Ecocity Bhutan: Confluence of Ideas at the Confluence of Rivers

Editor’s Note: Bhutan is a small country that borders India to the south and east, Tibet to the north and which touches the even smaller former country Sikkim taken over by India in 1975, becoming a state of India, to the west. With a land area of 18,000 square miles, it is about the same size as Switzerland. With its remote location and with its regulated tourism, it remains largely shrouded in mystery to the rest of the world.  

The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. The assessment of gross national happiness measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than the economic indicator of gross domestic product GDP which emphasizes growth in production, consumption and accumulating (or dissipating) investment holdings.

Ecocity Builders’ President Richard Register recently traveled to Bhutan to think through a design for an ecotown at the confluence of the country’s two largest rivers with a merging of the measures of Gross National Happiness and ecocity principles.  


A month ago I returned from Bhutan, one of the more amazing trips of my life. I spent the next three weeks writing up a report on it all and now I’m contemplating next steps… back to Bhutan?


The first thing I learned about happiness over there is that, though they are probably even as the Bhutanese themselves say, measurably happier than most, of course it comes and goes and comes back in all of us. Sometimes they are happy, sometimes not, but doing better than most I’d say having lived there for a little less than a month. From my experience outside Bhutan, which is about 300 times the time I’ve been in Bhutan, what I knew about their Gross National Happiness index before going, was that people either didn’t know where Bhutan was or thought it was a generally good idea, so closely were the country and the idea identified with each other. It all seemed rather innocent and positive. So why not play on the old Gross National Product, which somewhere morphed into Gross Domestic Product (who are those economists to decide such things, anyway?) and why not make something of a joke of GDP while advancing happiness a little?

Well, it’s a lot more important than that. What is really going on here, or I should say there, is a challenge to the whole construct that is almost like the chant of consensus reverberating around the world, the carrier wave of belief in infinite growth in a finite environment, producing Gross Global Damage and shaking the planet from its atmosphere’s climate change to the very circulation of the oceans, to the shaking of the earth itself – in fracking, mind cracking, even raising the seas for God’s sake and distorting and impoverishing evolution into eternity since extinctions, much less mass extinctions, are forever. That’s how bad the religion of GDP and it mantra of produce, grow, consume, produce, grow, consume actually time without end is.

GNH a pretty good idea? Little Bhutan making a playful ironic comment about the big world outside? Hardly. This country is the mouse that roared, but unlike the novel, movie and stage adaptation by that name, by declaring peace on the future, not war on the US as in the fiction version. In the real country’s case, peace is promoted through maximum happiness instead of maximum growth and consumption.

This small country has no illusions as to its size and power in the big world of big games of big countries and people gaming the game of politics and economic development for all they can get. What Bhutan is saying is simply this: good values, happy lives, long term peace and compassion for all sentient beings are the end, not growth, consuming and power. The economists have it backward, whether capitalist or socialist or in their case rather contentedly monarchial until 2006. That was the year their fourth King abdicated. Then he and his son and their government ironed out a democratic constitution that went into effect in 2008. I inserted that “compassion for all sentient beings” above because it is real and operative in Bhutan in so many ways. The goal of happiness is not just for their people. It means also that they are as exemplary in their environmental hard work and real accomplishment as any other nature-loving tree-hugging people one can find.

I’ll give you an example, then tell you how and why I was invited and how it might be headed to the building of a pair of – at last! – ecocities somewhere. And that somewhere is Bhutan.

Here’s the example: My first morning in Thimphu, capital of Bhutan, I was plotting my day in my hotel room after breakfast and coffee when I heard maybe thirty grade school children singing a kind of chant, a sound like little crystal bells close to in tune drifting in on the fresh morning air. Unbelievably lovely, I have to say charming, a word I almost never use. Right out my window and across the street, across a playground and on a small stage in front of their school the children were singing, marching and swinging their arms in little choreographed patterns, almost dancing, with their teachers conducting the whole scene. The boys and girls in their ghos and kiras, kind of dress or robe-like affairs, for the boys cut just above the knees, with black knee socks and for the girls, to their ankles. All of these with very wide cuffs at the end of long sleeves, boys always white cuffs, girls bright colors. These were their school uniforms, not too different from the official wear of most of their elders.

And on the wall behind them somewhere between charter, dedication, list of precepts and slogan, this:




for life of learning            of thinking

of self   of community     of environment


Mind                          Heart                               Skills

(Self Awareness) (Loving and Caring) (Use Life Skills Education)





Getting invited

I had met Bhutan’s Minister of Labour and Human Resources in Incheon, Korea where both of us gave plenary talks at a conference on the future of cities. A year later he, Dorji Wangdi, wrote me saying he had a dream for an ecocity in Bhutan to focus mainly on eco-tourism, education and sport. Would I come help plan it? The Royal Government of Bhutan would pay all in-country expenses. If I could get there they would provide me with a cross-country trip to the site in question and provide access to their chief designers and planners. They would also arrange for me to give a 90 minute talk to their staff at the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement.

I immediately asked for and got a donation from our friend the inventor industrialist (I don’t know if he’d like his name as a money source to be bandied about too generally) and a small grant from the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation for a large part of our contribution to the project: getting me there and covering our own Ecocity Builders associated expenses. I worked quickly to follow up and go.

I don’t have enough time or room here in this newsletter to describe my many rich particular experiences in Bhutan but I will tell you the assignment and my thinking on it.

My assignment and the site for the city

It took six days to cross Bhutan, explore the site for the new ecocity and return to the capital, Thimphu. It took two days driving over the world’s windiest most up and down, hair-raising, narrow and guardrail-missing, floating-in-air mountain roads I’ve ever been over to get there, two days there and two days to get back. I asked our driver, Tashi, if we would ever get a strait stretch in the whole country. He said, “Well, there’s about a half mile when you are approaching the capital from the south.” Thimphu (pronounced tim-poo) the capital and Panbang (pronounced close too pon-bong) the village very close to the ecocity site, Google Earth’s “ruler tool” tells us are 88 miles apart by straight line, about an hour an a half’s normal driving in the US which took us most of two days, this to give you an idea of just how mountainous and convoluted the country’s terrain is.

Another couple of interesting facts about geography and climate there: the country is slightly smaller in land area than Switzerland – about 90% the land area – but rises from just over 300 feet above sea level four miles from our ecocity site to almost 25,000 feet, as compared to Switzerland rising from about 600 feet to 15,200. That’s 10,000 feet more vertical definition than Switzerland has in a smaller and almost totally mountainous country. Also, whereas in California the higher you go generally the more precipitation up the Sierra Nevada Range, in Bhutan the drier. I noticed that the winds I experienced came from the north as well as the south whereas in California it is almost always from the west, save the fire winds of the fall.

My guess is that the Himalayas are so extravagantly high the winds don’t easily slip over the mountains creating a train of moist air of the sort that in California rises, drops its rain but continues dry over Nevada, Utah and points east. In Bhutan the mountains seem to block almost all the air as if trapped by an amazingly high wall and the air kind of gives up its water where it meanders about all the way from the low regions in Assam (a state of India) and at the level of Panbang, loosing water as it presses against the high mountains with moisture seldom going over the top.

Another interesting tidbit: all the people I met, and they reported this consensus broadly held, took for obvious that climate was changing. No dominant oil and car industries to prop up paid-for-denial “scientists” to root around for rare exceptions to the 99% evidence that climate is changing and then blast the media and legislators with disinformation and campaign contributions. They all say in Bhutan it’s just plain obvious that weather there is warmer and drier than in the recent past or in memory of the older folks.

So my assignment was to design an ecocity in this amazing landscape where the Himalaya “foothills” that look every bit as high as the Rocky Mountains but completely draped in deep, rich, variegated forest green, crash into and plunge under the almost completely flat plains of northern India. There, rivers meander slowly over thousands of feet of saturated mud and sand sediment. I was “hired” (paid all in-country expenses) to design an ecotown at the confluence of the country’s two largest rivers just as they joined to form the Manas River and suddenly slow from their rushing often white-capped surging into their almost instant lassitude.

And let me add that there are torrential rains there in the Monsoon season and the heat in the summer is intense, both of which I experienced in only two days on site. (Everyone said the monsoons arrived a month early this year – I never saw the snow peaks through the clouds; only when leaving and above the clouds flying away and back home did I see Kanchenjunga, third tallest mountain in the world, and Mount Everest not far to the west of Bhutan. Luck me: window seat.) And here we also enter into the discussion of ecocity design because, very eco-appropriate to my assignment, Bhutan has a traditional architectural feature that is a gently sloping broad roof that overhangs the street or landscape below a few more feet than most sloping roofs but is also elevated on posts and beams a few feet above the top occupied floor roof/ceiling of most of the buildings. This creates a sort of hat raised in greeting, greeting to the breezes while protecting from sun and precipitation, keeping dry such things as hay and dried corn and chili for the animals and people in winter. Fresh air just kind of slides under the protecting roof, and as another detail, in the country, often animals occupy the first floor and people the second, in this land where people are used to walking almost as much near vertically as horizontally. In Thimphu, the ground floor is mostly shops and services of various sorts, with, again, people above.

In the Google Earth image I’m including the site looks as you see it – you are facing due north. That’s the Mangdechu River on the left and the Dangmechu on the right joining in the foreground becoming the Manas River and heading south and into India only four miles away. The mountain behind the site is more or less the beginning of the Himalaya foothills. This is within a few feet of the lowest place in Bhutan, but a place (naturally I would think) of exceedingly high ambition: Gross National Happiness meets ecocity design and pioneering building.

My design

I’m afraid my more detailed description of this wonderful most sincere, quirky, colorful, spiritual, open minded, brilliantly thoughtful, friendly country will have to wait, along with tales of water powered prayer wheels and hundreds of millions of prayer flags rippling good wishes out over the mountains and between the stars, of the wild dogs in the streets of the cities immune to the dog catcher because no one wants to kill anything, of my birthday evening standing in a swirl of fireflies outside my mountain top guest house, their pulsing spots of white/green luminescence turning on and off, on and off, flowing around me and twinkling into the vanishing velvety black canyons below while distant lightning rippled through the skies over the looming Himalayas a cascades of bass notes shaking the trees swept back and forth through the canyons of Druk Yul. That’s the name of the country, by the way, to the natives not “Bhutan” but instead, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” I can see why. To give you a feeling of how it all impressed me, let me just say that I’m a mountain junky, not a climber but a wandering gazer in wonder – and I barely noticed I had not seen the towering teeth of the country’s snow mountains the whole time I was there. It was explained to me like this: “Nepal is a mountain tourist destination. Bhutan is a cultural tourist destination.” I must agree whole-heartedly. The people, the clothing, the architecture, paintings of mythic beasts, demons and lotuses on walls, their myths and rituals – at a World Bank conference going away gala, we all had to dance one of their traditional dances – the temples and fortress monasteries called Dzongs, the villages, the farms hanging on ridgelines and carved in bright yellow green terraces out of dark forest green 60 degree slopes, even the near-constant near-death experience of driving the country’s roads… never seen and seldom enjoyed anything quite as much.

With that little tease and saying I’m working on a slide show of the adventure I’ll now progress to my actual work. The site on the map looks something like an equilateral triangle with a wavy edge to the Mangdechu on the right, or west. Triangle is standing on a point pointing south. A steep bluff running diagonally through the site divides the northeastern half of the site from the southwestern half, totaling about 110 acres. Both halves are almost completely flat, the half by the mountain being about 200 feet over the Dangmechu’s waters, the southwestern half being about 30 feet above the confluence of the two rivers. These two platforms are open fields in their interiors and edged at the water and along the diagonal bluff by magnificent tall jungle trees of a wide variety.

My host and travel companion on my trip to the Panbang Valley was Tshering Dorji (first name pretty much rhymes with the sound of a mechanical cash register for the people old enough to remember, which probably means in their thirties or older). He informed me that the hopes of the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement, my host in Bhutan, was to see a commercial center of some sort along the national highway – a barely one lane wide dirt road in construction close to the base of the northern edge mountain when I was there. (You will see this road with myself and my hosts on our site visit in a photograph coming up.) This is one of the rarest finds if Bhutan, a nearly flat spot, and I might add, with about a half mile of almost straight stretch, like the capital. What to put elsewhere? Whatever I thought would make sense in ecocity design, but with accommodation for the economic engine and themes they imagined: ecotourism, education and sport.

Next steps will have to be making the connections to raise money enough for development of more detailed designs and economic strategy. Apropos emphasis on education and also eco-tourism, an element I suggested for the latter was an Ecocity Institute, first in the world, perhaps leading somewhere to my often proposed Ecocity University, perhaps in Thimphu? That institution would provide accommodations for and gather teachers, researchers and disciples of disciplines from planning and architecture, to organic agriculture and restoration of natural landscapes and waters; from engineering for ecocity building features and renewable energy technologies that fit, to land use law needed for zoning and other laws to shape the city; to an institute for transportation studies, from political science for clearing the way in political initiatives to information technologies that fit and athletics tuned to the location right next to the roaring rivers and the Royal Manas National Wildlife Park with its elephants, tigers, monkeys, rhinos, monitor lizards, wild peacocks and giant hornbills; and so on.

To my great pleasure, my hosts at the Ministry of Works and Human Settlement (highways, bridges, dams, power plants, airports, etc. – and town and city development) seemed completely comfortable with my notion that to be an ecologically healthy built community, it had to be car-free. It had to be built on the measure of the human body and our speed and needs for nutrition, good work and meaningful lives, that is, on the needs of us on our feet: happy pedestrians.


In broad outline we can start with what will appear obvious very quickly when you look at the maps and drawings: The site is small, if gloriously located at the confluence of the country’s two largest rivers joining to give their waters almost immediately to another country, then the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, then the Bay of Bengal and finally the great World Ocean and… everyone! Like Bhutan’s GNH initiative, we have here the potential of the ecocity idea pouring out into the rest of the whole world, fresh and strong, symbolic and physically tangible – if built. Since it is a small site, we are dealing here with a large ecovillage or small eco-town, or rather a pair of them.

If we are to leave enough room for significant agriculture and room for considerable sports activity and nature too, we will have to take up only a modest part of the site with a built community. That’s good because the objective would largely be to create a model, a prototype of a small but complete sort that shows the relationship of the whole community to its natural environment and at least a significant part of its agricultural base. Exemplifying and communicating about (educating about) the interrelationship of the functioning parts of the built community (land uses and town functions) is also a central part of the mission of this project. In the anatomy analogy the facilities for the basic functions of the town – housing, working, education, contemplation, learning, eating, enjoying etc. – would be the organs of any complex living organism, say for example, a human body. The three-dimensionality of that kind of organization and the efficiency and essentially conservative use of energy, land and everything else that are potential in three-dimensional physical arrangement, are the guidelines for all complex living organisms. And the whole community has to also take its cues from the dynamics of ecology.

Being two communities in consideration here, due to the site’s configuration and the presence of the road to the rest of the world near the northern edge and with the existing town of Panbang just a mile away to the east and over the Dangmechu on a new bridge that can support cars, trucks and busses, we have not only the model of two small ecocities in the offing but the modeling of a very small ecotropolis, that is, cluster of built communities potentially working harmoniously with their natural bioregion.

A note on names. Currently the upper plain is called Dungkudempa, which means simply means the flat area. The lower plain is called Anala for reasons a few questions didn’t provide – but it sounds nice! These may end up as the names of the communities in question but all that is yet to be decided.

And now I’ll describe my general design and a few details that fit in rudimentary, first cut drawings. So no, dear reader, please shift over to the drawings with captions, then back to this text.


1. Song, dance-like exercise and dedication to “green” (above)

In the picture above we see the children at a school across the street from my hotel in the capital city of Thimphu and below the a kind of motto, precepts list, theme or philosophy of the school.

2. The building speaks to its children (below)


  1. The site for the two small eco-cities for eco-tourism, education, sport – and changing the world

Orange dots outline the total site, with a diagonal pink line of dots indicating the bluff that separates the upper tiny scattered community called Tungkudempa from the lower plain called Anala that has only two farm buildings on it, which looked unoccupied when I walked by.


  1. Myself in blue and the local civic leaders on the excursion to tour the site for two new ecocities one mile west of Panbang


  1. My basic layout of the two small communities, the streets all in pedestrian scale.

Of note are the “keyhole” plazas that look out over a celebrated view, the most celebrated of all looking down the confluence of the northern rivers that give birth to the Manas River.



  1. Confluence


Here the Dangmechu is on the left and Mangdechu on the right giving birth to the Manas River where we see the white ruffling of the merging waters.



  1. Cut and fill cross section


To make an angled gentle slope from upper Anala to lower cut from the Tungkudempa platform is used to fill creating a road and general angle of development to maximize the great views and minimized energy needed to traverse the site north and south.

8. a. and b.

Cross section of lower Anala through the keyhole plaza



This cross section, with a zoom in, represents some of the design features in local styles, but with added rooftop uses and plaza design, all tuned to a hot sometime torrentially rainy area. These features include broad overhanging roofs, awnings and covered walks, bridges between buildings and various uses of terracing.


  1. Children getting out of school

These grade school children are in the village of Panbang about a mile east of the future small ecocities. The girls have the bright pink cuffs on their kiras, the two boys, one behind a girl, have on the shorter cut gaos.




OK, now you’ve seen some of my drawings and here are my last comments. I’ve been struggling most of my life trying to describe something simple that integrates complexities that aren’t. That aren’t simple I mean. But as living organism are comprehensible in their well-ordered complexity, so can cities, towns and villages be. Though hardly really simple they can appear understandably simple because, like any living organism that is “together” enough to survive, they makes sense. I might add, makes sense in a way today’s sprawling megalopolises and car cities do not.


In keeping with the kind of detailing traditional to the architecture of Bhutan and uniting some of its features with the appropriate design for natural conditions, such as respecting and working with the sorts of rooflines and decorations designed to communicate their legends, beliefs and inspirations in Bhutanese architecture, we can demonstrate the universal principles of design of the healthy built community fitting well with traditional esthetics and even the authentic meaning and history of those esthetics. That is, the skyline can look Bhutanese and support their religious buildings, their prayer flags can express their care for nature as well as celebration their beliefs and their aspiration for happiness for their people and all sentient beings. The whole effort of bringing together the GNH initiative with ecocity ideas and models is also more than a little harmonious with their idea to share, since they have a good idea, with everyone. For such is the depth of their sense of responsibility to a world in trouble.


Richard Register is the founder and president of Ecocity Builders. He can be reached at

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.