Reflections on Gross National Happiness

June 3, 2014

On Friday, May 23rd Ecocity Builders had the pleasure of hosting Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Ms. Chhetri spoke to a packed room about her country’s development policies. She enlightened us about the cautious steps Bhutan is making to ensure development aligns with their cultural and historical values. Ecocity Builders’s president Richard Register also presented slides from his recent work in Bhutan.

Bhutan has a commitment to Ecocity principles nearly unparalleled in the world. Thanks to strong nature-respecting traditions, the government has sworn off any environmentally damaging industry. Electricity is produced from renewable hydropower. The government has just announced the goal to have 100% percent organic agriculture by 2025. Growth is strictly constrained to traditional styles and materials in carefully guarded development corridors.

Until the 1972 Bhutan remained a highly conservative nation closed off to outside influence. The progressive 4th Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck was disturbed by the effects of westernization was wrecking on neighboring countries but opened the country to modernization after taking the throne. Cell phones have become available only as of 2008. Yet while many of Bhutan’s citizens were kept literally in the dark beyond their neighbors, the wisdom of King Wangchuck’s hesitancy about modern conveniences has been revealed with time. Bhutan managed to avoid the disastrous industrial rush that has so irreversibly damaged much of the world. They are now entering modernity at a time of greater reflection on the practices of development.

King Wangchuck IV abdicated the throne in 2006 and turned power over to a newly established parliament. His son, Wangchuck V, holds no executive power but exercises important influence over the country. Wangchuck V is committed to carrying on the legacy of his father, most notably, the policy of Gross National Happiness. This concept, invented by the Fourth King, was also adopted by the government of Bhutan as a foundation for all their decision making.

GNH is a simple yet brilliant concept. It states that a country’s wellbeing cannot be measured by wealth, growth, or power alone, but by the wellbeing of its citizens. Gross National Happiness asks with every economic or political decision: will this result in the best outcome for the long-term happiness of our people?

Tied into this web of wellbeing is, of course, ecological health.

GNH measures closely reflect the goals of the International Ecocity Framework and Standards (IEFS): easy access to meaningful employment, healthcare, and cultural activities; clean water, air, and good food. GNH recognizes that life is full of complex systems that cannot be removed from each other. Environmental quality is integral to health and happiness. Healthy, happy people, at the same time, are more inclined and able to care for their environment and each other.

How refreshing–relieving, even–to meet with a government that gets it at a fundamental level. Meeting with Latha and hearing her stories provided all in attendance with renewed hope and drive for an ecologically healthy future. In the midst of the anger, rhetoric, and willful denial that is keeping so many nations on a track for disaster, there are indeed beautiful things being done all the time. Even better to see them at such high levels of governance.

When I asked Latha what the greatest challenge was facing GNH and the ecocity goals of her country she had a familiar answer: “The people who just don’t understand what we’re trying to do.” For example, since urban growth is highly constrained, many individuals moving to the cities now build illegally outside of the city limits (and, therefore, the approval process). This practice not only frustrates the ability of planners to protect natural resources, but puts these individuals in danger of flood and earthquake-prone zones.

At an aggregated level, this behavior is maddening. At an individual level, it’s understandable. People want to move to the cities, which they have a right to do. They have few resources, and see open land. They build. And build and build.

Again, the fundamental challenge to our survival is what has allowed us as a species to get so far in the first place: the human ego, the tendency to think short term and about the self only. This isn’t an American problem, or a Bhutanese problem. It isn’t a problem of the rich or of the poor. This is a human brain problem.

Luckily, our biology and our culture also gives us the counter ability: to be altruistic, to think long-term and globally, and to care and create close bonds with others. Some cultures such as that of Bhutan promote the bonds of family and community more powerfully. Tradition, respect, and obligation are honored in these cultures. The Western perspective, and particularly in America, promotes independence, individual innovation, and self-reliance. These are also good qualities too! Yet they lean too far to only individual considerations…to disastrous results.

I don’t want to oversimplify the cultural divide. Tradition and community respecting cultures have mostly fared no better in protecting human rights and the environment (India, China). Still, the fact that the people of Bhutan have adopted GNH in the first place perhaps does come from a place of understanding the connection between the self and the other (and nature) a bit better than we do here in the West. Still the problem of egocentric thinking remains–and the urban peripheries in Bhutan expand bit by bit.

It is a human problem.

To move forward with an ecologically and socially healthy future, both the world and the ecocity movement will have strike that fine balance between promoting responsibility to others and allowing personal freedom. We will all need to give up a little bit of the comfort of our daily lives for the greater good. Yet we needn’t give up all. The fear of that “perfect” world and society is all too obvious in the dystopian paradises of Brave New World and countless other fictions. It’s most vocal in the knee-jerk rantings of the Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists. Whether or not this fear is realistic, the ecocity movement must recognize that it is very real, and is its chief obstacle. Every human reacts negatively when he or she feels agency and independence is threatened. Getting past that instinct is the challenge.

The solution is education, as difficult as it may be. Importantly, people need to understand the constraints we ask them to abide by in order to agree to them. It is a simple but heavy lesson in cause and effect, of how individual actions aggregate into mass impact. But at the core of these lessons is what I think an uplifting message: the truth is that individually we are all powerful. Each individual life’s actions matter, whether you are simply using reusable shopping bags, or leading an eco-crusade. Or building or dumping illegally.

Embrace your own influence, and understand, in the words of a great American icon, “With great power comes great responsibility.”


Active Design Awards: 7 projects keeping people (and the environment) healthy

April 22, 2014

Partially reblogged from

Center for Active Design: Excellence

Recognizing design that can make people healthier and happier is the goal of a recent awards by The Center for Active Design, an organization launched in New York City in 2013 by the Bloomberg Administration’s Obesity Task Force. This week the Center announced the first every winners of the Excellence in Active Design award competition. The competition intends to publicize and recognize the role of design in addressing preventable disease by encouraging physical activity through the design of buildings and public space.

A jury of design and health professionals selected four winning projects and two honorable mentions for the Center for Active Design Excellence award according to the checklists found in the Active Design Guidelines, published in 2010. Preference was given to projects with research studies of proven impact. The jury also acknowledged the extent to which cross-sector and community collaboration were required in order to realize the results achieved. The Leadership in Active Design Excellence award recognizes an early adopter of Active Design with an established track record of Active Design implementation. All winning projects exemplify innovation in the implementation of Active Design, the press release states.

The Center was pleased to see projects submitted for review came from regions well beyond its hometown of New York City, spanning the US from New Mexico to Washington, Virginia to Texas, and countries from Argentina to Denmark. This strong showing is evidence that Active Design is growing nationally and internationally as designers are more knowledgeable of the health affects of their work.

Award recipients will be recognized at “Celebrate Active Design”, to be held in New York City on May 19, 2014. The fundraising event is open to the public from 7pm – 9pm. For more information on purchasing tickets, please click here.

Read on to find out more about these projects! Read the rest of this entry »

Moving in the City: A Promise For Better Health

October 8, 2009

The recent healthcare debate has highlighted many problems with the current U.S. healthcare system. Escalating costs, denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions and the lack of health insurance for almost 50 million Americans all point to the need for some revisions. While some deep systemic changes are needed, the healthcare debate must also include discussion of some of the underlying causes of the widespread health problems that are taxing the healthcare system.

When we talk about healthcare we usually think of the interaction between patient and doctor when the patient is sick. However, we often fail to acknowledge that healthcare starts long before this meeting. According to a recent report in Archives of Internal Medicine, four healthy lifestyle factors—never smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and following a healthy diet—together appear to be associated with as much as an 80% reduction in the risk of developing the most common and deadly chronic diseases.

What’s truly stunning about this number is that, smoking habits aside, these factors are heavily dependent on collective structural decisions we have made about how to live together and move around. It is true that a person can choose to join a health club and work off the extra pounds from sitting idle in their office and car all day. But how did we ever arrive at a situation where little to none of our daily activities involve that most basic of human functions, moving our bodies?

The connection between city design and public health has become a popular topic among public health officials for good reason. Several recent studies show just what a toll car-centric lifestyles have taken on the American population.

A study entitled Relationship Between Urban Sprawl and Physical Activity, Obesity, and Morbidity published in the American Journal of Health Promotion found this: “People living in counties marked by sprawling development are likely to walk less and weigh more than people who live in less sprawling counties. In addition, people in more sprawling counties are more likely to suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure). Physical inactivity and being overweight are factors in over 200,000 premature deaths each year. Meanwhile, rising health care costs are threatening state budgets. Getting decision makers to consider how the billions spent on transportation and development can make communities more walkable and bikeable is one avenue to improving the health and quality of life of millions of Americans.”

Another study of nearly 11,000 people in the Atlanta area found that people living in highly residential areas tend to weigh significantly more than those in places where homes and businesses are close together. The effect appeared to be largely the result of the amount of time people spend driving or walking. Each hour spent in a car was associated with a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of obesity and each half-mile walked per day reduced those odds by nearly 5 percent, the researchers found.

“The kind of neighborhood where a person lives clearly has an effect on their health,” said Lawrence D. Frank, an associate professor of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia, who led the study.

The CDC’s statement on climate change and public health states that “walking and bike riding are more than alternate forms of transportation; they are steps to healthier lives. Automobile traffic contributes to air pollution, which in turn means more illnesses related to breathing problems such as asthma. Furthermore, every additional car on the road can lead to increases in the numbers of injuries and deaths from vehicle crashes, which already kill more than 40,000 people each year die.”

Clearly, the way we have sprawled across the landscape is at the core of our health problems with our planet and our own bodies. High-density cities that connect housing, commerce, urban parks and farms using public transit, bike paths and pedestrian walkways hold promise for vastly improving our public health. Such an approach addresses the cause instead of treating the symptoms of our healthcare woes.

Several city planning and policy experts will be addressing the issue of public health in cities at the upcoming EcoCity World Summit in Istanbul this December. Presenters will include Richard Register of EcoCity Builders, Walter Hood (urbanist, landscape architect), Ken Yeang (bioclimatic design), David Hall (New Vista Ecocity), the World Bank Eco2Cities program, Global Footprint Network, Janet Larsen of Earth Policy Institute (representing Lester Brown’s Plan B), and Brent Toderian, head of City Planning for City of Vancouver, Canada and author of the EcoDensity Initiative.


Excerpt from The Kathmandu Post

September 6, 2008

The eastern part of the Tarai (plain) area of Nepal and northern part of Bihar State of India have been badly affected by the Sapta Koshi flood. Hundred of thousands people are now homeless, thousands of acres of land are submerged. Many people lost their lives. Since this, being a man made disaster, one country blames another. In view of this is an excerpt from Deepak Gyawali’s interview with The Kathmandu Post.

Dipak Gyawali, former Minister for Water Resources, heads Nepal Water Conservation Foundation and is a hydropower expert.


Q: Why did the Koshi breach its embankment? Who was responsible for the repair work– India or Nepal?

DipakG: It is important to step back a bit to realize that this catastrophe happened because of the unholy confluence of three things: wrong technological choice for this kind of a hydro-ecological regime, wrong institutional arrangements resulting from the Koshi Treaty that are not right for managing this kind of a trans-boundary river system, and wrong conduct in public service over the last half-century, which includes aspects of corruption … But let us start with the technological aspect, when the lateral, left-bank embankment (not the barrage across the river) collapsed on 18th August: it was not a natural disaster, but a man-made tragedy. The river flow at the time was lower than the minimum average flow for the month of August, and hence not even close to a normal flood, which had not even begun during this monsoon. In the Koshi, it generally occurs from mid-August to mid-September, and when this natural stress is added to a man-made tragedy, together they have all the potential to become a major calamity of a generation.

Q: Why is this project the wrong technological choice?

DipakG: Koshi is one of the most violent rivers in the world because it is not just a river with water in it but also a massive conveyor belt of sediment from the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal. This is a natural geological process that is responsible for creating not just Bangladesh but also much of Bihar out of the ancient Tethys Sea. Some one hundred million cubic meters of gravel, sand and mud flow out of Chatara every year. Lest we forget, all the collected water and matter brought by Tamor, Arun and Sun Kosi rivers, all the way from Kanchenjunga in the east, through Makalu and Everest to Langtang in the west have to pass through this one gorge at Chatara. And as the river slows down in the flat Tarai plains, the sediment settles down raising the river bed and forcing the river to overflow its bank before finding a new course.

This process has essentially created the inland delta over which the Koshi has swung from Supaul in the west to Katihar in the east, like a pendulum suspended at Chatara. In the last half century, this process has been arrested by “jacketing” the Koshi within embankments at the western extreme of the delta; but this has only forced the river to deposit all the sediment within this narrow “jacket”, raised the river bed, perching the river some four meters above the surrounding land. It was a recipe ripe for this kind of catastrophe to eventually happen, as it has now.

You have to be extremely careful when you start fooling around with such awesome forces of nature. What happens when you do so without proper understanding can be easily studied on the Tinau, south of Butwal: in 1961, India built the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau’s inland delta to supply irrigation water to Marchawar in the south, but the river changed course in the following year and the barrage has been standing high and dry since then, a tribute to man’s stupidity, and an equally great tribute to his incapacity to learn from mistakes. You don’t build such hydro-technical structures on an unstable delta fan, and the Koshi today is just Tinau repeated at a more massive scale.

Q: What do we know of the science behind these things?

DipakG: We have been studying the Tinau and its problems since the mid-1990s, which is just the same as the Koshi except at a much smaller scale. For the Koshi, the best example is the comparison of current river flow conditions of the lower Ganga with the map prepared in 1779 by Colonel Rennel for Governor General Warren Hastings. His map shows us that the Koshi actually joined the Mechi-Mahananda, which joined the Teesta. While the Koshi has swung west, the Teesta itself has swung east to meet the Brahmaputra, while the Brahmaputra has swung from meeting the Megna to meeting the Ganga. This shows how extremely volatile the dynamically shifting pattern of this region’s hydro-ecological is.

This disaster was waiting to happen because the intervention into the natural regime through the Koshi project was bad science that ignored the problem of sediment in the river. As regards science, we should also remember that deforestation has really no significant linkage with Koshi sedimentation: we have more forest cover in the Koshi catchment today, thanks also to community forestry, than we ever did in our past history; and the Myth of Himalayan Degradation (that floods in Bangladesh are due to poor farmers in Nepal cutting trees) has been scientifically debunked over two decades ago. It is Himalayan geo-tectonics coupled with the monsoon regime that is the cause of Koshi sedimentation and floods, and that cannot be battled against with bad science and even worse policy prescriptions of indiscriminate embankment building following from such bad science.

Q: Can we repair the breach once the monsoon is over?

DipakG: I doubt it, simply because the breach now is no longer a rupture in the side embankment that can be plugged once the water level goes down and the Koshi starts flowing along its original main channel. What we are seeing is the main stem of the river itself flowing through it, capturing centuries’ old channel and changing its course. To change it back is like damming the Koshi anew with a new barrage, in addition to making the river do a “high jump” of at least four meters to flow along its recently abandoned bed.

Believe me, it won’t be too happy doing that now or in the coming years, and will find some way to continuously breach the embankment in other weak spots, and no engineer can guarantee that this won’t happen, although they will have lots of fun playing with all kinds of expensive toys “to tame the Koshi”.
The problem now is no longer just the breach at Kusaha in Nepal: it is totally uncertain where the new Koshi channel will be in the middle and lower delta in Bihar. Currently, satellite pictures show that it might be moving along the Supaul channel; but I think this might just be a massive ponding that is occurring with Koshi filling every depression, canal, old oxbow lake or the space between the indiscriminately built embankments. Since the land naturally slopes eastwards, depending upon whether the coming September floods are a four lakh cusecs flood or a nine lakh one (as happened in 1968) the new Koshi could be as far east as Katihar. Even if it does not go that far this year, it is inevitable it will do so in the years to come. This river morphology dynamics has to be looked at before any new embankments or repairs of old ones can be considered.

Q: What might be correct technology then?

DipakG: First, let us put to rest another wrong technology, a high dam on the Koshi. It is wrong because it would take two or more decades to construct, thus failing to address problems of current and immediate future concerns, is extremely expensive, does not address the primary problem of sedimentation (the reservoir will fill up too soon with Himalayan muck), has no convincing answer regarding the cost of attending to high seismicity in the region as well as diversion of peak instantaneous flood during construction (it is a major engineering challenge with no easy solution), and will create more social problems when indigenous population in Nepal have to be evicted from their ancestral homes. A Koshi high dam would be tantamount to Nepal importing downstream seasonal floods as permanent features of its landscape for questionable benefits to it. I think neither India nor Nepal is in a position to afford the technical, economic and social costs associated with it.

The immediate requirements of Nepal and Bihar (and by immediate I mean from now till ten or so years) will have to be met by new and alternative technologies suited to an unstable but very fertile flood plain. Such adaptive technologies with strong social components have been traditionally used by people in the form of houses on stilts and building villages with raised plinth levels that keep life and property safe but allow the flood to easily pass by leaving fertile silt behind. It will also call into serious question the current design practices in the transportation, housing, agriculture and other sectors, forcing the adopting of new approaches that look not so much to the watershed but to the ‘problemshed’ for answers. There is nothing called a permanent solution (how ‘permanent’ is a permanent concrete dam, after all?); but building houses on stilts is a cheaper, more ‘doable’ and thus a better solution.

Q: Why do you say that the current management setup of the Koshi barrage and embankments was a wrong institutional arrangement?

DipakG: The answer to that question can come from looking at the highly undiplomatic and breathtakingly ill-informed statement that came out from the Indian embassy in the immediate aftermath of the breach by blaming Nepal for it. When forcing the Koshi Treaty on Nepal in the 1950s, India took upon itself all responsibility for design, construction, operation and maintenance of the Koshi project, leaving Nepal absolutely no room to do anything except allow India to quarry all the boulders they like (which incidentally are rarely used in the Koshi but find themselves black marketed to all the aggregate crushers from Muzzafferpur to Siliguri!!)

The Koshi Treaty has been criticized very often for many reasons, but the reason some of us from the socio-environmental solidarity to criticize it is because of the neo-colonial mode that is built into its institutional make-up. Instead of a proper bi-national management arrangement, Nepal can only be a by-stander even for matters within its own territory: it can’t order the opening of gates during floods or the supply of irrigation waters to its fields during the dry season. Everything is in the hands of the Delhi hydrocracy, which has conveniently (and to my mind, illegitimately) washed its hands off it by hiving it off to the Bihar hydrocracy. There is institutional irresponsibility built into the treaty at every level, which was seen at the time of its signing as a “construction” treaty rather than a management one, hence you can never get sustainable and scientific management out of it. In a tragic and perverse way, the current catastrophe has washed away the very foundations of that treaty and calls for revisiting the management of the Koshi in a more sane and equitable manner.

Q: What exactly did you mean by “bad conduct”, then?

DipakG: Even if you had a wrong institutional arrangement, right conduct could have still got things done more than semi-right. What happened here was that the entire Koshi project has become a synonym for the corruption that goes by the name of Bihari politics, which “New Nepal” seems to be importing with glee.

Consider the following quote  from an Indian scholar studying the problem.
Such is the racket of breaches that out of the 2.5 to 3 billion rupees spent annually by the Bihar government on construction and repair works, as much as 60 percent used to be pocketed by the politician-contractors-engineers nexus. There is a perfect system of percentages in which there is a share for everyone who matters, right from the minister to the junior engineer. The actual expenditure never exceeds 30 percent of the budgeted cost and after doling out the fixed percentages, the contractors are able to pocket as much as 25 percent of the sanctioned amount. A part of this they use to finance the political activities of their pet politicians and to get further projects sanctioned. Thus the cycle goes on. [The result is that…] the contractor’s bills are paid without verifying them. The same lot for boulders and craters are shown as freshly purchased year after year and the government exchequer is duped of tens of millions. Many of the desiltation and repair and maintenance works shown to have been completed are never done at all and yet payments are made….So much is the income of the engineers from the percentages that the engineers do not bother to collect their salaries.

(Fighting the Irrigation Mafia in Bihar, by Indu Bharati in the Economic and Political Weekly from Bombay in 1991, quoted by Dipak Gyawali in his book Water in Nepal/Rivers, Technology and Society, Zed Books, London and Himal Books, Kathmandu, 2001.)

This is what I mean by “wrong conduct”. My understanding, based on information filtering out of Saptari and Sunsari and on local FM channels, is that local cadres of ruling political parties got wise to the corruption practiced from across the border and began to demand a share, which was difficult for the Bihari contractors to agree to because of the high rake-in demanded by their traditional political and civil servant bosses in Patna and higher up. There were, it seems, tough negotiations going on before the start of the monsoon season, but no agreement could be reached. No formal approach was made by the Koshi officials to the most India-friendly government in power in Nepal because the issue to be resolved was not doing the work but sharing the booty. Which is why the complaint that the contractors had come on August 8 to strengthen the embankment but were not allowed to, itself begs the question: how come you come to do the repair works (if that is what you wanted to do) in the middle of the monsoon and not in January?

Q: What should be the priority now?

DipakG:  There are three things needed to be done on a war footing in order of priority:
First, this is a major humanitarian tragedy of global proportions, and it should be attended to with an open heart, generous pockets and caring hands. If Biharis are coming into Nepal because that is where the only high ground is, they should be welcomed, all relief should be provided to them too, but a record should be kept and they must be handed over to the Indian government soon after the monsoon. It must be recognized that the displaced fifty thousand or so Nepalis are in all probability permanently displaced (over their village, the new Koshi probably runs and will do so for the forseeable future) and need to be housed in camps before a permanent settlement is found. Perhaps the now emptying Bhutanese refugee camps should be used for the purpose.

Second, a bridge should be constructed over the Koshi at Chatara on a war footing and the traffic along the Mahendra highway restored to connect east Nepal with the rest of the country as soon as possible. The current Kosi barrage bridge will in all probability remain as the Hattisunde barrage on the Tinau, a defunct monument of interest to future archaeologists; but even if restored, we will need a ferry system over the new Koshi channel before we can get to it.

Third, a serious public review and debate must ensue over the Koshi project and the treaty that brought about this catastrophe. The investigations and debate must be conducted jointly by civic movements in Nepal and India so that a sane path forward can be charted. Hydrocracies of both countries can contribute to this exercise, but their judgment and legitimacy are now in question, as is their hitherto unchallenged policy hegemony.


Featured Presenter: Debra Efroymson

March 20, 2008

Today’s featured speaker is coming all the way from Bangladesh. Debra Efroymson, Regional Director for HealthBridge will be speaking at the Summit late morning April 26th. Keep reading to learn more about the fantastic project she’s involved with: WBB Trust – Work for a Better Bangladesh.WBB Trust (Work for a Better Bangladesh), with guidance from HealthBridge, is challenging accepted ideas about urban planning and transport. By introducing new information, working workshops, as well as by co-organizing a closely with electronic and print journalists to gain attention to the issues, and regularly organizing seminars and design contest at the leading technical university, WBB has succeeded in showing that there are more than one way to view the urban planning/transport paradigm.


While for years the emphasis in media and planning has been on the perceived negative role of cycle rickshaws and how to ban them gradually from the city streets, there is now much discussion of the benefits of rickshaws and the problems caused by cars.

Ecocity designs made by urban and regional planning students introduced the possibility of urban neighborhoods of 25,000 people without cars or other motorized transport, and the designs were very well-received. Challenges to traditional transport planning, organized by WBB and partner environmental and other organizations, have succeeded in greatly slowing rickshaw bans, possibly blocking a planned elevated expressway, and in bringing attention to the need for car controls, better situation for pedestrians, and the possibility of including bicycles into urban plans.

Further, WBB has worked with renowned experts such as Jan Gehl and Richard Register–both of whom have visited Dhaka–to emphasize planning focused on people, and with inclusion of nature.

While there is much more to do to arrive at genuinely people-focused urban planning that will reflect the ecocity philosophy, WBB has shown that much can be done, even in a city of over 12 million people.


EcoVillage at Ithaca: What it’s Like

March 18, 2008

Jim Bosjolie of the EcoVillage at Ithaca sent us this great 10 minute documentary of what it’s like to live at an Ecovillage.

Thanks Jim!


PopSci’s Second Greenest City

March 4, 2008

Popular Science magazine recently named San Francisco the USA’s second greenest city. They also profiled 6 of the top contenders and explored how they made the list

[ 50 Greenest Cities in America: Full Rankings ]

To stream a video interview with Gavin Newsom and Jared Blumenfeld discussing SF Forward, click here.