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Urban Bhutan? Embrace the old in building the new

Phuentsholing – Here on the Bhutan-India border, a new urban center may well arise one day should a Druk Holding & Investments plan, assisted in part by the Asian Development Bank, succeed.

One of the last major projects in 2010 that I had supported on behalf of the United States while serving as the US Ambassador to and member of the Board of Directors of the ADB was a loan and grant package totaling $53 million to promote growth in and around Phuentsholing by developing a township area adjoining the city protected by new defenses against floods and riverbank erosion.

The Amochhu Land Development and Township Project has evolved since then. This major development initiative now envisions a new, more modern urban center emerging on some 160 hectares of riparian land adjacent to the Amocchu River.  It is an impressive site and vision, and the need for urban expansion is clear to me during my visit here to Bhutan’s largest commercial, industrial, trading and transit hub.

Days before my visit to this bustling border city, I had served as a moderator at the Better Business Bhutan summit in Thimphu, where this project was one spotlighted during a session on public-private partnerships. In turn, I had wanted to see first hand any progress on this and other ADB-supported urban infrastructure and transport projects in Phuentsholing.

The financing and engineering challenges will not be insignificant. Business involvement–including but not limited to public-private partnership– as well as community engagement and involvement, and a government commitment to address the bureaucracy and regulations that too often stymie such megaprojects will be important.

Whether here in Phuentsholing or back in Thimphu, here is a lesson to take to heart from a journey to many of the Indo-Pacific region’s megacities.  Too often, the scale and direction of urbanization has led to reduced livability and burgeoning inequality between those who can and those who cannot afford the best that a city has to offer.  Well-intentioned zoning rules separating commercial and residential districts can also reduce a city’s vibrancy.

This challenge is likely to only grow, including in much smaller cities such as Phuentsholing relative to a Delhi or Beijing, as more people move from rural to urban areas and inequality increases across the region.

According to a recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ annual World Urbanization Prospects report, numerous Asian cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025. In Southeast Asia, for example, Manila, in the Philippines, is projected to grow 17.4 percent, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; Jakarta, in Indonesia, 22 percent, from 10.3 to 12.6 million; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2 percent, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.

This rampant urbanization has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric.

My own regular visits to Bhutan and particularly to a changing and increasingly congested Thimphu underscore to me that no nation is immune to this urban development challenge.  This comes to mind each time I approach Thimphu by car from Paro, and spot an ever growing number of tall buildings.

Mandating Bhutanese accents and traditional forms of architecture are incorporated into new building projects is only one aspect of shaping a unique, livable city.

Lessons of what not to do can be found across Asia, where street vendors have been banished in parts of some cities as urban planners seek to impose a new, cleaner, but perhaps more sterile, vision of the modern city. As street life has disappeared, the longstanding, vibrant communities that made these cities unique have also come under threat if not vanished.

What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification,” punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy.

This is all too sadly evident even in an Indo-Pacific region that is home to many UNESCO world heritage sites. While such sites might draw thousands of visitors each year, there is a risk that it is only historic buildings — not living communities — that are maintained.

This harsh division of past and present has not always existed in the region.

Of his one-time home base of Phnom Penh, my associate Jose B. Collazo tells me that one need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s. During that era, Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann fused building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition.

“By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer,” says Collazo. “Sadly, many of his works have succumbed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanization that seemingly emphasizes size over authenticity.”

It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city, according to The Philips Center for Health and Well-being. This Netherlands-based think tank focuses on improving the lives of people around the world, and seeks to provide a focus point for debate and discussion on significant trends, issues and health aspirations for society.

Rather than ignore or build over a city’s history, urban planners and developers should embrace its heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity.  This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what many first-time visitors to Bhutan take with them in their journeys home. The challenge is now to ensure this remains even as Bhutan continues to develop.

Here is one clear answer. There need not be a default setting for what urbanization looks and feels like. Cities everywhere will continue to grow. Phuentsholing and Thimphu are prime examples. Yet, as these and other Bhutanese cities develop and grow, a better embrace of past heritage and present-day community life can contribute to a more vibrant, unique and inclusive future. Embrace the old even as we build the new. There remains my hope for Bhutan.

 

Contributed  by Curtis S. Chin  

Former US Ambassador to Asian Development Bank

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