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On 17 December 2023, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s 116th National Day, His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck presented his vision for Bhutan to become an economic hub for South Asia.

His Majesty shared plans to develop the Gelephu Mindfulness City Special Administrative Region (SAR) in the South of the Kingdom through investments in green energy, physical and digital connectivity infrastructure and education.

Mindfulness City is unique for being founded on Bhutanese values and the Gross National Happiness philosophy, prioritising not only economic development but personal wellbeing for every resident.

In announcing the SAR, His Majesty highlighted Bhutan’s inherent advantages, pointing out that small countries like Bhutan are not trapped by legacy and can innovate swiftly to implement plans that other countries might hesitate to pursue.

Bhutan is already known worldwide for being a haven of pristine natural beauty, spirituality and unique cultural traditions. The SAR is the world’s ‘Modern Buddhist Lifestyle Destination’ for spirituality, wellness and rejuvenation. Gelephu Mindfulness City is also the gateway for tourists to the rest of Bhutan, nestled between two nature reserves – the Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary and Royal Manas National Park – as well as connected to Thimphu via Paro airport.

On 19 December, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) shared its masterplan for Mindfulness City. The masterplan brings His Majesty’s vision to life, proposing a series of bridges as new landmarks tailored to each of the nine Gross National Happiness domains, agricultural preservation, mobility connections, public spaces and low- to mid-rise development in the south of Bhutan.

Nestled between mountains, forests, and rivers, Bhutan stands as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world, with 70% of the country covered in forest. The Mindfulness City will cover an area of over 1,000 sq. kms, or 250,000 acres. This is around 2.5 percent of the total surface area of the country.

The masterplan aims to amplify the country’s abundant biodiversity by emerging as a vibrant tapestry of interconnected ecosystems forming eleven lively neighbourhoods shaped by the flow of the 35 rivers and streams that run through the site. The resulting ribbonlike neighbourhoods resemble paddy fields, forming urban terraces that cascade down from the hills to the valley. The city increases in density from the rural and recreational highlands to the urban and  dense lowlands.

Each neighbourhood is designed based on the principles of the Mandala: defined by a series of repeating typologies organized symmetrically around a central public space, a gradual transition in density is created, from small buildings dispersed in the landscape in the north to larger footprints within an urban environment in the south.

To protect existing and future development against flooding in the monsoon season, paddy fields will be established along the site’s rivers and tributaries, running from north to south. These will further function as biodiversity corridors for local flora and fauna, leaving the migratory routes of elephants and other wildlife undisturbed.

“The Gelephu Masterplan gives form to His Majesty’s vision to create a city that becomes a cradle for growth and innovation while remaining founded on Bhutanese nature and culture. We imagine the Mindfulness City as a place that could be nowhere else. Where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated, and tradition is living and breathing, not only preserved but also evolved. Shaped by waterways, Gelephu becomes a land of bridges, connecting nature and people, past and future, local and global. Like the traditional Dzongs, these inhabitable bridges turn into cultural landmarks, doubling as transportation infrastructure combined with civic facilities. Among these, the Sankosh Temple-Dam embeds the city’s fundamental values into a cascading landscape of steps and landings, that like a 21st century Tigers Nest will be a manmade monument to the divine possibility of a sustainable human presence on earth. Turning engineering into art and turning the forces of nature into power,” said Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

“Inspired by the Bhutanese culture of respect and compassion for others and nature, the Mindfulness City is designed to enhance ecological systems, through an urban development that connects flora and fauna, as well as people and ideas. It becomes a testament of humanity’s inseparable bond with nature, and a global example of how to build a sustainable human presence on Earth,” added Giulia Frittoli, Partner in Charge, BIG Landscape, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group

Landmark mobility connections between neighbourhoods double as transportation infrastructure combined with civic and cultural facilities, creating a series of ‘inhabitable bridges’ which are tailored to each of the nine Gross National Happiness domains.

Each of the bridges house key destinations within the city: the new airport, a Vajrayana spiritual center which allows glimpses into the daily practices of the monks and masters of mindfulness; a healthcare center as a meeting between Eastern and Western medicine; a university that exposes its academic activities; a hydroponic and aquaponic greenhouse putting ancient farming practices and modern agro-science on display for the daily commuters; a cultural center to immerse and educate visitors about Bhutanese culture and customs; and a market adorned with Bhutanese textiles.

The final bridge, a hydroelectric dam, will be constructed on the city’s western border with a step-well retaining wall that offers viewpoints, staircases for meditative walks, and a temple. Visitors and pilgrims can ascend and descend along countless individual routes to the visitor center and temple nested on the face of the manmade cliff. The Sankosh Temple-Dam embodies in architectural form all the foundational elements of Gelephu: the harmonious coexistence of culture and nature, conceived as a hybrid child of Bhutan’s rich past heritage and its prosperous future legacy.

The first milestone in the SAR’s development was the groundbreaking ceremony for the new international airport, that took place on 23 December 2023, while the railway dry port is already under construction.

Gelephu has existing tourism infrastructure including hotels, but capacity will naturally expand with increased traffic and demand brought about by the SAR’s growth and enabled by major logistics hubs – the international airport and railway dry port.

His Majesty expressed confidence in the success of the SAR undertaking, stating that Bhutan is blessed with an incredible opportunity to build its own legacy via the Gelephu Mindfulness City.