It is always a joy to meet a super talented academician architect, whose excellence exudes humility with confidence to better lives of the people of her nation. Dr. Apekshya Dhungel’s commitment to ‘plan open spaces with and for the children’ has become her life’s mission and the Doctoral Thesis from the Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, Germany has been well-received by learned professionals across the globe. Dr. Apekshya Dhungel hails from the Lalitpur district of Nepal.

In the year 2010, Apekshya Dhungel completed her Bachelor’s in Architecture from the Institute of Engineering, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She honed her skills and worked under various capacities as an architect for couple of years. In the year 2016, she graduated her Master’s in Landscape Architecture from Hochschule Weihenstephan-Triesdorf of Applied Science, Germany. A year later in 2017, Apekshya Dhungel pursued her Ph.D. in ‘Planning Open Spaces with and for the Children – Local Context of Kathmandu’ at the largest and oldest university in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt – the Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg. July 2023 was the proudest moment for Apekshya Dhungel, who achieved the distinction to become Dr. Apekshya Dhungel with her Ph.D.

A Good Socialising Space for Children and Elders

Apekshya Dhungel bagged multiple scholarships with her talent, creativity and hard work throughout her academic quest:

10/2004 – 02/2010: Full Scholarship (10 Semesters) for Bachelor’s degree in Architecture at the Institute of Engineering from Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal – Monthly stipend based on merit throughout the course;

06/2016 – 06/2017: Returning expert salary top-up from CIM – Centre for International Migration and Development, and GIZ – German Agency for International Cooperation;  

07/2017 – 11/2020: Graduiertenförderung – Full scholarship for Ph.D. according to the Graduate Promotion Act of the State of Saxony-Anhalt, Germany – Several travel grants for research site visits, One-semester Research assistantship, One -semester thesis finalisation grant; and

04/2020 – 12/2021: Forschung von Wissenschaftler*innen in der Qualifikationsphase (research by scientists in qualification phase) grant from Faculty of Philosophy III, Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg for research and project initiative.

City Core Brother-Sister duo Independent Mobility

In the year 2021, Dr. Apekshya Dhungel established Archyatra Studio in Lalitpur, Nepal – a multidisciplinary design firm focusing on urban open spaces, place-making, community planning and child spaces. Since August 2023, Dr. Apekshya Dhungel also imparts knowledge as Visiting Lecturer to the younger students at Xamk – South-Eastern Finland University of Applied Sciences, Mikkeli, Southern- Savonia in Finland. She reveals, “I strongly believe ‘research and action’ go in a cycle and one is incomplete without the other. I am an action researcher (smiles). My dream is to see Kathmandu as a beautiful inclusive city, where everybody finds their own space. As a researcher, I believe my methodological tools can be used in any part of the world in a contextual manner.”

Dr. Apekshya Dhungel is currently working on social-oriented projects, a self-sustainable cafe with dormitory for domestic violence victim women. Being a landscape architect she focuses on what to protect rather than what to build. From being an architect to having expertise in landscape architecture and then finally, integrating her skills into social and cultural affairs has transformed her from being a builder to creator. Dr. Apekshya Dhungel has been invited to several conferences in various countries like Germany, Nepal, Norway and Finland as a guest speaker, invited speaker and spotlight panelist, and also as a guest lecturer and thesis supervisor in several universities.

Johnny D interacts with Dr. Apekshya Dhungel at great length about her Doctoral Thesis and her inspiring journey.

Discrimination in Open Space

What was your childhood’s ambition? Did you always wanted to be an architect?

My childhood fascination with drawing and immersion in imagination, like every child, persisted in my life longer than usual. As the saying goes, ‘Every child is an artist; the problem is to remain one when you grow up’. I might have also thought of becoming a doctor or chartered accountant due to my studious nature (smiles), but this changed in my ninth-grade elective class on technical drawing. The experience not only revealed my passion for drawing, but also highlighted my technical soundness. Since then, my journey has unfolded with an exciting realization that everyone possesses the ability to design. Imagination and creativity exist in everyone, particularly in children, and we, as designers, architects or planners, are merely more equipped to do so. It is a reminder not to take it for granted.

Piles of Bricks as Play Space

You have an impressive repertoire with a Doctorate in Educational Sciences from The Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany; Master’s in Landscape Architecture from Hochschule Weihenstephan-Triesdorf, Germany; and a Bachelor in Architecture from Tribhuvan University, Institute of Engineering in Nepal. Briefly elucidate your academic quest.

I think human realization should transcend mere academic accomplishments—it is about understanding one’s essence. Embracing the concept of “being” over constant pursuit and achievement unveils the purpose of existence, acknowledging personal uniqueness which will help in filling a crucial gap in the world. Early environmental influences, from family to community, shape one’s character, emphasizing the importance of recognizing individuality. This realization drives my academic pursuit, fueled by a lifelong curiosity and a belief in education’s transformative power. Education, when rightly structured, empowers every individual to fulfill their unique potential. Drawing inspiration from John Dewey’s philosophy, I advocate for education as a catalyst for change, preparing individuals for the future, while also valuing the present.

My educational journey, spanning architecture, landscape architecture and a Ph.D. in educational sciences, signifies a purpose-driven approach. Designing a children’s art centre in bachelor’s thesis, progressing to landscape architecture studies focusing on Kathmandu’s public open spaces, and then doing a Ph.D. centered on planning and designing spaces with children empowering them for societal betterment, my path has evolved while maintaining a consistent purpose. I believe in a trans-disciplinary approach, fostering collaboration across fields to contribute to a more enlightened and harmonious society.

Interacting with Participants for Cleaning Campaign

Elucidate briefly your Doctoral thesis – ‘Planning Open Spaces with and for the Children – Local Context of Kathmandu’.

Like I said, this motivation stems from the recognition that children possess remarkable capabilities often overlooked. Their unique perspectives, keen observations, and deep exploration of their surroundings equip them with an unparalleled understanding of their environment and the issues they face. Studies consistently highlight children’s ability to identify genuine environmental concerns and propose solutions that benefit all. Actively involving them in democratic processes not only contributes to societal well-being, but also enhances their individual potential as responsible human beings.

In today’s world, marked by the need for collaborative efforts, fostering connections and working together becomes crucial. Isn’t this collaborative and interconnected approach the essential link our world needs today, working with each other rather than against?

Cleaning Campaign

Unplanned development by the respective State Policymakers and Urban Planners has taken a toll on every city in the world in respect to Climate Crisis and Kathmandu is no exception – Elucidate your views.

Upon completing my Master’s degree, I returned to Nepal to contribute as a citizen to address the haphazard urban growth highlighted in my thesis. While my work in Germany was acknowledged, the authorities in Nepal, who should welcome collaboration with experts, proved resistant. Despite numerous attempts to engage them through calls, emails, and personal visits, there was minimal impact, particularly at the policy-making level. Frustrated a bit but even more motivated, I shifted my approach from top-down to bottom-up, targeting communities at the grassroots. However, even at the local ward offices, officials displayed a reluctance to listen, revealing entrenched mindsets resistant to change.

Recognizing the challenges in reaching adults, I pivoted towards working with children. I sought out local schools in the neighbourhoods and established contact with the children. In this way, I would still reach the policy makers but first by empowering the vulnerable group. This is how I was finally able to plan open spaces with and for the children. Their active participation and innovative ideas not only enriched my research, but also nurtured their development as change-makers. As their confidence grew, they effectively voiced their concerns to the authorities, leading to tangible changes in society.

Community Meeting

Your Doctoral thesis is very significant and thoughtful in regards to ‘Open Spaces – Playing Grounds / Green Open Spaces / Children Parks’, which is evidently lacking in many Asian nations. What significant steps does respective nation’s government need to take to enhance the well-being of Children for a better future?

Children should be regarded as equal members of society, ensuring their voices are heard and considering their participation in decision-making based on their capabilities and needs. Independent mobility and dedicated child-friendly infrastructure are essential for their development. When children can move freely, every space in the city becomes both playful and functional, fostering a stronger connection to the environment. This connection nurtures a vital sense of place attachment, wherein children feel a bond with their surroundings and a responsibility to improve them.

Instead of striving for an ideal city, an unrealistic goal for places like Kathmandu, the government should prioritize respecting the rights of children and all citizens. Involving children in decision-making through participatory interventions, addressing the city’s real challenges, and listening to them, implementing their ideas demonstrates a commitment to start off the process. This approach not only benefits children, but also contributes to the overall development of the city and the country. Decision-makers must recognize this paradigm shift for genuine and sustainable progress.

Post-Cleaning Event

Urban landscape / Cities are on the breaking point as climatic catastrophes are on the rampage day in and day out. How do you see urban planning and architecture changing to mitigate the wrath of nature?

The global outlook on architecture is evolving, departing from monumentality to embrace social and sustainable dimensions like eco-friendly materials and community-focused housing. Despite these positive trends, widespread implementation remains constrained. To achieve this, a trans-disciplinary approach is imperative, transcending limitations imposed by political, financial and authoritative influences. Architects often face resource constraints, underscoring the need for collaborative efforts. It is not only about individual structures being environment-friendly or sustainable, but also entails a shift in mindset and associated policies. Acknowledging nature’s interconnectedness, collective action is essential for effective solutions and environmental preservation.

When it comes to urban planning and landscape architecture, we have again witnessed many sustainable solutions. I, for example, advocate for native species and urban rewilding, when I am working in landscape planning and design. Green infrastructure and materials should be advocated, for example, permeable surfaces, water recharge and natural drainage etc. But the awareness must be spread into a wider audience. Architecture and urban planning should draw people closer to nature and fostering informed decision-making across diverse professional domains.

Poor Infrastructure

You worked with children in the local communities to make a difference in Kathmandu. Please enlighten our global readers about your endeavour’s significance and effectiveness.

Embarking on the journey of working with children was a unique and transformative experience, filled with challenges and innovation. Since it was a relatively new intervention in Kathmandu, I had to play many roles —an expert, an ethnographic researcher and an active participant. Employing PAR – Participatory Action Research, a methodology blending research with actions and thus bringing about a change in the community by empowering the participants through their own praxis, children became co-researchers, actively engaging in reshaping their world through action and reflection.

Utilizing the powerful tool of Photo-Voice, they captured their neighborhood under the theme ‘open spaces,’ narrating stories to the community and authorities, offering solutions. This cyclical process acknowledges the dynamic nature of our world, requiring an ever-renewed balance. After several action cycles, children transitioned to taking lead roles in planning, allowing the researcher to step back and empower the community. This aligns with Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, fostering self-sufficiency rather than offering readymade solutions (as done by many NGOs and INGOs), paving the way for holistic sustainable development.

Design Charette

Urban land spaces have become priceless diamonds – Policymakers and real estate companies are grabbing every open space to make their billions. How do you see things changing in Kathmandu per se?

It is not changing and in fact, it is getting worse! The escalating housing prices in Kathmandu, combined with the uncontrolled conversion of peripheral agricultural fields into building plots, are intensifying the city’s livability crisis. Addressing this issue necessitates a purpose-driven approach, focusing on the collective goal of forging a better city for all. Raising awareness is imperative, particularly among stakeholders with vested interests. Illustrating the mutual advantages of preserving open spaces is pivotal, given their multifaceted contributions to social, cultural, environmental and economic well-being. Tailoring communication to specific audiences is vital; for instance, city authorities can be influenced by underscoring the public goodwill derived from providing greenery.

Research validates that thriving public spaces not only elevate the land value, but also stimulate economic activities and housing markets could be shown this side of the story. A recent issue in public spaces faced by Kathmandu is managing spaces for street vendors. While the new mayor is trying to remove them away from the city core and implementing rules that he thinks are beneficial, I think it is important, first of all, to have a meaningful dialogue with them. Only they will be able to find a solution to this, if we consider them as citizens and stakeholders. This reinforces the need for a balanced and sustainable urban development strategy, thus making diverse populations and stakeholders aware and valued. As the city struggles with mounting challenges, a purposeful, inclusive, and well-informed approach is paramount to steering Kathmandu towards a more harmonious and resilient future.

Generating Awareness through Photo Exhibition

Elucidate your five action cycles with flexibility of use: Photo-Voice; Cleaning Campaign; Exhibition in larger scale and make a Park with the Children; Virtual Discussion Session; and Expert Interviews.

This research project follows a series of action cycles of Study-Plan-Act. In the first action Photo-Voice, children captured photographs of their community, sparking subsequent group discussions that encouraged critical reflection, knowledge sharing, and collaborative decision-making. Following this, the children presented their captured images and design proposals to local authorities and community members, advocating for initiatives such as clean and green open spaces, the reconstruction of a public staircase to enhance safety for children and the elderly and collaborative park development.

A crucial finding emerged during this phase, emphasizing the distinction between knowledge and awareness. The children pointed out that while individuals might possess knowledge, transformation comes from true awareness. As the local authorities would say ‘the public know, still they do the bad things’. However, the children resiliently asserted that awareness is needed and a sustained effort. This highlighted the importance of continuous actions. Following the completion of the first action cycle, a phase of MER – Monitoring, Evaluation and Reflection ensued, affirming the research’s integral role in the broader framework of PAR – Participatory Action Research. From this MER process, potential options were derived and discussed with the children. To ensure democratic process, only five genuinely interested children out of the initial 20 participants participated in the second action cycle.

Students Active during Exhibition

This voluntary involvement aimed at upholding democratic principles and fostering a genuinely engaged group. Returning to local authorities with the proposals generated by the children marked the initiation of the second action cycle – a Cleaning Campaign. After a round of negotiation, it was agreed that the children would bring the volunteers and the ward office would provide the tools and required manpower. During the cleaning session, the children expressed a desire to discuss the importance of open spaces, but one of the ward members said there is no need for a dialogue and the cleaning should start immediately. During the cleaning process, the children found new confidence and trust. After the session, they gathered around the authorities, speaking with empowered voices. This moment marked a significant achievement, as the children had taken the lead, and the authorities were attentively listening with heads bowed in acknowledgement.

The success of this action cycle solidified a bond between the children and the ward office, resulting in a mutual desire to collaborate on creating a park. Unfortunately, the onset of the pandemic in Kathmandu disrupted these plans. Despite the challenges, a flexible approach within the Participatory Action Research framework allowed for adaptation. In response to the constraints imposed by the pandemic, the initial action plan underwent modification. The children proposed spreading awareness through a larger exhibition, deemed unfeasible at the time. Instead, a virtual session was planned, allowing them to share their ideas with other children.

Street Exhibition

Concurrently, I adapted the strategy by conducting online interviews with experts from diverse fields, including an urban planner and an urban activist. These experts reinforced the validity of working with children at the local level. While my thesis had to stop, a continuous spiral of action cycles with the children not only validated the methodology, but also underscored its viability. Notably, similar research conducted in cities worldwide revealed a thematic resemblance in the issues identified by children as well as some site-specific issues, emphasizing the methodology’s applicability on a global and local scale.

In conclusion, this research project unfolded as a dynamic and iterative process, emphasizing the importance of engaging children in shaping their communities. From Photo-Voice to virtual sessions, from negotiations with local authorities to online interviews with experts, each phase contributed to the evolution of a robust methodology. The resilient spirit of the children, coupled with a flexible research approach, demonstrated the potential for impactful change at the grassroots level. The findings not only contribute to local initiatives, but also resonate with a broader global context, highlighting the significance of involving children in decision-making processes for sustainable community development.

Segregated Footpath as Safe Open Space

Your Doctoral thesis and significant contributions to make much-needed changes in two localities in Kathmandu has bore the fruit of success for children, communities and you, and truly commendable! Briefly describe your emotional quest.

I cannot distinguish my personal and professional lives. I am emotional about my work as much as I am about other things. Especially, children spark a plug in me with their innocence and diligence. I find joy in exploring, travelling, learning and designing and creating spaces that impact people’s emotions and behavior. Initially, I was working for privileged individuals who could afford such endeavours. However, realizing the neglected needs of vulnerable groups, I shifted towards working on public spaces. My emphasis shifted from working for them to working with them—listening, valuing opinions and ensuring their voices are heard, especially for children globally.

While I have voluntarily designed and built parks in Kathmandu, the process is often influenced by vested interests and group dominance. Unless we work at the grassroots with the most vulnerable ones and empower them, we cannot anticipate change. To build this trust, a gradual process and long-term connection is needed. And at the moment I am preparing for this. As I have prepared a methodology on working with children and other marginalized population, I am happy to share my research with anyone who believes in making this change.

A Temple in Open Space

Which significant aspects of the global platform ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ did you liked the most, and why?

The range of interviews ‘zerobeyond – the new frontier!’ showcased is really an encouraging factor for me. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone is special. You never know how someone’s life might have had an influence on you and how you might have motivated someone else to see the world differently. So this idea of connection and discovering you put into your work is amazing to see. From the editorial perspective, hats off to the contemporary issues you bring out and share!

How would you describe Dr. Apekshya Dhungel as a professional and a person?

A very professional person, who takes her profession very personally! Henceforth, my focus is on living and leading the right life—nurturing personal well-being, healing others and empowering children to instigate essential changes for a better world. Infused with diligence, empathy, compassion and conscientiousness, these children will be nature-centric, observing and engaging with the environment. Witnessing the delicate cycles of nature, learning self-protection and fostering empathy towards all living beings will be integral.

City Core, Kathmandu

My mission is to craft such spaces around and within the city integrating green lungs to rewilding the urban environment and restore the connection between people and nature. The youth today lacks proper encouragement, demanding a transformative shift. It is crucial to ignite and sustain the spark of curiosity and passion in them from childhood.

Awards and honours, if any.

I prioritize ‘beliefs’ over ‘awards’, with various belief systems shaping my life and career, especially influenced by my family. Post-defending my master’s thesis, a valued supervisor’s advice lingers: “Don’t get stuck in some boring jobs while you have higher goals to achieve.” I got recognition as a returning expert from GIZ as I went back to Nepal to work after my master’s. I have received funds as a young researcher to do research related to open spaces as well as to work with the children, these all have been a motivating factor for me. I have been invited as a speaker in global conferences and my work has been published in several websites. I have bagged scholarships throughout my academic journey which has helped me to contribute more hours to my studies.

A Park designed by Dr. Apekshya Dhungel in her Neighbourhood

Embracing a trans-disciplinary approach, I engage in diverse roles—from designing houses and working on landscape projects to teaching environmental subjects and organizing camps for underprivileged children. My profound understanding is that everyone is equal yet uniquely different, advocating against discrimination and urging continuous innovation in generating ideas. Ultimately, witnessing smiles on children’s faces and motivation in youths’ eyes is my greatest reward!

Image Courtesy: Dr. Apekshya Dhungel

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