In the modern era, Bangkok’s backbone is encased in concrete. The city, born of a river line village, has been riding on an upward trajectory of unchecked development that resulted in its expansive nature. Before, the river and canals were its veins. Now they are the roads paved with asphalt concrete. A new skyscraper seems to be rising every other week while another mega structure update makes the news. The city’s love affair with concrete has never been stronger.
How the Thai capital’s city’s cape came to be today is a tale centuries in the making. Bangkok had a humble beginning of 4 square kilometers in 1782 before sprawling out horizontally in all directions to form the 50 districts today covering 1568 square kilometers. Growth has always been constant but accelerated starting in the 60s. By the 80s, the mega city had edged into the surrounding provinces. But it was the economic boom of the late 80s that heralded the most striking changes. Vertical became the new name of the game and buildings started to tower higher. Mega structures were rolled out in fervor.
Today the city’s infrastructure serves a bustling lifestyle. The web of highways, monorail tracks, buildings nested within mega blocks and other elements are what makes Bangkok the country’s main economic driving force. These enable its inhabitants live, work, and play within its concrete confines and collectively push the country forward. Citizens now live with modern conveniences. But this is not without consequences.
A walk through Bangkok is not a walk in the park, literally and figuratively. For one, the city today is the epitome of a car-centric system – policies are set in place to encourage car ownership and its proliferation, urban planning is viewed with a lens of reaching destination only by automobiles, places must have parking to be perceived as desirable, so on and so forth. When everyone has their own private container to be “protected” from the environment, other urban features become after thoughts: sidewalks shrink and are neglected, trees are cut in favor of power and telecom lines, alternative travel systems such as bus and bikes are not prioritized for development. ‘People don’t walk anymore’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy simply because it is now unpleasant to do so.
Feedback loops, a more recent concept in urban planning, have begun to intensify unintended effects as development remains unchanged. For example, cars and buildings encourages people to stay indoor, which makes them walk less, leading them to having less resistant constitutions and health issues, which makes cars and buildings a necessity for them to survive, which drives the production of more cars and buildings and thus completing a feedback loop. Beyond health, these loops apply to negative impacts on the environment, societal resilience, and many more aspects of life. Even the types of activities available for the populace is affected: Bangkok is inundated with malls to cater to an indoor lifestyle.
The worst effect perhaps is that of disconnection. People in this city are now largely compartmentalized within their cars and buildings, having placed a high value on achieving personal privacy. We no longer feel the need to be outdoors alongside other human beings (only perhaps for an event or two), nor the need trees to provide us shade when there’s a roof constantly over our heads, nor the need to take action on common issues because we are safe within our zones and someone else will. Disconnection has lead us to apathy.
GREEN URBANISM RISING
This picture paints a dismal future for Bangkok but a change may be on the horizon. The remarkable collapse of the city dweller’s engagement with the outdoors seems to have reached its lowest point and may finally be reversing. In recent years, there have been small, grassroots calls for change in the city’s development direction and several citizen activities are afoot to make sure their voices are heard.
To the east, Friends of Makkasan is pushing for Bangkok to have its own version of New York City’s enviable Central Park. Siemens’ Green City Index report states “At 3 square metres per person across the metropolitan area, Bangkok is well below the Index average of 39 square meters.” The network of advocates see great potential in a 600-rai unused rail depot owned by the State Railway of Thailand to become a great park and have stepped up efforts to make sure they are part of the depot’s planning process. An exhibition of design possibilities was staged last year in Bangkok Art and Culture Centre to engage the government and public in conversation.
To the west, Friends of the River is pushing back against Bangkok Metropolitan Authority on the “New Landmark of Thailand” – a megastructure project that will put up concrete walls and pathways on both sides of the Chao Phraya River on a 7-km stretch between Rama VII and Pin Klao bridges. The project threatens to change the current river vista that gives Bangkok its charms and decrease riverside communities’ access to the waterway. The group is currently disseminating information and the consequences of the project to the public and calling for BMA to reconsider its development.
Working all over Bangkok, Big Trees Project is protecting urban trees from being cut down irresponsibly. Noticing that the trees in the city are in crisis from being hacked repeatedly to minimize upkeep, the group is advocating for changes in the city’s policies toward public trees. They are seeking a greener Bangkok through sustainable and sensible solutions, bringing those in the private and public spheres to common ground and finding solutions together. To the group, trees should be viewed as assets, not as obstructions to development.
This rise in citizens demanding city development that favors nature is a sign of changing times. The young Thais are coming into their own, causing to a divergence of needs and tastes in urbanism. Each generation eventually rejects the certain principles handed down to them and in this case, they are looking toward a future of concrete infused with more nature.
There is strength in numbers and many of these groups are beginning to recognize that this will be key in making the desired changes happen. Collaboration between groups seems to be the way forward. And near the river, the Creative District Foundation, with a vision to transform Bangrak and Klongsan into a single creative hub, is joining forces with other groups to make the districts a vision of greener neighbourhoods.
Over a year ago, the Creative District Foundation was put together by a small group of people from across multiple disciplines to address the potential of the riverfront areas. Armed with twenty plus initiatives that are in process, the group is very focused on having a holistic approach. Their open-door policy also encourages others to join – they host regular townhall meetings that is open to the public so they can keep up to date on developments and collaborate on the initiatives.
At the beginning of 2016, the group began a slew of green projects to deal with the low presence of nature within the districts. The projects, designed to be resource efficient and feasible, deal with the several issues of the districts: a lack of trees in public space, green spaces, and stagnant canals that has polluted water. To also encourage a stronger connection to the outdoor, the group is also looking to stage a trash art exhibition to build awareness on global garbage crisis, encourage biking in the districts, and introduce an environmental hub to educate the younger generations on nature.
The green projects have caught the eye of several individuals representing academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, citizen organizations, and subject matter experts who are keen on working together. And the Creative District Foundation is not shying away from sharing the projects. With more collaborators, the projects will progress with checks and balances toward their goals. The group intends to bring along collaborators and are in it for the long haul to make the city more resilient and sustainable.