In a historic address during the 116th National Day celebration at Changlimithang, His Majesty The King of Bhutan unveiled an ambitious vision for Gelephu, a small town situated on the country’s southern border. The royal masterplan aims to transform Gelephu into a dynamic Special Administrative Region, positioning it as a hub for growth and innovation while preserving Bhutan’s unique natural and cultural heritage.
Developed by BIG, Arup, and Cistri, the masterplan draws inspiration from Bhutanese culture, Gross National Happiness (GNH) principles, and the nation’s spiritual heritage. The result is a groundbreaking concept known as the “Mindfulness City,” a 1,000-square-kilometer urban landscape that weaves together sustainability, cultural preservation, and economic opportunities through investments in green technology, education, and infrastructure.
At the core of the Mindfulness City lies the holistic concept of Gross National Happiness, encompassing nine domains that include psychological well-being, health, education, living standards, ecological diversity, good governance, cultural diversity, and community vitality. The city’s design, crafted by BIG’s Landscape and Urban Design Team, incorporates a new international airport, railway connections, a hydroelectric dam, public spaces, and a language for local building typologies, ensuring a balanced and enriching living environment for its future residents.
Nestled amidst Bhutan’s breathtaking mountains, forests, and rivers, Mindfulness City seeks to amplify the country’s biodiversity by creating a vibrant tapestry of interconnected ecosystems and lively neighborhoods. The city’s design, inspired by the flow of 35 rivers and streams, reflects a gradual increase in density from rural highlands to urban lowlands while maintaining a deep connection to the natural world.
Bjarke Ingels, Founder and Creative Director of BIG, describes Gelephu as a city that embodies growth and innovation while remaining rooted in Bhutanese nature and culture. The design envisions bridges as cultural landmarks, connecting nature and people, past and future, local and global. Notable among these is the Sunkosh Temple-Dam, a man-made monument symbolizing the possibility of a sustainable human presence on earth.
The city’s infrastructure naturally creates eleven distinct neighborhoods, each designed based on the principles of the Mandala, organized symmetrically around a central public space. To mitigate flooding during the monsoon season, paddy fields will be established along the rivers, also serving as biodiversity corridors for local flora and fauna.
Giulia Frittoli, Partner in Charge of BIG Landscape, emphasizes that Mindfulness City is designed to enhance ecological systems, connecting flora and fauna, as well as people and ideas. The city serves as a testament to humanity’s inseparable bond with nature, setting a global example of how to build a sustainable human presence on Earth.
The neighborhoods, divided by rivers, are connected by three main mobility bridges, doubling as transportation infrastructure and civic facilities. These “inhabitable bridges” house key destinations, including the airport, a spiritual center, a healthcare facility, a university, a greenhouse showcasing ancient farming practices, a cultural center, and a market adorned with Bhutanese textiles.
The final bridge, a hydroelectric dam, stands as a testament to the harmonious coexistence of culture and nature. Constructed on the city’s western border, it embodies the foundational elements of Gelephu, reflecting the hybridization of Bhutan’s rich past heritage and its prosperous future legacy.