and should be human centric. It should be focused around people and not around cars. Now. I want to segue into something I'm deeply passionate about.
And in my two years of studying urban planning and whatever I've seen and learned, I came back to Nepal with a hope that I could influence three major [00:17:00] areas of my interest. One was green and open spaces. Second was making our cities more friendly for active modes of mobility. What that means is walking and biking and any other active mode.
And third making public transportation robust. Now why I'm mentioning these three things is because I personally feel like you can't achieve one without achieving the other. They all go hand in hand, and I'll tell you why. So you see, like you mentioned, Kathmandu is around 600 square kilometers. So there's a limitation to how much a city can grow.
A city always has a growth boundary, and it always has a maximum carrying capacity. For that we need to realize that every inch of space that we give away to cars, we're taking it away from people to walk for building open spaces and green spaces and parks where your children can play, where your [00:18:00] grandfathers, your grandmothers can go on a stroll where you can hang out with your friends like you mentioned.
So to understand this. Let's take let's take a snapshot of a street at any given point. An ideal street should have at least two lanes for, for cars, for bikes, for buses. It needs to have a line of trees for environmental reasons, for shade, for biodiversity and then there needs to be a sidewalk and in between or after, you know, somewhere in the section of the road, you also need to have two.
Bicycle lanes. So this is an ideal idea of a street right? However, Kathmandu already has reached its maximum capacity at many points to how much can the road expand further without encroaching private property, which is a different issue. We might not be able to delve into that right now, but [00:19:00] private property is a very sensitive issue.
You don't want to keep on expanding your, your roads by, by taking away someone's private property. So we already have reached kind of our maximum capacity at a lot of places to how much can a road grow. What that means is that now for us to create sidewalks, we need to. take road back. We need to take space back from the cars.
Now, when the population is growing, how, how do you even take the space back when the congestion is so high? Can you, you can't even contemplate taking away a lane from car and giving it to bikes or giving it to the pedestrians or the sidewalks, right? So for that, you need to start moving people more efficiently.
What that means is that you need to move more people at a smaller amount of area. Buses are a great idea for that. Trains are a great idea for that. They are very efficient in moving people in a smaller area at a very fast pace. And, that is why when I said three things, you need public transportation so that you can move [00:20:00] people more efficiently in a smaller space, you need active modes of transportation, you need sidewalks, you need bike lanes, and that's how you get bike lanes, by moving people in buses and then Taking away spaces from cars and private vehicles and third, when I mentioned open spaces, I want to mention a very important point that whenever you buy a car, whenever you buy a motorbike you need to create Home for your car at at least eight different places.
What does that mean? So if you buy a car, I own a car. So, so I own a car because of desperation in the city right now. And it has become a necessity for many people, car or bikes or personal vehicles. But my car, for example, needs a lot of homes. One is when I go home, I need to park it. So whenever I'm building a home, I always need to think, Oh, I need To to separate a certain amount of land for my for my car or whenever I'm renting my office space, I [00:21:00] again need to find a space for the same car.
So my car already has two homes. And again, now I'm going to do a grocery store. I'm naturally going to choose a store that has parking. So my car already has three homes. Now, I came to your studio. I was looking for a space to park, so it has four homes. Now I go to a hospital, I go to a coffee shop. So this single car now needs at least eight homes. So when you're buying a car, you're not just buying a car, you're taking real estate away from the same 600 square kilometers of area in the city. So, same with bikes or same with any personal vehicle that you use. Unlike private vehicles, when you're using a public transportation, it only lives on the street and wherever you're Parked at night.
So it only needs like one home. So you're not taking a lot of real estate away from the city. Now, where can you use that space is that's where open spaces and green parks come in. That's how you create spaces for, for greenery, for open spaces, for [00:22:00] plazas and, and spaces for people to interact.
So these three things always go hand in hand. That is why you see. Planners being very unhappy when cities try to enforce a mandatory free parking for commercial buildings. For example, if parking had to be mandatory for any complex that you would build, that value would get added on to the real estate, to the rent, to the end product.
So the end consumer always faces the burden of free parking. Free parking is never free. The cost always gets transferred to the end user. So if my grocery store is going to have mandatory free parking, the cost gets transferred to me as a consumer in terms of an added markup in the price of the goods that I use.
I know I said a lot of things, but I wanted to mention why these three things were very crucial and interconnected. One is green open [00:23:00] spaces, another is active modes of mobility, and third is public transportation. One cannot happen without the other.
Sudipa Pathak: Moving forward, shrinkhala, can you share from your observations how they are used or not used in nepali cities?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: From my experience with local governments and even with residents of cities throughout Nepal. So far, I've realized that parks are seen or open spaces are merely seen as aesthetic value of the city. They're seen as, I think we are very stuck in this idea, you know, when you think of a park, you think of this, beautiful, symmetrical garden of the Versailles, or, you know, you are, you are stuck in that colonial idea of what a open green park should look like.
But a park is for your well being. You should be able to utilize it in your everyday life, either as a place, as a playground for your children. It should be utilized as a space where [00:24:00] you take morning walks. It should have enough places for a group to gather around, hang out it should have trees tall and dense enough to provide shade when it's summer or, or sun when it's winter, it needs to have plants It needs to have landscaping done such that it fits the landscape.
It fits the usability of the park. But unfortunately, we only see parks as places to take pictures at, which is not the primary purpose of a park. Even with an evolutionary perspective, human beings are not built to be living in a concrete jungle in a small space. And that is. Why parks are so important, especially at a place where real estate is so expensive where people cannot afford to have an open lawn in their homes.
Parks are where people go to mingle with nature. Parks are where people get to breathe or get a [00:25:00] space to play or make friends. And when you're not building parks, you're doing. a terrible harm to the residents. You are taking away someone's childhood by not letting them have a fair chance to to play with their friends or even make friends.
You are taking away someone's retirement life by not giving them an opportunity to go out of their house or not giving them anything to do outside their home because it's so unsafe to to even get into our streets anymore. You are doing a terrible, terrible harm to to the society as a whole when you're not building parks.
So yes, I have noticed that cities have shown interest in open spaces, but I feel like governments and people are yet to realize that parks are more than aesthetic value, and it has so much more to offer.
Sudipa Pathak: Moving forward with talking about the challenges in creating open spaces, Shankala, you are not only an [00:26:00] advocate for open spaces, but you have also collaborated with the Lalitpur Metropolitan Office to develop pocket parks in several locations in Lalitpur. Could you share your specific experiences of this process? Also, what are the challenges encountered in developing and maintaining open spaces and other urban planning initiatives in Kathmandu?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: I had an incredibly eye opening experience working with Lalitpur municipality in creating these open spaces in multiple fronts. We often tend to feel like Local government bodies or government officials, especially people in power, elected officials have all the agency to do all the things they've, they've promised to do.However, we overlook knowingly or unknowingly that there's a lot of politics that goes behind implementation of projects. These are not. [00:27:00] straightforward. These are not mathematical solutions. There are so many challenges you encounter even while dealing with something that might seem very easy as building a small pocket park, right?
I want to walk you through my personal realization in this experience. So imagine you want to build a park somewhere. You have to first identify land and most often there's a lot of confusion in who owns this public land. There isn't a lot of agency with the local body to just take a land and develop it. There's a lot of collaboration that has to happen between the wards. the municipality and even the federal and the national government at some some points. You have to see what the land is currently being used for. Is it used for economic activity? Even if it's being encroached, you have to be very sensitive.
If there are people who are dependent on this land for their livelihood, you have to then realize what [00:28:00] could be the ideal solution. Because like I said, land is limited and how do you make it the most functional? How do you make sure that it's not encroached by parking and how do you make sure that it's sustainable?
These are some big questions you have to answer. And even if you're successful in doing all of that, designing a perfect. Park bringing all the stakeholders together. One major challenge you'll face is on the maintenance of the park. Unfortunately, so far our cities do not have a mandatory parks and open spaces department.
Which is a roadblock. So that's what we faced when we were working with LMC, even when we had a very powerful mayor who was a biggest cheerleader for open spaces. We had such limited budget because Everything has to go through the Procurement Act, and the Procurement Act almost never allows room for hiring professionals like [00:29:00] landscape architects or transportation engineers, especially when you're building a park.
It's very difficult for even mayors to, to hire consultants the way they want to. To or the way that should be needed. There's no dedicated parks and recreation department. So the maintenance of the park solely depends on the mayor and the stakeholders willingness to separate a budget for it year in, year out. There's no mechanism that does it naturally.
Sudipa Pathak: Since you just talked about how different stakeholders involved in creating something as small as pocket parks, when we are talking about infrastructure project in certain municipality or a district in itself, I would like to discuss more about your point on the governance system and how the multiple overlaps and redundancy within them are hindering the urban planning project since Not only does this intrigue me, but you concluded an intensive research on this very [00:30:00] topic last year.
But before we dive into the mechanisms, can we briefly paint a picture of all the key government stakeholders?
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: Sure. I think it's a difficult task to mention all the stakeholders relating to open spaces in Nepal right now. But just to give you a brief idea If you're talking about urban development, for example, there are multiple departments concerned with urban development spread across ministries in the national government.
So, for example, Department of Land Reform and Management is under a certain ministry. The Department of Roads is under Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transportation. And then there is Land Management Division, Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation Division. Which falls under a completely different ministry, that is the land development cooperatives and poverty elevation ministry.
I hope it still exists right now because our ministries keep changing. Or for example, [00:31:00] if you are talking about roads, let's say, there are so many different stakeholders solely for roads. When you say there's a lot of traffic congestion in Kathmandu, oh my God, why doesn't the traffic do anything about it?
It's not just... The traffic's job when you talk about traffic jam, the municipality is responsible department of Transportation Management is responsible traffic. Police is responsible. Department of Roads is responsible, and different provincial ministries that are newly formed are also responsible.
So there's a lot of overlap in who is responsible for open spaces in who is responsible for creating plazas and parks in the city. But the most natural answer for me, at least from the case studies that I've seen across the world is it's the best idea to give local government the complete agency to, to develop parks.
But Again often throughout the world, federal governments are very reluctant [00:32:00] to share power with the local bodies because they feel like it is going to weaken them, right? So Nepal is facing the same problem right now. Whenever a local government tries to exercise its power, there are a lot of roadblocks from different ministries, from even electricity authority, from water supply departments.
So much that goes on just for creating one single park that you realize that we need a more efficient system. I want to take us to the present condition. Since we're talking not just about open spaces, all the three components that I said are essential for all of it. I want to touch upon public transportation in Kathmandu, for example.
Something good has happened very recently. We formed Kathmandu Valley Public Transport Management Authority. When you see the express bus lane in Kathmandu, I believe that was the, the work of this authority that was recently formed. And it was formed to bring together the different [00:33:00] Jurisdictions that were involved different departments that were involved in the same public transportation sphere and also to bring together the 18 municipalities inside Kathmandu Valley because you can't solve public transportation in the valley alone as a individual municipality.
Like I said, we are all interlinked. So this is, I think, a good example of the step forward in transportation or public transportation sector by creating this authority. And by the way, the mayor of Kathmandu leads. This, this authority, you're creating an agency that overrides all the other agencies that were also related to transportation and their, their decisions become the mandate for everybody else to follow.
So it's very important to establish these hierarchies, these clear hierarchy so that there is no overlap between government officials. Another example of this redundancy is the KVPD that I mentioned to you earlier. In 2011 our then Prime Minister Baburam Bhotrai worked [00:34:00] strongly towards creating Kathmandu Valley planning and development authority when KVPD was created, it was created seeing a vacancy in the local government body, which was non existent at that point.
But right now, if you take an example of Kathmandu municipality, it has its own planning body, which is called the CPC, the City Planning Commission. So oftentimes what happens is KVPD undermines CPC and CPC undermines KVPD and there's a lot of friction between these two agencies. CPC feels like KVPD is now redundant.
We don't need it anymore. But KVPD being under the Ministry of Urban Development feels like it has the authority to, to have the higher say in what the rule of law is. I remember once I asked one of my professors, I believe who is also an urban planner who creates the bylaws of It's a simple, straightforward question, right?
Who creates the floor area ratio who creates the, the, the right [00:35:00] of the way in the city? And the answer was not very clear in today's structure, apparently. I hope it is right now. This conversation happened around two years ago, so I hope things have changed, but there's a lot of overlap and confusion.
So this is used by government officials and elected officials alike as a scapegoat to why things are not going the way they are. And they're also used as you know, way to not do anything because everyone's like, this is not my job and this is not my job, then whose job it is then. And whenever someone actually tries to say, Hey, let's say local government is like, I want to take responsibility. Responsibility of green parks and open spaces. They are met with a lot of friction with all these departments who are not very cooperative, unfortunately, and I mentioned politics earlier. Now, this also happens because a lot of people in power usually have their own political leaning. They are leaning to a certain party.
Or It's very new for an elected official [00:36:00] to have no political party behind them, which is good and bad again. But it's very difficult to find a cohesion when there's so many different things pulling and pushing each other and creating friction. So like I mentioned, Kathmandu Valley new transportation authority is the way forward because that's sets a clear hierarchy that sets who's the leader.
That's that now we know, okay, now for anything related to public transportation, this is the authority I go to. I don't go to Department of Roads. I don't go to Department of Transportation Management. I go to this authority. And now it's clear. So I think this That's needs to happen with all the overlaps that's happening, especially with open spaces.
As we've been talking about, there needs to be a dedicated parks and recreation or parks and open spaces, name it however you want, but there needs to be an agency inside the municipality, inside the local body that not just has the. Authority [00:37:00] to plan for the parks in the city, but also has the agency to demand for budgets to demand that we need this much to maintain this park to demand that we need to hire these consultants.
This this. Specialists to work on parks because an architect might not be the perfect person to do landscape designing. You know, civil engineer might not be the perfect person to do transportation planning. These are very nuanced and very sensitive subjects and we need specialists to deal with it.
So we need these departments with us, which has the agency to hire people when they need agency to demand for budget, the agency to To actually execute the work that they're given like Boston has the Parks and Recreation Department. Buenos Aires had, had its own Open Spaces Department, which was incredibly powerful.
That ensures that these parks are well maintained. This ensures that we have we are watering these plants regularly and they don't just die off because one budget cycle, we [00:38:00] forgot to put budget for, for this. Plants, you know, so there is a sustainable pattern that goes forward. And you know, who does what and who's responsible for what,
Sudipa Pathak: as we talk about challenges related to open spaces, let's take a minute to think about social inclusion. Can you explain the intersection between urban planning and social equity? Is social equity and inclusion a priority of this practice? And if it is, how can practitioners uphold it? Maybe you can draw some insights from your own experiences and observations.
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: Sure. I think this is One of the major reasons why anyone studies urban planning or why anyone gets into elected positions. So on, so like every other profession, I think Urban planning also is primarily rooted in social equity. We study planning so that we have equitable development. [00:39:00] We study planning so that not only the privileged have the access to the good things in the city. Now for examples. I know I've been very critical of Dubai or Middle Eastern city as a whole in one of my podcasts in the past for a different reason.
But today I'm critical of them for how they've practiced urban planning. So you see, there are cities in the world where No matter how rich or poor you are, the experience of the city is the same for you. You travel the same route. You go to the same parks. The street sides are accessible to everyone. The streetscape is for everyone.
You might not have the money to go into the restaurant, but you can still walk through the street that has these beautiful palaces and restaurants. And, you know, so whenever I talk about an ideal idea of of a city which is completely socially equitable. I think of Amsterdam. I think of cities in the Europe, [00:40:00] again, mostly pre core cities which provide equal experience for you.
The, the, if you're making a graph of your experience of the city based on how much money you have, the graph is usually pretty it's pretty, it's constant. Yeah. It, The more money you have, the experience of the city changes slightly, but the angle is not very steep. However, Dubai or other Middle Eastern cities, if you think about them, the experience of the city grows exponentially with the amount of money that you have.
For you to really love Dubai, you need to have a lot of money in your pocket. Otherwise, all you see is skyscrapers from a highway And nothing else, but for you to love Dubai, for example, you think about a yacht in the ocean, which costs you money, you think about Dubai mall, which costs you money, you think about a good hotel or a restaurant with good AC, which costs You money, you know?
So the experience of the [00:41:00] city grows exponentially with more money that you have. And that's Dubai unfortunately. And there are many other cities who are like that. And Katmandu is growingly becoming similar to that. When I think of Katmandu and when I think of Chomsky, I'm like, I love Katmandu.
You know, I love, love food. I, I love how progressive we are. I love. Clean, we are, we're pretty walkable. But as soon as you leave the radius of this, this Kathmandu, premium Kathmandu, as I call it, that is Dhomsikhel, Sannipa area, or Lajimpad, Maharajganj area, Kathmandu is not a very good place to live in.
There are a lot of Holes are on the roads. There are no sidewalks. Congestion is all time high. It's dirty. There are no street lights. Because there hasn't been investment from the government equally in these areas. The areas that are good are good because of private investment, because of private participation, because the restaurants at Chamsikhil benefit from Chamsikhil [00:42:00] being this way, they, they support to have a cleaner area.
You know, they're, they're willing to create an area that is, that seems more beautiful, that seems cleaner. Unfortunately, there are many places in Kathmandu that That lack basic necessities that lack basic infrastructure and same is with open spaces, a city that has a lot of parks, a city that has a lot of plaza that has a lot of open spaces open to public for free is the highest Markation is the highest identification that the city is equitable.
If you look at the walkability index of a city, if the walkability index is high, I feel like urban planning has been done right because if the city is walkable, it's for everyone. Right? Unlike cities that are built for cars that are not for everyone, that are for people who have cars, that are for people who have money and a city that has poor public transportation, that's a mark that the city is not doing very [00:43:00] well in making it equitable because it's treating their, their residents unfairly.
It's giving away That the only open space that is the road to cars that is owned by the top three or two percentile of the population and taking it away from everyone else. So it's very important to, to notice these things when you look at a city and then notice how equitable it is.
I remember we had a big debate in the public about, the street vendors and whether or not should street vendors be allowed to sell on the street side. I think we should. And Kathmandu Municipality recently signed an agreement saying they will work towards accommodating informal vendors and recognizing , their importance in the city, recognizing how important it is for letting them have a space to sell their goods, to make their livelihood, not at a big cost. You know, you can plan these things out. We're not saying let them [00:44:00] take over the streets. We are saying account, you know, you think about them, be empathetic towards them, realize that the city is built for everyone. And there should be a fair chance for people to have a economic and social growth, which does not usually happen when we, when we just look at things as black and white.
Another important thing, I think I also want to. I want to mention that as people, we need to be more critical of what's right and what's wrong. black and white. We need to recognize that there are fringes where people are divided. We need to acknowledge that there will be difference in opinion. And not everything goes by rule of law because law is also ambiguous. We often think that law is as straight as black. black and white, but it's not. Law is as ambiguous as it can get, and it's as case specific as it can get.
I want to share an example with you on how we have not been very critical about evaluating decisions that [00:45:00] are being made. For example, in Darbar Mark, recently we removed car and bike parking from street side from roadside, and there was a lot of public appreciation for it. I mean, on the get go, it might seem right.
I mean, we don't want parking. It's an eyesore number one, and it doesn't do any benefit from all the explanations that I've done so far. It seems like a good idea, right? However, the consequence of it is very important. We took away parking, but we did not use it for increasing sidewalks. We did not use the space that that was freed up by freeing the streets from parking to plant more trees.
We did not use it for the people. We gave it back to the cars because now the same street is still used by the cars, not for parking, but for driving, right? I mean, we're giving a broader street for cars so that they can probably speed up which is again unsafe and nothing has happened. We have not given it back to the people at all.
So [00:46:00] we need to be very critical of these decisions. Who is it benefiting, you know? Why are we doing this, making these decisions? And we need to have a very straightforward black and white answer to this specifically, whenever we make these decisions. So yeah, I think an equitable city has many indicators, and it's very easy to identify these indicators.
All you have to do is realize that every decision you make has consequences, and you have to be careful whether it is disproportionately causing a disadvantage To a certain group of people or disproportionately creating an advantage for a certain group of people. And as planners, we want every decision in the city to be. Equally useful for most residents, and especially we need decisions that support the bottom of the pyramid, which are often overlooked
Sudipa Pathak: talking about Kathmandu Mayor's actions, it has truly divided the Kathmandu residents into two opposing sides. But this is [00:47:00] not the first time something like this has happened. The 2011 Road Expansion Project spearheaded by then Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai had a similar reaction, especially in a form of demonstrations from those who were evicted. Now you have evaluated the Road Expansion Project as an urban planner and criticized what is generally appreciated development project and in what ways are these projects similar. The project That is being led right now. And the project that happened in 2011.
Shrinkhala Khatiwada: I remember I wrote a paper in school . And by midterm, I had to present a draft. And my draft was about how the road expansion project was one of the best urban planning initiatives of all time that I've seen in my lifetime, at least.
However, By the time that I reached my final submission, I ended up criticizing the whole project because there were so many layers that were unseen to us. Because I remember all of us, even today, we are like, thank God the [00:48:00] road was expanded. Even with that expansion, the traffic congestion is still so high.
Can you imagine the traffic had The major roads inside Kathmandu not been widened back then. So these layers that I talked about that we often seem to overlook is I found out that when the road expansion happened, 90 percent of the houses that were demolished or that were taken away by the roads belonged to the indigenous Newark community, 90 percent of it.
And which is natural, you know, when you think about it, Kathmandu has been an ancient settlements. especially inhabited by the Newar community. And there was a lot of resentment in that community about the fact that the government was taking away their private property to give it back to what they then called immigrants.
And they felt like government was not very sensitive towards them. You see These projects are often very polarizing there will always be supporters. There will always be people who think that it was a bad idea.[00:49:00] For me, I think we have to be very rational about things. Development is necessary.
I won't say that we should never ride on roads or we should never you know, have roads for cars because with technology, cars are important, vehicles are important. However, We also need to realize that every action, like I mentioned earlier, has disproportionate harm to certain communities.
And the best we can do as planners, as government individuals, is be more sensitive towards it. For example, when the road expansion happened, I remember that a lot of demolition work was done. done in the middle of night or early in the morning so that the protesters could not stop it. The, the families were not given due, due notice.
They were not given due time to, you know, accommodate these changes that were going to happen in their lives. There were elderly who had spent their whole life in this house who had to leave this, this, this place at 90 years old where they had. all their memories, all their community, and they had to be [00:50:00] dispersed somewhere else.
There were families who depended on the rent from the houses solely, that was their sole property, and who went below poverty line after the demolition happened. There were families with children who had to change schools for their children in the middle of school year in the matter of a few days.
Which was not very fair to them. So if you go back and look at development from an individual a family's perspective, yes, you start to see these nuances. You start to see that every development project comes at a cost of someone. And as Planners and as government, the best you can do is make this transition as easy for them as possible, you know and that's where the sensitivity comes into place.
BRB's expansion was inevitable, I think, now that we look back but it could have been done at a better way. It could have been dealt with more sensitivity and same is with the case of street vendors. I don't support that street vendors should be allowed to, to [00:51:00] sell anywhere they want.
Anytime they want. But I support that every human being should have a fair chance at livelihood. And unfortunately, we don't have many formal jobs available for everyone in the city. And I hear these narratives, which are very stupid in my opinion, saying people should go back to their villages. I mean, can we hear ourselves say that?
Everybody has a, has a dream for their family. Everybody wants their children to go to a good school, get good education, get good job opportunities. Everybody is seeking for a better world for their family. And for that, Moving to a city has become inevitable in an era like ours, where most of the opportunities are fortunately, unfortunately consolidated in a smaller area like ours.
And when we don't have many formal jobs, people are desperate to, to seek for other alternatives that they can, that, so that they can provide for their family, so that they can have their Children also go to better schools. [00:52:00] So when, when we start to see social dynamics like that come to play, we start to be more empathetic towards people.
We start to see things more than the legal angle of black and white. We start to realize that as cities, we need to to be more accommodating and laws can be flexible. We can create systems where both can coexist. The formal and the informal economy can coexist. For example, we can create a two year's license where a street vendor can practice street vending for two years at certain times at allocated places. But after two years, they have to move to formal ways. That means they have to rent a shutter, for example, that gives them enough time to, for example, Make good living or be able to amass enough finances to to move into the formal economy without evicting them or without treating them as criminals.
Similarly, recently what happened [00:53:00] was the city was confiscating materials from the vendors. When you park illegally. The government gives you a chit, you pay a fine, they don't take over your car, right? But why was it different for street vendors? And the protest that was happening recently was exactly for this.
And again, from the mayor's side, I understand that they have their limitations. They don't own public land, like I mentioned earlier, there are so There are so many limitations to how a local government can practice their rights. So we need to understand the limitations of the government and also the desperation of people and always try to find a way which is the least harming to the bottom of the pyramid and I think that should be the way forward.