Singapore’s Garden by the Bay has helped make it Asia’s greenest city. New York’s High Line elevated park attracts four million visitors a year. Seoul’s Skygarden is a disused highway lined with 24,000 plants. Osaka’s Namba Park shopping mall is an oasis of trees and flowers.
Now Bangkok, stifling hot and choking on engine fumes, is starting to follow the trend.
“We live in a sick city, full of pollution and limited in public spaces, and many urban dwellers are physically ill,” Yossapon Boonsom of the Thai Association of Landscape Architects (TALA) said at a seminar on Wednesday.
“Everyone needs a healthy city, so we’re working closely with the National Health Commission Office and brainstorming with the government, private sector and civil society to propose policy to the Health Ministry for turning Bangkok and other big urban areas into ‘Public Cities for all’.”
Bangkok, with an official population of around 9.7 million, metes out a mere 6.4 square metres of green space per resident, whereas the World Health Organisation says cities should have a minimum of nine square metres for health’s sake.
In embarrassing contrast, Singapore gives each of its citizens 66 sqm of public greenery and Kuala Lumpur 44sqm.
But Bangkok might yet turn the numbers around. It was pointed out at the “Public City” seminar at ASA Expo 2018, a gathering of architects ending today at Impact Arena, that Thailand has in the last decade seen a trend towards more accessible public space.
And Bangkok has seen more and more green projects, ranging from government-run parks and green areas within shopping malls to a new waterfront learning centre courtesy of the Bank of Thailand.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) aims to establish 950 rai (152 hectares) of new public parkland this year, adding to the existing 35 parks.
Arom Wongmaha, director of the BMA’s Parks Department, said the push for more greenery is getting help from the TALA and Big Trees Project, a non-profit environmentalist group. “We just opened a 400-metre-long walkway linking Sirikit and Chatchak parks to Suan Rod Fai [Railway Park] that occupies nearly 700sqm in total. And we’re also planting more trees around the city to help keep the heat down.”
Big Tree is meanwhile training BMA staff to take better care of old, large trees instead of cutting them down when they pose a risk of causing injury or damage.
“On its own, the BMA can’t reach the WHO standard, but with the help of the private sector and civic groups, we hope we can make it together,” Arom said. Chalerm Phra Kiet Phanat Nikhom Park in Chon Buri is good example of the benefits of cooperating. A firm called Redland-scape transformed an abandoned match factory into a new “lung” to help the industrial district breathe easier. The 24-rai park, sporting a public library, is another Big Tree undertaking.
“The funds for the Bt35-million park came mainly from local government, and residents also donated money,” said Phanat Nikhom Mayor Vijai Amaralikit. “We got a lot of support from civic society, and Interface Flor Co donated 200 trees. The park has become a new leisure area for families.”
Public spaces aren’t necessarily parkland, Yossapon noted. The United Nations agrees they can also be walkways and libraries. Bangkok does have walkways, but none are accessible to disabled people, said Santi Opaspakornkij, a Big Tree coordinator. The group has been tackling walkway projects for more than a decade and in 2007 created the Ratchadamri elevated pedestrian loop in downtown Bangkok, a major convenience for everyone walking through the area.
Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be done at the Ekamai and Siam intersections because the stakeholders couldn’t agree on plans.
One of the chief problems, Santi said, was that removing all sidewalk barriers blocking the path for disabled citizens – telephone booths, fire hydrants and the like – requires the involvement of “dozens” of BMA departments.
“The Ratchadamri Walkway was a great example of everyone cooperating. We raised the necessary funds at an auction and in donations” – with seed money taking the form of an early donation from Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
Bangkok’s newest waterfront public spaces include the Bank of Thailand’s Learning Centre and a grand garden at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok Noi district.
“When we were planning the centre, with its museum and a library for the general public to use, we needed to change our mindset about what constituted a ‘public area’,” said Prapakorn Wannakanok, director of the central bank’s Finance Literacy Department.
“We hope to educate people about finance and support start-ups, and the centre has become a new hangout for people.”
Administrators at Siriraj Hospital converted a backyard storage area on the Chao Phraya River into a green recreational park that anyone can enjoy.
“Because Thailand is becoming an ageing society, the hospital is working with Siam Cement Group to establish the ‘Bangkok Noi Model’, utilising universal design and green space to make the district an ‘ageing city’,” said Dr Naris Kitnarong.
Among the retail malls paying more attention to ecological sentiments is Mega Bangna. Landscape Collaboration Co has given it a tropical waterfront garden and a walkway that accommodates disabled people and the elderly.
Mall executive Montri Thanadkha calls it “our marketing point”. “We plan to plant more trees around our 400-rai-property and turn the mall into a public city.”