Street smartPlanned cities in the mid-hills should not repeat the mistakes of car-centric Kathmandu
The government, under the New Town Project, plans to build ten model cities along the east-west Mid-Hill Highway (MHH). The idea is to decentralise development, which is presently centred around the Capital and in the lowland plains. Each of the ten cities will have an estimated population of 100,000 by 2035. These cities are intended to be service centres for their respective regions. The economic foundation of these cities, according to the project, will be agriculture, tourism, education, and medical care. The objective of the project is “balanced urban development” coupled with environmental sustainability. The project is in the preliminary planning phase, so the prospect of mixed-use car-free zones is great.
The project has assigned five consultancies for research and design recommendations, each working on two cities in one region. After the initial discussion with the consultants, we were asked to attend the Vision Setting Programme for three of these cities. This was a community consultation programme to identify the aspirations of the community and analyse the potentials of the region in order to establish development priorities.
We visited 10 selected settlements and our experience with the community representatives was very different from what most city dwellers had predicted—that rural people would be furious about losing the opportunity to own a car some day. Many of the residents have had bad experiences visiting larger, traffic-choked cities, particularly Kathmandu. The community representatives were more concerned and sensitive than their local government representatives about the potential adverse effects of the upcoming development, and many did not like the prospect of abandoning a simpler way of life close to nature.
Community members spontaneously raised the issues of vehicle accidents and the environmental and health consequences of becoming a ‘modern’ city. Matters of socio-cultural benefits and the eco-tourism that a vehicle-free city could induce were received with great interest.
The project sites are mostly located in hilly areas with very little land available for development. Suitable land is already in agricultural use; any loss of this land is a serious concern. With respect to land conservation, the advantages of a car-free approach were almost immediately apparent, especially when combined with population growth.
In Dumre-Bhansar in Tanahun district, the necessity to conserve agricultural land makes high-density land use and mixed uses an obviously preferred plan. The example of Bandipur, a nearby, popular car-free destination with a safe and pleasant environment, compares favourably to settlements alongside the highway, where heavy traffic affects both market areas and settlements, leading to an unpleasant, unsafe environment for inhabitants as well as passing vehicles alike.
The vision statement for Dumre focused on health, safety and environment. The idea of planning a vehicle-free zone was received with great interest.
In Burtibang, located in western Nepal in an area of steep, rocky hills, there is very limited land to build anything. Any expansion will be at the cost of limited cultivable land. The town already suffers from land constraints and problems with road expansion and increased vehicular traffic. Historically, the hilly terrain has always made access to these areas slow, difficult, and expensive, limiting their economic growth. Energy and resource efficiency is essential for these cities to attain economic prosperity.
Therefore, adopting a vehicle-free design for the new towns, besides the obvious benefit of less pollution and traffic congestion, can conserve land for the simple reason that roads will consume less land. Attractive, stone-paved narrow streets can replace broad asphalt streets. This will help with ground water recharge and rainwater management. Residents will also save money by avoiding the need to own a vehicle as most destinations will be close by.
The question under discussion was simple: Do we want the city centres of these new towns to be like Putalisadak, Newroad, New Baneshwor, or Thamel, places with heavy vehicular traffic, or do we want them to be like Ason and Sukuldhoka, places that are among the most vibrant, energy-efficient market streets in the Valley?
Examples from around the globe have proven that vehicle-free zones, mostly in a city centre, are the most popular urban areas. The recognition that climate change is a great threat and the contribution of transport and urban areas to this threat have led cities and nations to commit to plans and policies that reduce carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. This makes the establishment of future cities based on renewable energy and less intensive use of energy a priority.
The vision of car-free cities along the MHH is far from being realised, and sound government interventions will be required. While we need more research and rigorous community engagement in the planning process, it is encouraging that the communities have already expressed enthusiasm for car-free development. It is therefore not difficult to imagine beautiful, sustainable and ecologically-sensitive car-free cities in Nepal.
Shrestha is a student of environmental science and a researcher at carfreetimes.com