Nepal | September 27, 2020

Designing a city without designing buildings

• professional tips

Bijaya K Shrestha
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Courtesy: Bijay K Shrestha


A city is a collage of cultural artefacts and innovative creation produced by generations of inhabitants. This together with a city’s economic condition, topography, location and climatic condition shape the built environment. However, rapid urbanisation, shifting economic base of cities, changing lifestyles of the inhabitants coupled with inadequate and rigid legislation and adaptation of liberal policies by abandoning the past community based cultural practices have caused the demise of the notion of the civic realm in favour of the privatisation of development. Instead of planning a new settlement in a virgin land through public funding, cities nowadays are designed in collaboration with private sector through regulating and managing the changes in already built up
areas in a holistic approach.

Link project objectives with city’s mission and vision

Each city must set its mission and vision that is connected with national and regional goals and individual’s aspiration on urban development. Numerous projects ranging from heritage conservation in historic districts to land pooling in peripheral locations to slum clearance and squatter upgrading might have different objectives, but must be linked to overall city’s vision. Cities need to be lively, vibrant, inclusiveness and disaster resilient.

Relay on urban design guidelines instead of rigid and outdated legislations

Cities cannot be regulated through mandatory planning regulations and building bylaws alone. Often, they are outdated compared to the rapid societal change and market condition. Instead, urban design guidelines work better, which are contextual and flexible. As they are suggestive, it should be prepared in consensus among the participating agencies. Such guidelines might be generic as a framework for city planning or site specific, applicable for individual project or site. These guidelines are prepared to conserve the unique features of the settlement and at the same time to manage growth and changes. Such guidelines provide a design framework to professions like architects, municipal engineers or electricians working in the area.

Generic guidelines, for instance, for Kathmandu may be limiting its urban development below the carrying capacity, conserving ecological sites and cultural landscapes, protecting public spaces and community buildings, enhancing quality of life, ensuring safe, convenient and pollution free transportation system and so on. Retention of earlier building foot print and public spaces, maintaining earlier building lines along the both sides of streets and courtyards, brick exposed façade with vertical oriented wooden doors and windows, provisions of platform (peti) at plinth level, cornices at separation of two floors and sloped roofs including ratio between areas of openings (doors and windows) in building façade (fronting towards the main street) and façade area, percentage of the sloped roof to total building height seen at street elevation can be set at site specific design guidelines for post-earthquake housing reconstruction in the historic core
areas of Kathmandu Valley.

Implementation techniques

Desirable environment both in newly planned and already developed areas in terms of population density, land use or townscape can be achieved through setting incentives or disincentive mechanism, based on the market value. Such incentive package must be linked with urban design guidelines and may vary in different location. Incentive might be direct financial support, long term tax cut, technical suggestion, fast tract planning and building permit system or combination of them. It can also be used for behaviour change of the people, sometimes necessary. For instance, provision of rebate on water and electricity bills has encouraged many households to clear the bills on time.

Take a case of important courtyard which is encircled by already illegally built 10 houses of 8-9 storeys high against the allowed five storeys. The owners of the remaining ten plots around the courtyard want to build new houses. If they follow the prevailing building bylaws, they will be suffering as they can legally build only five storeys high. Building 8-9 storey high structure also mean reduction of light and ventilation on the courtyard, loss of privacy and leaves it vulnerable to earthquake and fire. The existing building bylaws simply fail to handle this situation. Calculate a (dis)incentive package based on market values in such a way that there will be no economic benefit for building 8-9 storey high structure by imposing high penalty to already built illegal high rise houses but providing adequate incentives to those planning to build new houses. Such provision will also encourage the owners of illegal houses to dismantle the upper stories by themselves in the long run.

The author is an architect and urban designer and can be reached at

A version of this article appears in print on July 15, 2017 of The Himalayan Times.

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