The pursuit of GNH City

Bhutan as a happiness kingdom has been adopting and exercising activities that are aligned with the precepts of the Gross National Happiness.  Despite having championed in fields like environment and culture, gender issues still pervade the spiritual and the senile cultural landscape of the country.

The Global Gender Report 2020, ranks Bhutan 131 out of 153 with a score of 0.635 out of 1.  Similarly, BHUTAN Gender Equality Diagnostic of Selected Sectors 2014 highlights the disparity that persists in sectors such as economics, politics, and the employment sector.  The unemployment rate has consistently been higher for women (3.3%) as compared to men (2.2%) and as high as 7.3 percent for the former in urban areas as compared to 3.9 percent for the latter.  The GNH survey conducted in 2010 concludes that 46 percent of men and 36 percent of women had reached a level of happiness satisfaction.  All of these studies ascertain that gender inequality prevails in the country.

From educational attainment to politics and decision-making, gender equality is increasingly becoming relevant, and with that, women’s participation is catching up with that of men’s.  As the government expands its ever-soaring efforts to aggrandise gender parity, there are many areas that can equally evolve and adapt to welcome and enable gender equality.

Neighbourhood planning

Since the advent of the first five-year plan in the 1960s, urban planning has made many feeble attempts to establish its foothold.  For instance, the 14 urban development plans for dzongkhag towns initiated by UN-Habitat in the year 1984 and the Thimphu Structure Plan of 2002 were prepared to lead the cities towards sustainable development, but due to the lack of planning approaches that are bottom-up and participatory in nature or that which caters to various section of the society, including women, these plans came to nought.

A response to these is a ‘Neighbourhood Planning’ approach, which is bottom-up and participatory.  It is a tool that investigates the challenges and potentials of a city at the lowest planning unit called the neighbourhood.  Through discussions, surveys and other interactive methods, it is a means to an end that is inclusive, sustainable, and participatory.  However, as gender inequality shows a very tenuous sign of abatement, the need for ameliorating or making these planning tools more gender-sensitive is of utmost importance.

Gender-sensitive neighbourhood planning

Neighbourhood planning can empower women by planning a neighbourhood and the city altogether into a gender-sensitive city.  Socioeconomic development; infrastructure development; transport and mobility; environmental sanctity; and governance are the main aspects that underpin neighbourhood planning.  And considering the gender disparity that prevails, mainstreaming gender equality in neighbourhood planning can prove to be a panacea to the existing meagre improvement to gender issues.  More importantly, neighbourhood planning facilitates the collection of data that represents gender issues across all mentioned fields of planning, which can eventually facilitate appropriate gender-sensitive decision-making.

Nevertheless, an indispensable change to the current planning process is to conduct focus group discussions with women of a neighbourhood.  Currently, public consultations are majorly represented by men.  So, initiation of such focused discussions would encourage more women to participate, and the neighbourhood plans can be more gender-sensitive in taking suggestions and accounting for the needs of women in neighbourhoods.

A common revelation from such focused discussions, as mentioned in many studies, is that women need multifunctional urban spaces or centres to match the balancing of their multi-tasking daily realities.  Complete neighbourhood centres for mixed-use, with short distances and synchronised timing of services and infrastructures, the proximity of work, childcare, shops and public services, as well as safe, frequent and easily accessible public transport systems, constitute the elements of a city that fit the needs of women.  The need for such centres was apparent during the COVID-19 lock-downs, which showed a soaring rate of violence against women.  The need for easy and safe access to such centres within neighbourhoods has become more necessary than ever. 

More importantly, such centres can also capture the ethos of traditional settlements that relies on social integration, especially amongst mothers and women, which is getting lost in the busy and nucleated urban settlements.

The 14 neighbourhood nodes (NNs), as conceived in the Thimphu Structure Plan as the focus of the 16 neighbourhoods (Urban Villages), are the areas that can offer a medium for incorporating aforesaid gender-sensitive aspects to neighbourhoods.  Further, the Structure Plan also views these NNs as a centre of the so-called walkable neighbourhoods that facilitate services like education, health, governance, commerce, and transportation services within a walkable distance.  Incorporating gender-sensitive infrastructure and services in these NNs, such as public toilets, footpaths, parks and open spaces that are essential, safe and easily accessible to women, as well as; establishing home science clubs; NCWC centres; weaving centres; urban gardening group, etc. can contribute towards mainstreaming gender equality by providing a platform for communication and interaction; reconciliation of family and professional work; and security, among others, in the neighbourhood and eventually at the city and country level.

The role of neighbourhood planning in providing a stage for gender mainstreaming right from the local and eventually percolating towards the bigger picture of the city and the nation is indisputable and necessary.  Therefore, the planning approach that has led us here has to accept a gender-sensitive nudge or look through a gender-sensitive lens and incorporate the much-needed participation and role of women hereinafter through the Gender Sensitive Neighbouring Planning approach.  This would not only lead to a holistic planning approach but also contribute to solving the issues of gender inequality in our societies.

Contributed by

Yeshey Jamtsho,