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While the Bhutanese capital is not awash in skyscrapers, there is a lesson to be learned from the rest of Asia’s ongoing efforts to build higher and bigger.

Building Bhutan’s Cities: The sky should not be the limit

While the Bhutanese capital is not awash in skyscrapers, there is a lesson to be learned from the rest of Asia’s ongoing efforts to build higher and bigger.  Developers in Thimphu must remember and nurture the communities that exist at street level even if technology and resources would make taller buildings feasible.  As my friend Dhamey Tenzing Norgay tells me for an article for the Nikkei Asian Review, “Bigger, taller cities must not become impersonal, disconnected cities.”  Indeed, whether 80-stories or six-stories tall, buildings must remain connected to the environment around them.

And when it comes to heights, that is something Norgay and his family know well.  Norgay is the son of pioneering mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, who first summited Everest with Edmund Hillary.

Cities require not just tall buildings but also vibrant and sustainable neighborhoods and street life. There are certainly many ways to measure a city’s success above and beyond the number of buildings that scrape the sky.

At the Milken Institute, where I serve as that non-partisan economic think tank’s inaugural Asia Fellow, our researchers since 1999 have used a comprehensive, fact-based set of criteria to rank 200 large and 201 small metros across the United States as part of an annual Best-Performing Cities index.

The economic outcomes-based index heavily weights growth in employment, wages and technology. More subjective metrics such as quality-of-life and cost-of-living are not included.

This past year, tech still drove the top rankings as cities that excelled in innovation again topped the index, with San Jose, California, in Silicon Valley, claiming the number one spot for the second year in a row.  A similar Milken Institute Best Performing Cities China list based on official Chinese economic, jobs, wage growth, foreign direct investment and other data singled out Shanghai, Guiyang and Zhoushan as top performers.

Certainly, not all cities are blessed with the resources that Silicon Valley’s urban areas or Shanghai have as they too face the growing physical, social and economic challenges that are a part of an increasingly urbanised 21st century. And yet, cities across Asia, particularly in China and the Middle East, have moved to dominate the rankings for the world’s tallest buildings.

That’s according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.  Founded in 1969, the not-for-profit organisation, with headquarters in Chicago – site of the world’s first skyscraper – maintains The Skyscraper Centre, a database on the world’s tallest buildings.

According to the CTBUH, nine of the world’s tallest buildings are now in Asia and the Middle East.  The only exception is New York’s One World Trade Centre.

Asia’s city construction boom is set to continue.  According to a report from the World Bank in 2015, the region’s ongoing urbanisation is likely only to intensify despite nearly 200 million people already having moved to Asia’s cities in the first decade of the 21st century. These same trends of construction and urbanisation can be seen in Thimphu, as new hotels and buildings rise.

Bhutan too must recognise that liveable cities need more than taller buildings. The people, the street life, and the neighbourhoods at the bottom of the buildings must not be lost in their shadows.  Just as Gross National Happiness may better measure the success of a nation more than economics alone, other criteria also should be incorporated into the shaping of cities.

As Asian cities build taller, they must keep three key benchmarks for liveability in mind – community, resilience and sustainability.

First, communities must be put at the heart of urban development. Urban planners must consider not only the impact of a city’s design and new construction on traffic efficiency or parking spaces, but also on inequality and on human lives.

Amidst the rush to maximise real estate returns, cities and their developers must also incorporate public, open spaces to build a sense of community, cultivate street life and encourage social interaction. And that fostering of community should include people from all walks of life and income levels.

Second, Asia’s cities must build in resilience.

A society or city that is socially inclusive and with strong community bonds leads to a city that is also resilient. An initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, 100 Resilient Cities, defines urban resilience as the capacity to survive, adapt and grow no matter the stresses or shocks they experience.

This is all the more important in Asia – a region of the world that is no stranger to natural disasters, from earthquakes to flooding. Beyond skyscrapers, Asia’s cities must develop comprehensive security and rule of law, effective public health systems, inclusive housing and labor policies, and diverse transport networks, as well as effective delivery of emergency services. Here, the private sector, including insurance and reinsurance companies, will play a necessary role along with government policies to encourage an enabling environment for resilience.

And third, Asia’s cities need to grow in an environmentally sustainable manner. With more and more people moving into cities, tackling environmental challenges is already increasingly an urban issue. Incorporating innovations and technologies in areas such as infrastructure, energy and transport will be essential to building smarter if not “smart cities.” Here again, the contributions and collaboration of the public, private and not-for-profit sectors will be important.

Liveable, dynamic and vibrant cities are greater testament to a country’s prosperity and policy successes than any number of skyscrapers, no matter how big or how tall. That is as true in Bhutan as it is in a city like Shanghai or Tokyo.  As Asia builds high, it is what is sustained below that will matter most.

Contributed by  Curtis S Chin 

A former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, who is currently the managing director of the advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. 

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