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How Urban Planning Failed Kathmandu

Haphazard urbanization and rampant building code violations in Nepal pushed up the earthquake death toll.

Indian-led relief efforts in Kathmandu, Nepal. (AP images)

When I visited Nepal's capital Kathmandu years ago, it was a beautiful, hilly city with clusters of quaint buildings. As I walked by the colorful markets lining narrow alleyways, shopkeepers smiled. This weekend, the city was at the epicenter of an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. City blocks collapsed, century-old monuments were reduced to rubble, and apocalyptic cracks ran through the roads. The city I walked through all those years ago no longer exists.

Eye-witnesses tweeted out the images of the destruction:

It's hard to come to terms with the scale of loss the earthquake caused. More than 2,500 people have died and around 6,000 have been injured, according to the latest numbers. As rescue operations power through strong aftershocks, these figures are expected to rise.

The earthquake itself was inevitable—Nepal lies on a tectonic fault line. But haphazard urbanization around the Kathmandu Valley amplified the fatal force of the disaster. Here's how a 2013 World Bank report summed up the problem:

Unplanned urban development in the Kathmandu Valley has led to rapid and uncontrolled sprawl; irregular, substandard, and inaccessible housing development; loss of open space, and decreased livability. It has also increased vulnerability to disasters, making Kathmandu one of the most earthquake-vulnerable cities in the world.

According to the report, Kathmandu city has been one of the fastest-expanding metropolitan areas in South Asia. But a lot of this growth hasn't been planned or regulated. In rural areas of the valley, satellite towns have grown without much guidance from the government, the report says. On the other hand, the shopping centers, offices, and residential buildings built within the city proper have not adhered to safety codes that would protect their occupants during an earthquake.

"The building code is a serious issue. In a place like Kathmandu, a new building pops up every day which has not been built to code," Robert Piper, former resident coordinator for the United Nations in Nepal told the Thompson Reuters Foundation. "Buildings kill people, not earthquakes."

Sadly, the city's vulnerability has now been proven true. But Kathmandu's case isn't unique—several rapidly urbanizing South Asian cities show similarly dangerous urban growth patterns, according to the Thompson Reuters Foundation. The Indian capital of New Delhi is another example.

"Not only is Delhi densely populated but there is complete lack of enforcement by authorities concerned to ensure that building codes and structural safety norms are followed," D.K. Paul, professor emeritus at the earthquake engineering department at the Indian Institute of Technology, told The Hindustan Times.

According to Paul, if the epicenter of Saturday's earthquake had been near New Delhi, half of the city—which is so much bigger than Kathmandu in population and size—would have been be leveled to the ground. Hopefully the present tragedy, and the prospect of future ones, will force cities to reassess their urban planning efforts before the next natural disaster hits.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.