World Cities Day 2022 

Unlocking the potential of secondary cities as catalyst for green growth: the Nepal Experience A Case Study from Pokhara 

Driving sustainable urbanisation with Green, Resilient and Inclusive practices

Fig 1:Congestion in Kathmandu. Source: Spotlight Nepal


Within the last century, rapid urbanisation has become a worldwide phenomenon. Between 1950 and 2020, Asia showed the second highest increase in share of urban population with an increased urbanisation rate from 17.5 to 51.1 percent. Although Nepal is a newcomer to this trend, it still holds a place as one of the top ten most rapidly urbanising countries.



Urbanisation in Nepal : an opportunity or a risk?

If you hit the streets and alleyways of Kathmandu to tour the city, visit the markets and historical sites, you will witness the impact of recent urban growth patterns. The way a primary city as ancient as Kathmandu has struggled to cope with continuous waves of in-migration is evidence that more focus should be paid to the development of secondary cities to make urbanisation an opportunity rather than a challenge.

Over the last 20 years alone, the population of the metropolitan area of Kathmandu doubled from roughly 700 thousand to 1.5 million. How have the services and infrastructure reacted?  Provision of adequate sewage and sanitation, acceptable air quality, solid waste collection and management, transport management, and proper shelter are all issues that the city is struggling to cope with. While addressing these needs, city stakeholders have also had to ask themselves:

v  What lessons can we flow down from the urbanisation experience in main cities to secondary cities?

v  How can secondary cities balance out the economic and urban growth in the country? 

v  How can we change our approach to urbanisation to turn it into an opportunity for green, resilient, and inclusive growth? 

The Sudridh-Nepal Urban Resilience Programme (NURP), funded by UK Aid, plays a catalytic role in seeking to address these questions through its work with local governments in three urbanising municipalities in Nepal, supporting them to enhance their resilience to disasters and economic shocks while building capacity to drive forward green economic growth and sustainable urban development. These three municipalities are secondary cities experiencing the pressures of increased urbanisation and include:

·       Pokhara: the largest city in Nepal by land area, with a population of 600,000, the gateway to the Himalayas and home to many lakes drawing large numbers of tourists;

·       Butwal: an emerging economic hub of the country at a key intersection of national transport links and located near Nepal’s second international airport; and


·       Janakpurdham: a city vibrant with rich history, culture, and arts that hosts thousands of religious pilgrims and tourists from all around the world every year. 

These secondary cities are hubs for local government, industry, agriculture, tourism, and heritage and serve as economic trade corridors and urban growth centres. However, they–like many other secondary cities–continue to struggle with job creation and retention, attracting external investment, and in enhancing their capacity to respond to the diverse demands of urbanisation. These cities–if they embed green economic growth, inclusion, and resilient infrastructure in their urbanisation–stand to catalyse a more sustainable approach to urban development in Nepal that exists in harmony with the environment, incorporates lessons drawn from other cities, and more widely influences Nepal’s future economic development.

On the occasion of World Cities’ Day 2022 and following this year’s theme of ‘Act Local to Go Global’, this blog explores how urbanising cities can learn from the best practices and challenges faced by newly urbanised cities using Pokhara as a case study.



Unlocking urbanisation trends and needs in Nepal

While Nepal is currently one of the ten least urbanised countries in the world (with only 20 percent of the population living in cities), it is also one of the ten fastest urbanising countries in the entire world. In 2021, the share of urban population in Nepal was 21.01% compared to 17.11% in 2011, and this number is continuing to grow.

Natural population growth and heightened migration from rural to urban areas are factors behind the elevation in urbanisation. Despite historical evidence and literature pointing to the positive contributions of urbanisation to GDP and poverty reduction, the rapid rate at which this has increased in Nepal has resulted in lower economic growth, with the population relying heavily on volatile external remittance flows rather than internal competitiveness.This can in part be attributed to the recent political shifts in Nepal, particularly the new Federalist Constitution of 2015, which required significant and time-consuming government restructuring as well as the large out-migration of the productive workforce.

In particular, the rapid urbanisation in Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city, has resulted in calls for urgent policy action. The haphazard and uncontrolled growth of irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing, the degradation or loss of open and green spaces, and a lack of efficient public services have caused a fall in livability. The experience of an already-urbanised city like Kathmandu is an opportunity to inform the sustainable development of other urbanising centres of Nepal like Pokhara.



Pokhara's local challenges hinder its potential to be a global tourism hub

Pokhara Metropolitan City (PMC), one of Sudridh-NURP’s partner cities, lies at the foot of the Annapurna Mountain Range in Western Nepal and is a popular destination for both domestic and international tourists. Tourism contributes to a significant portion of Pokhara’s GDP and on this basis, the municipality has even appealed for Pokhara to be named the tourism capital of Nepal. PMC invites tourists from all around the world to take part in various adventure sports such as hiking, trekking, and mountaineering as well as water sports like kayaking and boating on one of the several lakes in its area. Pokhara is also a pilgrimage site to those who visit the city for its religious significance.

In recent years, ineffective urban planning and management compounded by population growth have led to increased livability challenges in Pokhara, which include:

· Inadequate sanitation and poor drainage systems resulting in lake pollution across the city;

· The absence of adequate parking and efficient public transportation in the city centre;

· Lack of sufficient infrastructure like streetlighting to support nightlife tourism and diversify the tourism industry;

· The absence of digital infrastructure to create a seamless experience for tourists.



Fig 2: Challenges hindering pokhara's green growth.

This ultimately results in tourists being hesitant to stay more than a day or a weekend in the city before leaving to explore the Himalayas or other destinations. Local businesses have especially felt the impact and actively seek a tourism revival, especially post-Covid, to boost incomes and economic growth. The siltation – or sand blockage of the lakes – especially the Fewa Lake, has also been a major concern for the municipality. Bearing this context in mind, Sudridh-NURP works alongside Pokhara’s municipal government with a demand-led approach to develop and implement the city’s priority interventions to: (i) improve the risk-sensitivity and effectiveness of local planning; (ii) bolster local assets to protect and preserve nature, building a foundation for green infrastructure, and (iii) resolve existing problems created by poor or unplanned development which might hamper future tourism potential.

How Pokhara conceptualises "Act local to go global":
Promoting land use, disaster risk management, and economic growth

Sudridh-NURP is collaborating with Pokhara Metropolitan City to strategically develop its policy agenda and path towards a greener, resilient, and more inclusive local economy. Some of Pokhara’s locally-owned initiatives that NURP has supported to this end include: 

·       Risk and Inclusion Sensitive Land Use Plan (RISLUP) to address the city’s susceptibility to hazards    

Over the programme’s course, NURP has supported Pokhara Municipal City to develop a city-level Risk and Inclusion Sensitive Land Use Plan (RISLUP). While the Nepal Government issued the Land Use Policy (2015), Land Use Act (2019) and Land Use Regulation (2022) touching on these areas, implementation was long hampered by inadequate local-level inputs into urban planning and a lack of resources – a shortfall addressed by PMC’s commitment to risk- and inclusion-sensitive land use planning. The RISLUP is created through extensive participatory engagement of key local stakeholders and citizens. The final plan acts as a guide for PMC to improve planning for proper land use by keeping the tenets of risk reduction, disaster management and inclusion of vulnerable communities at the fore of planning decisions.

The emphasis on these points draws on substantial evidence from urbanising cities, such as Mumbai and Rio de Janeiro, that demonstrates how slums – which emerge from poor land use planning – result in an extremely low quality of life for their inhabitants. Populations living in slums are also highly susceptible to disasters and other environmental as well as economic shocks. If properly implemented, the RISLUP developed by Pokhara Metropolitan City and NURP will integrate this learning and ensure proper land use by considering disaster risk, social inclusion, urban agriculture, environmental conservation, and drivers for economic growth in planning decisions.

·       Improving the resilience of Pokhara’s natural assets to future proof the city against climate change

The Kamal Pokhari area is extremely vulnerable to flooding every year during monsoon season due to catchment degradation, excessive urbanisation, encroachment, a lack of systematic drainage and siltation. NURP recently supported PMC’s redevelopment of the Kamal Pokhari area through an assessment further exploring the causes of the lake’s flooding and its recently increased frequency and severity. The assessment and redevelopment plan developed by NURP focuses on providing a range of risk reduction, mitigation and adaptation measures to significantly reduce the incidence and impact of flooding and to enhance disaster risk management. The plan will ultimately enable the community and its infrastructure and services to adapt and build resilience to both the existing flood risks and the growing risks associated with climate change.

·       Improving non-motorised transport infrastructure to harness Pokhara’s full tourist potential

With the use of electric vehicles on the rise in Nepal, various urban municipalities have pledged to promote eco-mobility. In Pokhara, this has taken the form of a lake-to-lake cycle route that promotes green mobility and facilitates rural-urban linkages. Boosting both resilient tourism and diverse and inclusive economic growth, Pokhara Metropolitan City worked with NURP and Cycle City Pokhara – a local NGO – to identify, map and develop this 85 km lake-to-lake cycle route. This route serves as part of the municipality’s long-term vision to: (i) revive tourism activities; (ii) encourage greater use of non-motorized urban transport; (iii) aid local communities in reaping the economic benefits from these new income-generating opportunities; and (iv) contribute to green growth.  

·       Heritage conservation to diversify the economy and create green income streams

Pokhara is venturing into carbon neutral initiatives to enhance infrastructure as well as the city’s economy. To support this policy agenda, Sudridh-NURP is preparing the conservation and development plan for wards 2, 3 and 4 in the city. The initiative aims at conserving the ancient traditional architecture built more than 300 years ago when the local king invited people from Bhaktapur to promote business in the Pokhara Valley. The conservation and adaptation of the traditional buildings will not only conserve the history and identity of Pokhara, but will also further attract tourists and encourage them to stay longer, creating additional income streams for the local community and eliminating any carbon emissions from new construction. 

In conclusion, these interventions, among the many others led by PMC and supported by NURP, are all Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID) initiatives rooted in the pillars of economic development, urban planning, and institutional development with a keen focus on green growth, sustainability, resilience, and gender equality and social inclusion. NURP’s experience has found that urban planning of any kind requires attention to the past as well as the future, keeping the historical and most important local elements of a city intact, while also being mindful of resilience, inclusion, and sustainability. The only way forward for sustainable and resilient urbanisation is to remain firmly connected with the local context and adapt to the population’s needs.

Nepal’s urban cities are inherently rich in cultural resources and natural beauty, as evidenced in Pokhara. The conservation of such unique heritage should be the basis for urban rejuvenation and the creation of a wide-range of local income-generating opportunities, especially for vulnerable populations.  This benefits Pokhara and its citizens, improving the city’s livability and attractiveness, while serving as an example for replication elsewhere – acting locally to achieve global impact.



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