The Thimphu Structure Plan 2002-2027 prepared based on the principles of intelligent urbanism called for the pedestrianization of the Norzin Lam- often referred as the soul of the city to achieve its themes of “human scale” and “balanced moment”. The structure plan was approved in 2004 as an outcome of the Vision 2020 document.
For 16 long years, the soul of Thimphu city is yet to see the implementation of the controversial pedestrianization concept due to practical issues on the ground and valid reasons from the residents, business houses and building owners. Last year the Thromde’s plan to remove parking spaces after the Tshechu was halted by the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement with a directive to review the plan.
The soul of the City does not look intelligent urbanism from many angles and needs some practical solutions but removing the parking altogether just because it is written/drawn in the plan will bring unforeseen issues for the business owners and residents. This has been the issue that has taken up enormous resources in terms of meetings, discussions, temporary trials and frustrations, feedbacks and follow-ups with no success.
The noble intentions of the removing the cars from the Norzin lam needs to be looked under the following realities:
1. The argument by the urban planners is supported by the facts and pretty pictures that such interventions worked so well in a Toronto, or a Sydney or a Singapore or any other mega city. Therefore, it will surely work in Thimphu.
2. The pedestrian streets the above-mentioned cities have the benefit of having a large population which is many times more than our national population. So, in numbers, Norzin Lam and Thimphu falls behind many times for a similar stretch.
3. In the above cities the pedestrian facilities are linked with an efficient underground public transportation system. Parking nearby the pedestrian streets are at least 20 times higher than the cost of using a world class public transportation. During weekends and public holidays, the public transportation is half prized free for the students and senior citizens to encourage more families use it.
4. Municipal council in the above cites collect taxes from the business and residents and they have adequate resources. The public transportation, police and public events are organized and managed by the city councils. Frequent events are organized in these pedestrian streets so that it attracts people from all walks of life. Free public transportation is available to those holding the tickets to these events. Will Thimphu city afford to do this similar thing in 2030?
5. Therefore, the removal of parking spaces from Norzin lam needs to be evaluated and tied up with our municipal taxation, transportation policies and ground realities.
On the other hand, the situation provides an opportunity to find a workable solution to beautify the street in our own ways and one such option is as under:
At present, the entire stretch of Norzin Lam has angular parking which occupies more space than parallel parking. If we replace the present angular parking with parallel parking just by changing the painting lines, more spaces could be created for pedestrians and landscaping. If such an intervention can create even a 2-3 feet space in the ground it can achieve the “balance with nature” theme of the Structure Plan and give a green corridor to the street. We need a minimum of 3.7 meters (or say 4 meters to be on the safer side) for a single carriageway street like Norzin lam and another 3 meters for the parallel parking leaving ample space for the landscaping. Reducing the parallel parking by 2-3 slots in a stretch will provide an opportunity to plant a beautiful maple tree and add inspiring and living greenery to the soul of Thimphu city. The trees and greenery will naturally help to slow down the traffic and contribute towards people-friendly streets. We can declare the street as a no horn zone as an immediate measure and change the present blacktopping to something more suitable for slow traffic in a phased manner as a long-term intervention. The present blacktopping is more suitable for speeding highways. I am sure the building owners, big business houses, shops and residents would be interested to support such initiatives as it will add value to their homes, business, and properties with minimum inconveniences and investment.
This Tshechu is it possible to form Citizen Initiatives for Norzin Lam and seek crowdfunding from the companies, business, and residents for its improvement? Will Thimphu residents, well-wishers, volunteers, and Bhutanese citizens come forward to change a simple thing like a parking layout and build a simple planter box for the city? Shall we have to still depend on the Thromde’s limited human resources and funds, typical tenders, the lowest bidder, and an expatriate worker to beautify the soul of our city? Unlike when the pedestrian plan was approved in 2004, now the Mayor and City Council office is an elected one and public facilities, conveniences and ground results will surely influence the results of the next elections.
The upcoming Tshechu and the reduced vehicle moment due to the pandemic, the strength of our smallness and the Covid-19 induced spirit of community/city building provides an timely opportunity for a Citizen initiative to visit the all the three sections of the Street with measuring tape and marker pens to see the possibilities for the long-awaited beautification and greening of the Norzin lam and soul of the Thimphu city.
Contributed by Dhrubaraj Sharma
QUT Design Lab