It’s easy being green, if there is a will

Earth day tomorrow will be a forum for environmental improvement

CLEAN ENERGY: Water turbines in Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park both help clean the water and generate electricity.

With the advent of Earth Day tomorrow, Bangkok’s shortage of green spaces will undoubtedly bring out environmentalists to voice their concerns and offer solutions to one of the world’s most air-polluted cities.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) has recently cultivated about one million saplings along nine major roads and thousands of banyan trees in Chatuchak Park to protect and improve the environment.

“We are currently looking after a total of 3.3 million trees in public spaces, including parks, road medians, and sidewalks,” the City Hall told the Bangkok Post. “Bangkok’s green space per person has risen to 6.79 square metres, but still lags behind the World Health Organisation (WHO) standard of 9 sq m.”

However, Ponthep Meunpong, a forestry lecturer at Kasetsart University, questioned the BMA’s latest figures, considering the city’s non-registered population. “Bangkok’s green space per capita would be only three or four square metres, which is comparatively low. In European countries, their green space per inhabitant reaches up to 20 to 30 square metres,” said the only International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist in Thailand.

He agreed the expansion of green areas has been an uphill task given the city’s limited space, but urged the BMA to provide high-quality maintenance because trees are important to the ecosystem. “Trees can absorb CO2 and thus reduce global warming. In addition, their leaves can filter air impurities. When we look at trees, they can reduce our stress,” he said.

Nevertheless, the forestry lecturer said rapid urbanisation has taken such a toll on trees that they are in poor condition. “Limited space is suffocating trees. When I was a university student, I felt my neighbourhood was more comfortable. As time goes by, Phaholyothin Road has expanded from two to six lanes while the canal has given way to sidewalks,” he said.

Mr Ponthep attributed the impoverishment of green spaces to the ignorance of property developers about creating the environment in which trees can grow healthily. “Most construction works fail to consider the distance between trees and buildings or the suitability of soil, so their plants get sick and die,” he said.

Mr Ponthep also criticised policymakers for paying less attention to green spaces. “As the BMA shoulders many responsibilities, such administrative constraint prevents its arborists from tending trees carefully. In Singapore, conversely, the National Parks Board is solely in charge of silviculture, so its tree surgeons can maintain green areas regularly,” he said.

Mr Ponthep explained arborists are important to the city because they know how to look after trees scientifically from the cradle to the grave. “They select suitable saplings and grow them. They also cure all tree diseases. They even remove trees when they harm people or die,” said the forestry lecturer. “Accordingly, the Thai Arboriculture Association is looking to upgrade standards of the practice by assessing and certifying tree surgeons so that they can help improve the quality of green areas in Bangkok.

GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE

Meanwhile, landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, who is the mastermind behind the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, thinks green areas should be more than just a public utility.

“They can develop into green infrastructure. It is a healthy ecosystem which can provide multiple benefits, including solutions to environmental problems,” she said.

In the face of climate change, Ms Kotchakorn suggested Bangkok should have more green infrastructure because the city is now sinking.

“The concrete jungle cannot absorb floodwater,” she said.

Inspired by the royally initiated Kaem Ling or Monkey Cheek project, Ms Kotchakorn explained the CU Centenary Park can serve as a model of flood prevention in Bangkok. “Rain flows from the elevated green roof of the park to constructed wetland and a retention pond, where water will sustain all living things in its ecosystem,” she said.

The CU Centenary Park has won 1st prize in the Built-Large category of the 2019 World Landscape Architecture Awards.

Ms Kotchakorn indicated green infrastructure can also provide ecotherapy for urban residents. “Mental health problems are more common partially because we are living in small condominiums or using crowded public transport,” said the landscape architect. “We pine for nature because we are part of it.”

When Ramathibodi Hospital contacted her, she nodded enthusiastically to the project and designed the largest healing garden on an empty concrete rooftop of the hospital.

“Have you ever been to state hospitals? They are so packed with buildings that green spaces rarely exist,” she said, citing their environmental benefits, such as decreasing the building’s temperature, retaining rainwater, and combatting air pollution.

Most importantly, Ms Kotchakorn said a leisurely stroll in a rooftop garden is a form of ecotherapy for patients and hospital staff. These urban havens feature sensory plants, a physiotherapeutic platform, a shady pergola, and a lush grass field. “You might have heard of a doctor’s prescription for forest bathing [Japanese medical practice of being in the forest]. Nature is good for your health,” she said.

VERTICAL GARDENS

Meanwhile, Goustan Bodin, a French expatriate landscape architect, agreed urban people are separated from nature.

“They are cut off from the outside world. We are living in apartments. Office workers are sitting in cubicles. Our children are studying in small rooms,” said the founder of the HyperTree group, which aims to reconnect urban dwellers with nature.

Mr Bodin said his Banyen Fever project is looking to cover buildings in the city with trees. “I am inspired by a banyan tree of which its branches come down and create a bower. I want to put to use various fig trees prevalent in Thailand,” he said, citing his neighbourhood as another model of his project. “As trees and rivers protect Bang Kachao from pollution, I hope my project will do the same,” he added.

Mr Bodin said he is now doing an experiment and his prototype will be completed in August. “I am now carrying out the Banyan Fever project at home and a botanical garden in Laung Prabang,” he said.

With the city’s limited ground, Mr Bodin said trees can grow in the air or between buildings, urging people to adopt vertical gardening.

“It is easy to follow. You just prepare soil on the roof and then grow trees which will shortly provide canopies for your building,” he said. Mr Bodin stressed urban forests can help tackle environmental challenges. “Bangkok’s population will rise to 20 million before 2050. People will use up resources. The city will be inhabitable. Trees can reduce temperature and increase biodiversity,” he said while riding a bicycle in Asia’s best urban oasis.

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