The process of urbanisation includes more than the construction of new buildings and the settlement of people in an area – growing towns also need new infrastructure that needs to provide additional services in greater volume and quality than before.

The life and economy of a town can come to depend on how quickly goods and people can move through its streets. In the Himalayas, some of the earliest town settlements  during the colonial period relied on tourism and seasonal movements of people. Urbanisation and growth in the mountains over the past century have been driven by the changing demands and expectations of tourists, now increasingly domestic travellers looking to escape the heat of the plains during the school holidays and festive seasons.

Mussoorie and Nainital in Uttarakhand, India, are thriving examples of erstwhile colonial hill station towns that are increasingly popular with domestic Indian tourists during summer months. Old landmarks remain, but are increasingly built around and over, as the provision of electricity, water supply, improved transport and new houses make modern life possible.

Living in the mountains remains precarious, particularly as construction on steep slopes has been at the expense of trees that held the hillside together by preventing erosion. Loose soil, drainage problems, heavy rain and sub-standard building quality make the risk of landslip and housing collapse a lived reality for many inhabitants, especially the poorest, who occupy the most risky environments. In a seismically active zone like the Himalayas, the accompanying threat from earthquakes is ever present.

The popularity of these towns as tourist destinations place their resources and infrastructures under significant resource strain, with government departments and agencies unable to check unauthorised building activity and urban sprawl.

Rapid urbanisation that has affected settlements and life in the Himalayas over the past few decades.



Water Carriers, Mussoorie Estimated 1880 Photograph by Samuel Bourne Centre for South Asian Studies, Fullerton Collection

Motorbike Mechanic, Landour Bazaar 7th September, 2017 Photograph by Toby Smith

Himalaya Club, Mussoorie Estimated 1890 Unknown Studio Photographer Centre for South Asian Studies, Colonel Hume Collection

Hotel Himalayan Club, Mussoorie 21st May, 2017 Photograph by Toby Smith

Library and Bandstand, Mussoorie Estimated 1890 Photograph by Lilian Rust Centre for South Asian Studies, Canning Collection

Library and Bandstand, Mussoorie 22nd May, 2017 Photograph by Toby Smith

Mussoorie as a popular tourist destination was well documented from British colonial times, these images show the changes brought about by urbanisation, which include not only the construction of new buildings and roads, but faster and arguably more streamlined transport options that have changed the landscape and the pace of the town.

Over the past decade, Mussoorie has been growing at a rate of over 15%.  It currently sources its water from over 20 separate springs, but high season demand far outstrips supply capacity. The Government is currently considering alternatives, which include a new scheme to supply water pumped up the mountain via a multi-stage lift-scheme from the Yamuna River. Others suggest that improved capture and storage of precipitation in the Mussoorie ridge and a revival of the springs  and other surface water sources, might be a more viable, cheaper and more sustainable option.



September, 1880 - Photograph by Samuel Bourne - Cambridge University Library - PH-RCS-Y-03022-G

Estimated 1910 - Unknown Photographer - Cambridge University Library - PH-RCS-Y-03022-G

26th May, 2017 - Photograph by Toby Smith

In 1880, the built-up northern ridge around lake Naini collapsed after heavy rain, killing more than 150 people. The area beneath the landfall has been turned into ‘The Flats’ and is now used as a cricket and sports pitch. It is also home to the Town Hall and a mosque. As urban pressures have continued, the vulnerable hillside has gradually been built up for residential and tourist housing.

The risk of landslides in the Himalayas remains high, especially during the monsoon months, with many of the town’s poorest residents building homes on the most eroded and unstable slopes. The Himalayas have also experienced major earthquakes in recent years, which remain a significant risk to life and property in the region.



Shimla is the capital of Himachal Pradesh and home to over 200,000 people. During the colonial period, it served as the summer capital for the British Raj, and has remained a governmental, administrative and tourist centre in the post Independence period.

While its growth in recent decades has been steady, service provision within the town, as throughout rapidly urbanising India, has been ad hoc, with frequently informal household- or shopfront- level improvised solutions for the provisioning of water and electricity.

‘The Mall, near the Exchange’

Estimated  1915

Photography by Cotton and Morris

Cambridge University Library – PH-RCS-Y-03022-G

‘The Mall – Shimla’

26th May , 2017

Photograph by Toby Smith