Making a push for green cover

Online forum argues that better policies and unique partnerships are needed to solve the dearth of parks in Bangkok

Bangkok has less than 9m² of green space per person as recommended by the World Health Organization. (Photo: Arnun Chonmahatrakool)

Baan Klong Jan Organic Garden in Sa Kaeo province used to be an empty space owned by the municipality. However, the local community decided to divide it among 50 people from impoverished neighbourhoods. They were allowed to use 200m² each to grow plants and each person grew flowers or trees and by doing so, they converted the empty space into a public space which has brought local people income from visitors and tourists.

"I visited the Baan Klong Jan Organic Garden 10 years ago and was impressed because local people designed, developed and took care of it themselves. I was there in the evening and witnessed people having gatherings and wandering around to see how others grew plants and flowers. After the first phase was developed successfully, the municipality decided to open another space for more people," said the director of Think Forward Center, Decharat Sukkumnoed.

Decharat chose Baan Klong Jan organic garden as his favourite example of a public space as a speaker at the forum "Thong-Ek Online Forum – Future Public Space", organised by the Thong-Ek Creative Neighborhood and City Cracker. The online forum was part of Bangkok Design Week held last month.

At "Future Public Space", five speakers -- Chadchart Sittipunt, the former minister of transportation and the founder of Better Bangkok; Decharat Sukkumnoed, director of Think Forward Center; Namchai Saensupha, president of the Thai Association of Landscape Architects (TALA); Oraya Sutabutr, founder of BIG Trees; and Saran Maiprasert, co-ordinator of We!Park -- discussed how to promote better living areas by building more quality public spaces and increasing green cover.

According to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, Bangkok has 6.99m² of green space for each person, which is less than the minimum of 9m² recommended by the World Health Organization. Even though many studies state that green spaces can reduce stress and promote mental health, Thailand faces problems in creating new public spaces. Namchai, president of TALA, commented that creating public spaces is not a goal of state organisations.

"Many small groups want to create more public spaces but the country lacks policies to push this objective. Creating more green spaces will not only enhance the quality of the environment but also people's lives. It can reduce healthcare expenditure and also increase property values like the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project did in Seoul. There should be a top-down approach.

"As a landscape architect, I believe every architect wants to design public spaces to serve the people and community. The design must be functional, durable and sustainable because a public space must serve many people for years. However, the Thai government focuses on low cost rather than quality," said Namchai.

Decharat, the director of Think Forward Center, pointed out that real estate value dominates everything.

"Public spaces are often not built in places of high value. Most land owners make the decision based on their own benefit. Allowing the construction of a park or a library does not bring land owners much income even though public spaces are valuable," explained Decharat.

Oraya Sutabutr, a founding member of the environmental group BIG Trees, which advocates conservation of trees in Bangkok, stated that Thailand lacks standards and rules regarding tree conservation.

"Many big trees are not protected and there is no specific law relating to them. Unlike Thailand, places like Singapore and Hong Kong have specific rules and standards such as how to prune and trim a tree. Singapore stipulates a fine if a company which is in charge of pruning and trimming does not follow the rules. Proper pruning and trimming will help trees grow strong," said Oraya.

Green spaces provide many benefits to communities and the environment but investors and land owners favour commercial development. In order to increase green spaces, Chadchart suggests that there should be three factors -- a public space policy; a synergy between state agencies, private organisations and local communities; as well as community empowerment.

Decharat agreed with the idea of a public space policy and suggested the government pay tax back to owners or investors of public spaces or what he calls "negative land tax".

"Owners of public spaces that provide a benefit to the community or environment should receive some tax refunds. Even though this tax refund may not be of much value to the land owner or company, it encourages people to create and maintain public spaces," he explained.

Saran, co-ordinator of We!Park which is funded by the government, said Hua Lamphong Pocket Park is an example of the synergy between state agencies, private organisations and the local community.

"We developed an empty space in front of Hua Lamphong Temple into a small and sustainable pocket park. It was an experiment in which we gathered resources to create a space that serves the community who participated in the process at every step. People from educational institutions also provided us the know-how of how to build this park, which will open in August," said Saran.

Many public spaces do not provide income to investors, however, Norman B. Leventhal Park, a public park in Boston, USA, is an example of a public space that serves the community and also provides income to investors. In the past, Norman B. Leventhal Park was a parking garage but it was transformed into a public park due to the synergy between local entrepreneurs.

"When the contract for the parking garage was about to end, entrepreneurs formed a group called 'Friends Of Post Office Square' to discuss how to convert a parking garage into a public park. They built an underground parking garage and generated income from the garage to take care of the park. I hope the Thai private sector will form a group to look after public spaces like the group in Boston did," said Oraya.

Since creating a green public space requires a large budget, some speakers suggested establishing participatory budgeting that involves people in the community in the decision-making process. Hua Lamphong Pocket Park by We!Park was also able to raise funds from the public and the community to meet expenses.Besides participatory budgeting, Oraya suggests funds should be provided by state agencies or the private sector.

"Organisations should take the case of Norman B. Leventhal Park as an example in finding a way to establish a fund for public spaces. Investors can raise funds from a parking garage or from commercial shop rentals around the park," suggested Oraya.

A popular place like Lumpini Park has the potential to earn income.

"Lumpini Park has both demand and supply but its income potential goes to street vendors. In the past, people went to a restaurant inside the park or bought ice cream. The park should open shops inside and generate income from rent or auction the shops," suggested Chadchart.

However, convincing investors to invest in public parks needs more research and information.

"Studies in many countries report that when a commercial venue includes quality green spaces in its area, customers like to spend a longer time there and return more often. As a result, they spend more money. However, there is no study about this in Thailand. Investors need to know the number of potential shoppers or customers before making an investment, so there should be solid studies to convince them," concluded Decharat.

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