In a cold afternoon early this week, a small group of Bhutanese thinkers, writers, planners and builders gathered at the Nazhoen Pelri Complex in Thimphu. It was a low-key event but the purpose of their coming together had significance far greater than the conspicuous lack of hurly-burly about it.
It was Bhutan’s urban development the group had come to discuss.
Urban development generates heated debate among the Bhutanese but it is often for reasons painful in our experience than for successes we have had in building livable urban centres.
The participants were vocal and did not hesitate to point out the flaws.
Thimphu Structural Plan (TSP), one of the most sensible city plans, is a favourite subject among planners and builders today because of the way the capital city has grown over the years.
The character of a city, however, is not defined by its size.
Planners argue that implementation of TSP failed because the Thimphu Thromde does not have control over land asset. What this means is that the rich and powerful find a way to block city planning and development.
The case is not unique to Thimphu. That’s probably why all the town development suffers from the same problems. Khuruthang and Bajothang towns are living examples.
If we require a law to give leg up to urban development, let there be one.
At the heart of making cities and town liveable and resilient lies the engagement of people and communities. In that sense, building a city should begin by building a sense of community. The other way round is also possible but it must be nurtured and sustained by efficient service systems.
If indeed cities are the engine of growth, the focus of development should go beyond concrete houses and high-rise buildings. Affordable housing is the key element of urban development which is increasingly becoming a distant dream for Bhutanese urban dwellers.
The argument that rural to urban migration contributes to urban development challenges is true but only partly. As development picks up, rural to urban migration will only grow but our cities should have the capacity to absorb them. Where the failure to do so can lead us is before us to see.
At a time when town and city planning is a major development issue in the country, such conversations a vitally important in that they can inform our decisions for better design and implementation.
TSP, reportedly, is being reviewed. Urban development debate so much be kept alive so that we can make all out towns and cities liveable.