A new Bangkok is not a better Bangkok

A new Bangkok is not a better Bangkok

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens's famous opening lines to <i>A Tale Of Two Cities</i> fits present-day Bangkok perfectly.

Not that it could be used to illustrate the political situation -- about which I have nothing positive to say -- but regarding urbanisation and urban policies, it makes perfect sense.

Why? In recent years, Bangkok's urbanisation has reached its peak. In theory, that makes for increased economic activity and appeal, as well as better social integration. In practice, the urban policies put in place by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) are failing: discriminating against lower-income city residents, they worsen inequalities instead of bridging them.

People from rural areas moving into the city do so looking for economic opportunities with hopes of improving their situation. But their resources -- both time and money -- are being drained on a daily basis.

For instance, our railway public-transportation fares are exorbitant, to the point of being prohibitive for many. So what choice do low-income earners have?

Either to spend a third of their daily salaries on BTS or MRT tickets or face hours-long commutes by bus, going through traffic-jammed arteries. I bet they'd rather spend those resources in more productive and fruitful ways.

While city officials do little to solve such immediate problems, the BMA insists it is making long-term plans designed to "regenerate" the urban centre. We are promised amenities that will make Bangkok a more convenient, agreeable place.

But from the looks of projects currently under way, I suspect that planners cater mainly to middle- and upper-class residents, while they turn the city into an unfavourable environment for people with limited resources.

A recent example of such regeneration efforts is the skywalk crossing the Pathumwan intersection that many city-dwellers have eulogised. While I'm not against reducing the risk of pedestrians being hit by passing cars, the project is striking for its lack of inclusiveness. It's doubtful that the linking of the BTS station to some of the city's most expensive shopping malls will benefit the majority of Bangkok residents.

Skywalks, in my opinion, are rather perverse, as they divide the city into two levels. On the upper platform, BTS commuters and mallgoers tread on new, clean, walkways, undisturbed by pollution smoke. At street-level, average workers and bus riders must content themselves with the old, dangerous pavement the municipality has never sought to repair.

Besides conducting a highly controversial clean-up campaign to rid certain neighbourhoods of street vendors, the BMA is engaged on several other fronts, including the removal of time-honoured communities.

At best, these communities are offered modest compensation and relocation options in faraway districts, but in many cases, these people receive nothing at all.

The BMA's decadeslong struggle to turn the historic Mahakan Fort into a public park has stalled time and again. Yet with each renewed effort to push the long-established community out, the city has deployed increasing violence.

The destruction of centuries-old wooden houses came with the promise of new housing in Minburi. But as the so-called clean-up campaign sweeps through Bangkok's old town, I'm wondering who will visit the BMA's new park. Tourists, perhaps -- but certainly not the former Bang Lamphoo residents pushed to the city's outskirts.

The same goes for the Chao Phraya riverside promenade, the 14km-long "new landmark of Thailand" promised by the Bangkok government.

A massive state investment in the creation of public space was more than welcome, but the project garnered more criticism than praise.

Aesthetic considerations aside (the promenade is likely to ruin your view of the city's landscape), around 14 communities must be displaced to put the plan in motion.

Where will these residents go? Will their community ties still exist? And will they come back for a day's outing on the promenade once it's complete? I doubt it, if they must face heavy traffic to reach the city centre. It would be a rather time-consuming excursion.

The riverfront in Bangkok is currently seeing a development boom, and I'm sure the BMA doesn't want to miss out. High-end shopping malls, luxury condominiums and cool art galleries are turning neglected parts of the city into vibrant and dynamic -- and expensive -- areas.

But urban gentrification is perhaps a natural evolution of the city. What is unnatural is the BMA's apparent wish to transform Bangkok into a playground for the rich, ignoring social contrasts and principles of inclusivity.

Many cities in the world are creating social housing in well-off neighbourhoods, as well as parks and recreational spaces accessible to all. The BMA is trying to build a modern city fit for our times, but has ended up excluding the very workforce that drives so much of our economy.

Cities are spaces of diversity but, by the looks of it, the BMA doesn't like diversity.

Ariane Kupferman-Sutthavong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.

Ariane Sutthavong

Former features writer

Ariane Sutthavong is a former features writer for the Bangkok Post.

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