Redesigning our citiesNewar cities offer important insights in the context of climate change mitigation and sustainability
With the rapid growth of urbanisation worldwide, the issue of sustainable cities and climate change has come to the forefront of global concerns.
Cities are major contributors to climate change: They consume 78 percent of the world’s energy and produce more than 60 percent of all carbon dioxide. Half the world’s population now lives in urban areas. And given that rapid urbanisation will continue for some time, we must focus on solutions for cities.
World leaders gathered in Paris last year to adopt a strategy to protect the climate. They have agreed to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels.
Smaller, self-contained cities have the potential to be carefree from the outset and therefore more pleasant and sustainable. They offer an attractive alternative that conserves land for agriculture and forests.
Local solutions, such as Newar cities and traditional towns in Nepal, when taken in the context of climate change mitigation and sustainability, offer important insights into the planning and designing of more sustainable cities.
The quality of life in a city depends on high-quality public spaces and strong communities, but most new-built urban areas lack a sense of community value and public presence. By contrast, the historical Newar urban settlements are characterised by excellent social amenities and highly sustainable urban design.
All urban Newar settlements exhibit the same basic characteristics: Compact settlement, a wide variety of occupations, and a high quality of life. This is achieved with medium-rise buildings and narrow streets.
The compact pattern of housing frees up land for public spaces. This arrangement of streets, buildings, and courtyards helps to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature throughout the year without consuming fuel or electricity. The physical and social structure of Newar cities promotes the sharing of land and resources.
Over the past few decades, changes in many places have been so extensive that it has become difficult to visualise their previous appearance. Roads have been widened and motor vehicles given precedence. Pedestrians have been relegated to whatever small space that remains, encouraging the use of petroleum-fuelled motorised transport.
Haphazard urbanisation has led to cities and towns based on western theories of development, with modern concrete high-rise buildings and wide streets built for speed. In the absence of the careful planning that once characterised Newar cities, urbanising Kathmandu is sprawling over the land and consuming natural resources at a terrifying rate. The new urban areas lack refinement. This has already led to an environmental crisis and is highly unsustainable. Developing countries as a group tend to put greater priority on their economic development than on the preservation of their heritage.
Learning from tradition
In the midst of the urge to catch up with the developing world and clinging to western notions of “development at all costs”, Nepal may lose its thousands of years of culture and heritage, including urban planning. Nepal needs to assess the value of its intangible cultural heritage as a basis for a strong, sustainable civil society.
Human-centric design is needed to protect the rights of pedestrians and to provide high-quality spaces for people to socialise. Traditional Newar settlements had human-scaled streets paved with brick and stone. Many small buildings were constructed to encourage local residents to socialise. Their arrangement was not based on the simplistic geometry of the grid but on the opportunities of the site and the needs of its people. Newars thought more about community-level prosperity than individual prosperity. Today, as modern amenities arrive, social bonds are weakening and people are losing their connection with nature.
Residents were once highly involved in organising the city structure and development was mostly slow and organic, which provided time to reflect on the changes and development patterns. However, today’s rapid development does not provide time for reflection on what is planned or how proposed changes would affect life. Once, people adapted spaces to fit their social and cultural needs. Today, people adapt their way of life to centrally-planned spaces.
At a time when individualism holds sway, it would be a challenge to convince people to build a city that is based more on community values than on individualism. Yet in the West it is now becoming apparent that people are unfulfilled by the extreme individualism of their societies. They are beginning to view the suburban way of life, with its isolation, less favorably than a more communal way of life in cities. At the same time, it is clear that the western patterns are unsustainable and, if continued, will lead to environmental disaster.
With the urgent need for action against climate change, it is time for the cities to shift to more efficient and sustainable arrangements. Newar cities can serve as a model not only for Nepal but for the rest of the world. The government of Nepal is planning to build new model cities in ten locations along the Mid-Hill Highway. These should be built on authentic Nepali urban designs.
The Newar-city model can be extended to practically anywhere in the world. The biggest change needed is the addition of safe, comfortable, convenient public transport systems for trips that are uncomfortably far to walk. The social amenities of the Newar city should be replicated in all new urban development, which will yield a high quality and sustainable way of life.
Dristy Shrestha is a student of environmental science and a researcher at carfreetimes.com