Making a greener city through the civic inclusion of migrants

London Met research, which explores the opportunities for urban agriculture on the Bagmati riverbanks in Kathmandu, was named Frontiers of Architectural Research's best paper of 2020.

Date: 11 January 2021

In 2008, the Nepalese government planned a ‘green United Nations park’ to clean up Kathmandu’s rivers and beautify their banks. A year later, the Prime Minister remarked that he dreamt ‘of being able to jog along the Bagmati banks early [in the] morning and breathe fresh air’.

There was no room in this plan, however, for the migrant settlements established on these same river banks as they were regarded as dirty and ‘uncivilised’ rather than being both of value to the city as a whole and having the potential to be the source of rich civic relationships.

New research by Maurice Mitchell, Professor of Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources at London Met, together with student architect and researcher Amara Roca Iglesias, asks what role the theory and practice of architecture can play in fitting together two groups; the established residents who would like to make their city greener and healthier; and the migrant sukumasi farmers dwelling on the newly embanked lands, who are trying to gain access to sustainable livelihoods and life-enhancing city institutions? 

The authors looked at the opportunities offered for green city-making on the recently secured Bagmati riverbanks in Kathmandu which is subject to rapid inward migration from landless rural farmers. To do this the paper deepens and extends loose fit theory, research methods and reflective practices to investigate latent possibilities, assemble a narrative of embedded change and create spatial imaginaries of topographical change on the Bagmati riverbanks. The research set out to question the assumption that migrant ‘edgeland’ settlements have little to offer in achieving these goals, and therefore encompasses the perspectives of both top-down and bottom-up approaches. 

One example of the imagined changes included the expansion of ‘edible roofs and walls’ (baari) which the sukumbasi women used as a way to produce enough food for their families. As part of the research, a workshop in which local teenagers made prototype bamboo planters provided access to this process of riverbank food production. The expansion of food production would be made sustainable through use of the settlement’s compostable waste to fill the planters.

Mitchell and Iglesias argue that, “the relationship between migrant farmers and the setting which they occupy, and its potential to benefit all the residents of the city, has hitherto been either hidden, ignored, neglected or rejected. 

“By revealing and supporting the capacity of migrants to imagine, represent and deliberate future changes to the settings which they occupy, previously hidden relational opportunities for engagement can be uncovered. 

“By making explicit the relationships between setting and occupant, stimulating and representing alternative imaginaries and framing a civic discourse, architectural theory and practice can play a significant role in both integrating migrants into civic institutions and at the same time helping to generate a greener city.”

The paper, published in Frontiers of Architectural Research (FoAR), was named the journal’s best paper in 2020.

Drawing of plants growing up the side of a building

Pictured: proposal for an edible wall

This research was conducted as part of London Met's Architecture of Rapid Change and Scarce Resources (ARCSR) group, an established research area within the teaching, research and practice of architecture. If you are interested in finding out more about the ARCSR's work or in undertaking PhD research with the group, please contact its co-ordinators Professor Maurice Mitchell and Dr Bo Tang