Compact Development: Kathmandu Tried it First!

The best hope for making cities livable, and at the same time stopping the juggernaut of urban development that destroys the surrounding environment, is to promote "compact development" and contain future urban development within geographical "growth boundaries" This is the suggestion of Marcia D. Lowe, author of the just-released Shaping Cities: The Environmental and Human Dimension, published by the World watch Institute in Washington DC (1991, ISBN 1-878071-068).

Kathmandu Valley might take the Lowe´s proposal as its own, because the ancient planners of the Valley towns put into practice centuries ago what the paper terms "compact development" — by concentrating habitation in infertile high ground (tars) while leaving the surrounding land free for cultivation. What Lowe puts forward on the basis of detailed study of cities around the world, the ancient Mallas and their predecessors seemed to have understood as well.

That urban instinct has now been dulled, and the Valley´s "new urbanisation" rejects the logic of the old town plans. The unrelenting and wasteful spread of concrete and tarmac over fertile plains, wetlands and woodlands continues. It might help to turn the pages of Lowe´s Shaping Cities to relearn what has been lost.


Citing examples from cities such as Portland (Oregon, United States) and Curitiba (Brazil), the author shows that compact development can solve a wide array of problems that plague urban areas in rich and poor countries alike. Higher densities, by reducing travel distances between homes and workplaces, reduce traffic congestion dependence on fossil fuels, and the emission of
greenhouse gases. Paris, says Lowe, has planned and regulated its land use since the Middle Ages, while in England Queen Elizabeth I in 1580 approved a far-sighted decree for green belts to protect farmland and prevent sprawl.

Third World countries have the least control over how their cities develop, writes Lowe. Local governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America often have neither the authority to guide land use nor the funds for basic services. Municipalities are fiscally dependent upon central governments, which themselves are financially insecure.

The Third World is burdened by several enormous, rapidly growing cities, including Sao Paolo, Shanghai and Mexico City. Calcutta and Bombay today have fewer than nine million inhabitants, but by 2000 will have over 15 million each. However, the explosive growth in the developing countries is not confined to such mega-cities, but is also occurring in intermediate-size cities such as Nairobi, Kenya, and Guauaquil (Ecuador).

Although the mega-cities´ higher absolute numbers of added people usually attract more attention, the growth pains of the more numerous intermediate cities are equally serious, says Lowe. These mid-sized cities can eventually become giant cities themselves — and in the absence of more vigilant planning, will surely end up with the same mega-city problems.


 Unfortunately, says Shaping Cities, most developing countries have imported the industrial world´s compartmentalised zoning laws. Among the most serious repercussions of this are excessive distances between homes and jobs. Many cities were more dynamic and had greater internal variety before they adopted western-style zoning, which isolates activity and unduly burdens public transport by creating distances too long for a walk or bicycle-ride.

The key to making integrated zoning work well as a transport strategy is to encourage urban development that is dense enough to promote alternatives to cars. In compact communities, many activities can be concentrated within a distance easily covered on foot or bicycle. A general guideline for the degree of density needed for such compact communities is the concentration of people needed to make a public transport system viable, says Lowe.

Contrary to popular fears, population density is not, in itself, a cause of crime or blight, notes die report. Hong Kong, for example, is the most densely populated of the world´s larger cities yet it has the twelfth lowest murder rate. Cities such as Vienna and Stockholm are compactly developed, yet have healthy environments and high living standards.

Rather than continuing to degrade their surroundings with unchecked sprawl, the report suggests that cities accomodate growth needs by more effectively using the large quantities of undeveloped, abandoned or tax-delinquent properties already existing within their boundaries. "Many cities have so much underused space that they could develop for decades to come, without bulldozing another square meter of undisturbed land."

Paradoxically, says Lowe, local "no-growth´ and "slow-growth" strategies to prevent sprawl often backfire; by shutting out growth, such measures merely push development outward, encouraging more sprawl. In order to encourage more compact development of cities, tax laws must be designed to accomodate more housing in existing urban spaces; land use plans must encourage mixed uses so that people can live, shop, work and seek social contact or entertainment without dependence on cars.

Lowe concedes that adequate control will probably take some time to appear in the rapidly growing cities of the developing world, where governments exercise relatively little control over land use. However, planners as well as the general public could benefit from a fuller grasp of how land use controls work, "Although the ideal city will never be achieved, societies can take greater command of iheir fate by more consciously determining the use of land."

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Himal Southasian