People-Centric Cities are Resilient Cities – An Interview with Alumni Barsha Chitrakar

By September 25, 2020 Alumni, Alumni interviews, Blog

In our latest alumni interview, we catch up with Barsha Chitrakar, who completed our master in 2014 and now works as an urban planner at the Urban Planning and Development Center in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Here she tells us about the challenges of implementing planning policies on a local level, the importance of preserving traditional settlements and building techniques while learning from modern planning approaches, and how a people-centric approach and the provision of green spaces can help build resilience to climate change and hazards like the current pandemic.

Name:  Barsha Chitrakar
Nationality: 
Nepali
Year of Graduation from Programme: 2014
Internship placement: Institute for European Urban Studies (IfEU), Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany
Current Occupation: 
Urban Planner at the Urban Planning and Development Center
Location:  Kathmandu, Nepal
Area of interest/specialty:
Public spaces, Urban regeneration, Disaster risk management

 

 


You graduated in 2014 from the
Mundus Urbano program and undertook your second year with us.  Afterwards, you returned to your home country Nepal and worked for the Ministry of Urban Development and UN-Habitat. How did your career develop after graduating from our Master’s program?
After graduating from the Mundus Urbano program and returning back to my country, I wanted to work in agencies engaged in urban development work. I was lucky enough to get a job at the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) as it was the federal agency of the country with a vast portfolio especially at policy-making. I was engaged in preparation of National Urban Development Strategy (NUDS) which is a strategic document to guide urban growth of the country. At a time when growth of cities was (it still is) inevitable, I consider formulation of that document very timely as this one document has captured the urban context of the country. It highlights issues and strategies related with the urban system, infrastructures, environment, economy, finance, investment, governance and land management. My engagement in the preparation of NUDS made me learn a great deal about our cities. I learnt that cities do not exist in isolation, that cities are not just built environment and infrastructures. Aspects related with economy, environment and governance are just as important in city-making. This was my greatest takeaway from my work experience at MoUD.

I wanted to understand more about cities. I also figured that my Master’s program has honed my research skills. So I decided to undertake some research work on urban land use planning. This is when I received a research grant from Kathmandu University School of Arts (KUSoA) to conduct a research on the ‘Role of Regulatory and Financial Instruments in Urban Land Use Planning in Kathmandu Valley’. It again happened to be a worthwhile experience for me as I learnt about the interrelationship between municipal regulatory and financial instruments, and their effects on the pattern of urban growth. This work led me to another work at UN-Habitat. I was assigned to prepare a National Report on ‘Global State of Urban Youth Report 2015/16’ under the theme of ‘Urban Equity and Youth Development’, which also involved a lot of literature review. Since the issue of the role of youth in cities and the impacts cities have on youth was new for me, I took on this project. Since then, I have mostly been involved in work related with policy-level planning. However, now I am planning to take a slight detour and get engaged in local-level planning projects. Let’s see how things will unfold.

Currently, you are a part-time faculty member at Kathmandu University and an Urban Planner at the Urban Planning and Development Center (UPDC). Tell us a bit about your current job and the projects you are working on.
The Urban Planning and Development Center (UPDC) is a research think-tank established to provide policy advice and input to the Department of Urban Development and Building Construction (DUDBC), which is the implementing agency of MoUD. Its main objective is to establish an urban sector project bank and also enhance the project planning capability of the Department. I’ve been involved in conducting research on pertinent issues such as land development, integrated urban water management, and sharing gathered information to the technical teams via various workshops.

The Department undertook a highly ambitious project, Corridor Investment Planning, which involved formulating integrated development strategies for two urban corridors of the country, which was a new concept. Often administrative boundaries of cities are porous – allowing, preventing or encouraging a myriad of economic activities and flow of people. Hence the concept of urban corridor was developed to look into a booming urban region. A study on two such corridors has been completed. We are now working towards the implementation of the urban economic corridor approach.

Apart from this, we are also trying to set up a functional project bank unit at DUDBC. We have realised that the agency needs to be adept at identifying, selecting and preparing projects. This is required not only to direct its investment on urban infrastructures, but also to make urban infrastructure financing sustainable especially in our context where the infrastructure investment needed far surpasses the allocated budget. So we are doing some operational research towards that end. As DUDBC is responsible for formulation of urban development plans of cities across the country, my job scope also includes review of such plans.

I am also engaged as a part-time faculty member at Kathmandu University School of Arts where I teach Urban Community Planning and Analysis. I basically try to impart an understanding of various issues, challenges and opportunities of urban sector to the students. I intend to make my students familiar about urban informality, urban transport, urban environment and environmental planning. And I must say, I use teaching methods which I found interesting in my Master’s program. For instance, at UIC we were assigned group works and simulation exercises where we had to deal with real life issues. I try to use similar methods as a teacher. And it has been fun so far.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job or of working in development in general?
I have found implementation and coordination to be the two biggest challenges in development sector. I have realized that there is no dearth of urban development plans. In fact, we now have adequate experience, expertise and technical capacity to prepare such plans. Documents are prepared, reports are published. But often times, these documents and plans are not heeded when it comes down to implementation. Also, the agencies that are responsible for implementation, the local bodies (municipalities in the context of Nepal), fail to own these documents. And this is where coordination with concerned agencies becomes vital. Since we now have three tiers of government (federal, provincial and local) with defined roles and responsibilities, coordination between these agencies is important. Development plans prepared by different tiers of government are often prepared in isolation and are not aligned. Coordination in the form of attuning local level plans with higher level plans and vice-versa is crucial. Coordination can also be in the form of knowledge transfer. Basically a dialogue platform can be envisaged to augment the formal coordination mechanism between concerned stakeholders. UPDC has also made some recommendations in this line.

You have also published a series of articles about urban safety, public space and mobility, and the conservation and retrofitting of traditional buildings in earthquake-prone areas. What do you consider the major risks and challenges for Nepal, a fast urbanizing country?
With urbanization level of around 30% (considering population density of more than 1,000 persons per sq.km), Nepal is indeed one of the fastest urbanizing countries in South Asia. Like many developing countries, one of its major challenges is inadequate basic urban infrastructure services that are unable to serve the growing urban population and a lack of financing of sustainable infrastructures. But if we look at the traditional settlements of the country, we can realize how well planned our cities had been. These cities were designed keeping people at the centre of it all, local construction materials were used to build houses, construction technology was used based on the local context. Our traditional urban design approach promoted high density, mixed-use settlements with ample open spaces. All of these aspects, which are omnipresent in our traditional settlements, are now advocated by modern day planning. I think we have so much to learn from our traditional cities. But this aspect of learning and adapting innovative ideas into our traditional system is severely lacking in our modern planning practices. This is an opportunity and a challenge as well.

I think we are in this race to emulate cities from the Global North. I admit there are many good practices which cities in the Global South can adopt. Countries like Nepal can learn various approaches related to urban infrastructure development from cities around the world. But in doing so, there is a risk of overlooking the local context and indigenous practices altogether.

In recent months, the impact of COVID-19 on our communities and how we as the architecture community – specifically with regard to humanitarian architecture – should answer this challenge, has been widely discussed. How do you see the impact of the pandemic on your home country, specifically in light of the urbanization of the country and the exacerbation of recurring disasters such as earthquakes and flooding?
This pandemic has indeed raised a lot of questions on our way of living in general. This includes city planning as well. The economic downturns caused by this pandemic is taking a toll on all of us. But I think a city designed with a people-centric approach makes it a resilient city – one which can adapt to stresses of hazards and shocks.

As I am forced to stay home with my two kids, the one thing that strikes my mind almost every day is the acute lack of open spaces in our cities. Open spaces – parks, gardens, squares, plazas – are so vital especially in times of disasters and pandemics. Sadly, cities around the world are becoming less green. It is during times like these that we contemplate the benefits of open spaces. Urban flooding, which has now become a common phenomenon due to climate change effects, wreaks havoc every year. We have precedents how green areas can reduce impacts of urban flooding to a greater extent. These open spaces can ensure our safety in times of disasters, and can become places of respite in times of pandemic. Similarly, I have realized the importance of community buildings – they can be safe havens during natural hazards and can be turned into quarantine areas in pandemics. These are just two examples to show how impacts of hazards can be minimized through well-conceived city planning.

Hence, next time we want to build a commercial complex or a shopping mall in our neighbourhood, we are going to think long and hard. And hopefully, we will plan and build more open spaces and add urban features that will enhance livability of our cities.

In what ways did the master program influence your professional life?
After working as an architect for two years, I knew I was going to work in urban planning sector. I did not know how or at what capacity. Thanks to this master program, I am now working as an urban planner. I cannot be more thankful to this master program which has basically led my profession.

Through this program, I gained first-hand experience on how ‘collaborative planning’ can enrich city planning, as our group of students came from diverse backgrounds and professional fields. It provided me with a whole new perspective of looking at cities. This has helped very much in my professional life. The course modules vastly enhanced my knowledge on various aspects such as housing in developing contexts, emergency responses in times of hazard and refugee shelters. Additionally, like I mentioned before, the simulation exercises and assignments with real-life scenarios have been truly worthwhile. They have infused new concepts, approaches and ideas in me which I would not have learnt otherwise.

What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?
One can be engaged in urban development sector in various capacities – through research, policy-making, community planning and many others. Also it is a cross-cutting field that involves sectors such as environmental planning, disaster risk management, heritage management and social inclusion. Hence this field presents a wide array of opportunities and areas of interest. To begin with, you can choose research works and start from there. Or you can be engaged with local level agencies and learn the nitty-gritty of plan implementation works. Or like I did, you can start with policy-making agency and later put your experience into the implementation at a local level. One thing I can say with certainty is this: with the fast-growing urbanization levels, the challenge to develop cities that are sustainable, just and inclusive will increase. This therefore calls for more urban planners. Let’s help develop livable cities!

All photos: Courtesy of Barsha Chitrakar

 

 

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