On the second day of the three day regional workshop on affordable land and housing in Thimphu, Bhutan, country representatives continued to share policies and projects that their countries have devised and implemented and with that, the ideas that have or have not worked. One common theme was the interest in the development of secondary cities either around the periphery of rapidly urbanizing growth centers or as growth nodes strategically located along infrastructure such as regional transportation networks to create a ‘system of cities’. These growth centers often present a wealth of opportunities for the poor who flock to the cities from villages with the aspirations of a better life. However, this influx often strains the city’s services and infrastructure at an unsustainable rate.
The example of Seoul and Korea was presented to showcase an example of proactive policy engagement and implementation. In the last 20 years, they initiated the construction of 10 new towns which increased the supply of serviced urban land and housing. Sequencing of regional development policies such as building infrastructure, specifically, regional highways, was crucial in attracting industries and people to these new towns. Rural lands were subjected to their Land Suitability Analysis framework that marked them as appropriate for development, agriculture or conservation. They also highlighted the need for planning not only at the national level, but also extending down to the region, city and community.
Countries like Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka emphasized their need in reducing congestion in the cities of Thimphu, Male’ and Kandy respectively. However, the common problem faced is the lack of accessibility to developable land. Both Thimphu and Kandy have to consider the preservation of cultural, historic and environmental assets while Male’ is water locked. Bhutan also developed a framework for land use categorization but placed more focus on finding compatible land uses which will allow them to better incorporate the preservation of nature into their land decisions. However, ‘the reality on the ground is outpacing the plan’, Chief Urban Planner Geley Norbu says, ‘due to lack of money and labor, lack of multi-sectorial coordination and competing priorities.’
Despite the many challenges faced, Thimphu has initiated and implemented some government-funded projects using tools such as land pooling. Our Bhutanese hosts kindly took us to two of their local area plans. Changjiji was a completed project with 676 residential units, the largest government funded housing project so far that benefited low income civil servants. Dechencholing, a current development, is laying down the infrastructure for another community. Both communities are envisioned to contain multiple facilities and community spaces to promote in socio-cultural bonding and a sense of collective responsibility. The land for these sites were acquired from land pooling, a method of procuring land from private owners, in lieu of developing public infrastructure such as access roads and stormwater on previously unserviced land. The municipality and public agencies can legally acquire only a maximum of 30% of privately owned land from each property owner for providing basic infrastructure and amenities, a practice which the Major of Thimphu stated was a very fair planning tool. Land pooling was a big improvement from previous methods where people would lose a lot of land when government projects were set up. In the future, Bhutan hopes to initiate additional local area plans with focus on home ownership options.