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Changing the face of Bangkok

A riverside promenade, an observation tower, new bridges and transportation lines. With the military government speeding up 'landmark' projects, is this a golden age for urban development or a headlong rush into a fool's paradise?

Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasil

A riverside promenade, an observation tower, new bridges and transportation lines -- just to name a few -- are among the numerous urban development projects that keep popping up on the government's agenda.

In the past three years since the May 22 coup, a plethora of such large-scale projects have been announced. Some are already underway, many mired in controversy and doubt, while policies to reclaim public space are currently enforced.

All are aimed in principle to improve the lives of urban dwellers and transform the face of the city. Are we living in the golden age of Bangkok's urban development then?

"Whose golden age is it? I really don't know," said Thai "starchitect" Duangrit Bunnag. For Duangrit, from the hotly contested promenade to the riverside observation monolith, many such projects aren't benefiting the public and their ability to boost the country's economy and tourism sector are still to be proved.

Still, despite several new projects topping headlines in recent years, Bangkokians' most pressing problems are nowhere from being addressed. Meanwhile, the question of looking new means shedding the old: historic quarters and old-school landmarks have been "cleared" for modernisation efforts, such as Pak Khlong Talad market and some street food centres.

Barring the stiff political climate, nothing much has changed regarding Bangkok's physical development since the military stepped in, urban planners argue.

"Bangkok is a city where people tend to get fat and stay single," Niramon Kulsrisombat, the director of the Urban Design and Development Centre (UDDC), weighed in.

With little public space available for those who wish to walk and cycle, Bangkok residents opt for a sedentary lifestyle. Regardless of your social status and financial wealth, you're also likely to get stuck in a traffic jam.

"How can we change this, if we can't even get a footpath fixed?" she asked.

MEGA-PROJECTS

How is it then that the government is ordering several mega-projects to be carried out at once, when residents' more basic needs are still to be covered?

The answer is simple, according to Panit Pujinda, an assistant professor at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Architecture.

"We need a master plan," he said. "Without it, our leaders lack a broad vision of our problems and aren't able to set priorities."

When faced with successive problems, prime ministers, cabinet members or city governors have addressed these issues in random order, often failing to provide long-term solutions.

"They're pointing their finger at problems individually," he said, adding that Thai administration culture is partly to blame for the lack of continued policy.

"Whenever the person on top orders something, everyone else drops whatever they're doing to tend to it."

With few thorough studies, no master plan and no sense of priorities, resources and energy are commonly wasted on secondary issues.

Yet, many initiatives are founded, but prove problematic in their application. The Chao Phraya riverside promenade is one of them.

The 7km-long, 14 billion baht, riverfront development project that will span both sides of the river, comes from generous state investment to provide public space to residents and visitors.

"In the prime minister's viewpoint, he must truly believe he is giving us a gift," said Niramon, who has nonetheless questioned the project's hasty approval and impact study process.

The project, since its cabinet approval two years ago, has drawn criticism from architects, academics and civil society actors.

The "Friends Of River" group, founded by landscape architect Yossapon Boonsom and fellow activists, has slammed the initiative for obstructing the river flow, blocking the scenery and threatening local communities.

Despite the concerns, Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has pushed ahead and come up with a design that will protrude at least 10m into the river and include a 3.7m-high flood wall.

The rushed study and lack of inclusion of stakeholders is reprehensible, argued Duangrit.

"For a project of such scale, a study could take more than five years. And, here, they did it within just five months."

In other cases, the private sector's interests could be driving the government's priorities compass, Panit added.

The cabinet's recent greenlighting of a 4.26 billion baht observation tower raised eyebrows, as the project is to be built on a riverside land plot owned by the Treasury Department and was awarded to a private developer without a bidding process.

Many suspect that the observation tower will benefit the adjacent IconSiam, a commercial building sharing the same developer and set to open at the end of the year.

"When private companies make donations or volunteer to handle projects, their offers come with strings attached," Panit said. However, the government must not mistake private enterprises' interests for those of the public.

For instance, the Gold Line -- a planned monorail line that wasn't part of the MRT's master plan and only proposed in 2015 -- is expected to open in 2018.

According to news reports, mall developer Siam Piwat offered to fund its development, as it will connect to its new complex IconSiam.

LANDMARKS VS PEOPLE

"Landmark". The word reappears periodically when such mega-projects are concerned.

The Chao Phraya riverside promenade is dubbed in official language the "New Landmark of Thailand", and so is the 459m-high observation tower to be built next to a new riverside, privately-run mall.

But officials' vision of grandeur and their fantasies have little to do with people's opinion, Panit added.

"Ask a Thai or a tourist what their idea of Thailand's landmark is, and they're likely to tell you it's the Royal Palace or Wat Arun."

The projects and their appellation are part of the government's brand building and aim to project a forward-looking image, architects argued.

"All governments have made similar shows of force," said Duangrit, while another show of force has been carrying out in the capital's streets.

While new "landmarks" are in the blueprint, the BMA's "Clean-up campaign" has all but decimated several old town areas and of Bangkok, urban planners have deplored.

Among the city's greatest losses is the dispersal of the famous Pak Khlong Talad flower market, cleared out last year as a result of the ban on street vendors.

Street food stalls were also targeted, despite Bangkok being known for its street-side treats.

"There's more ways than one to improve access and cleanliness of pavements," he added. "But officials chose the laziest way, by just banning vendors."

City Hall wrote the policy in such way that it's easy to impose, easy to enforce, he argues, but with no consideration for the economic and social impacts on people.

Street food provides affordable meals options in all areas of the city, Niramon added. "What about the low-wage workers in high-end areas like Siam or Silom?" she asked. "Where are they supposed to eat?"

There is no denying that street food creates waste, Niramon weighed in, but the BMA should have conducted a real study before ordering such ban.

"We're not the first city in the world that has experienced this problem. Why didn't we take after management examples in Singapore or Taiwan?"

This clean-up campaign is expected to go on, expanding to other areas of the capital. Next in line is the old town quarter of Bang Lamphu, while the BMA is also fighting to evict the nearby Pom Mahakan community from its centenarian houses.

The face of the city has already changed as a result of these policies, Duangrit said.

"At the end of the day, it all comes down to one question: What kind of city do we want to see? One that's clean, but dry and dull?"

A MANAGEMENT PROBLEM

In a city of 10 million inhabitants and only one governor, how can we get problems solved?

Go to the district office? Most of the time, people gather and launch a petition or write social media posts, hoping to get visibility to gain leverage, Niramon said. So what are the formal channels for?

The great distance -- physical and hierarchical -- between ordinary residents and city planners is the main obstacle to qualitative city governance, the UDDC director argued.

Tokyo, the largest metropolis in the world, has one governor and 23 district mayors. Paris, with its 100km² surface, is divided into 20 arrondissements -- all of which have their own mayors who are, in turn, governed by a mayor of Paris.

"Bangkok, meanwhile, is the 24th largest city in the world. It's 1,500km² wide. We have 50 districts but only one municipality," Niramon said.

Furthermore, the district office is no more than a field office, as district officials are not allowed to sign off projects worth more than 3 million baht. "Not only are they powerless, but they're also not accountable," she added, as district officials are appointed by City Hall rather than elected by residents.

The day district heads are elected, Bangkok residents will obtain better services. They will get to choose people to represent them, based on concrete proposals and be able to demand results, she argued.

But for the moment, their needs are of little concern or just don't seem to get through to the city planners and leaders.

"What is lacking now is a real parliament," added Panit. "Many appointed members of the current parliament will sign on any deal or project proposed by the government."

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