With city's public spaces, don't ignore the public

With city's public spaces, don't ignore the public

Taking a stroll around a few neighbourhoods during the holidays, I couldn't help but wonder why Bangkok, a bustling metropolis, has so little public space for people to use.

What do Bangkok residents think about the availability of public spaces? And who has a say in deciding which areas should fall within this bracket?

Take the riverfront area as an example. Along the 24-km trail that runs beside the Chao Phraya River, between the Krung Thon and Krungthep bridges, there is only a small section -- about 3.5km, or 14% of the trail's length -- that lets members of the public gain access. The rest is occupied by businesses such as restaurants or hotels. Those angling for a glimpse of river must fork out for a hotel, meal or at least a drink to enjoy this.

Anyway, my main focus here is not on how most of the prime riverfront area has become private property, even though that is a critical issue. I would rather focus on how public areas are being used and managed.

Let's take a look at Sanam Luang. Apart from being used for royal funerals and ceremonies since the Rattanakosin era, the plot has served as a place for leisure by city residents until recently.

In the old days, Sanam Luang was a multi-functional public space -- an open market on weekends, while on weekdays parents would use it to teach their kids how to ride bicycles and fly kites. Hunters of second-hand books roamed the area for rare or out-of-print books.

The state, trying to ease traffic congestion in the Rattanakosin area, relocated the market to Chatuchak. On the birthday of King Rama IX, revellers would flock to Sanam Luang, which hosted temple fair-liked activities or Thai-style carnivals. It used to be a major junction where commuters changed buses.

But Sanam Luang's role as a public space has been dwindling since 2010 when City Hall built a fence around the area, with gates and fixed opening hours, in order to keep the area from the homeless. The authorities have no idea how to deal with this group of people.

Last year, the ground was again "improved" after being used for the royal funeral. City Hall has also made it clear that it will now be used mainly for official purposes such as religious ceremonies, which would seem to limit its use to Buddhists. But seriously, shouldn't other religions be included as well?

Interestingly, when City Hall wants to improve a public space, or designates it for a particular purpose and just goes ahead without consulting the public. Forget about the voiceless vagabonds, other Sanam Luang users have never been asked how they want the space to be developed and used.

With regard to the fence, City Hall never asked commuters who change buses at Sanam Luang for their input, even though the structure takes away a large part of the bus stop area.

When the agency paved the central part of the ground with cement and used it as a drop-off and parking area for tourist coaches, it did not consult anyone. All decisions were, and are, made with a top-down approach. The public, especially the poor, have no say.

City Hall insisted several dozen riverside communities between Rama VII and Pinklao bridges had to be evicted to pave the way for the first 7km section of the Chao Phraya promenade, Thailand's so-called new landmark, despite fierce opposition from the public and experts in different fields.

Or look at how City Hall decided to uproot the century-old community and tear down historical wooden houses so they could turn the site into a "park", which looks like a lifeless lawn replete with a huge toilet in the middle. Again, the protesting public was ignored.

Or look at how street food has been banned, instead of being managed.

A friend of mine living in Heidelberg, Germany told me their local government was forced to abandon its plan to relocate the city's tram depot to a park outside the city centre when the public disagreed with such an expansion. Over 1,000 opponents signed a petition demanding the local government find another site. A new site is being sought.

While cities around the world embrace the idea of public participation, Bangkok still adheres to its archaic top-down style of administration.

The city designed the promenade as a public space but then courted controversy by shrugging off public opposition. I have some humble advice for the agency. If it insists on spending 8 billion baht on this structure it should switch the project's first phase from its initial site to the section between the Memorial and Sathon bridges. At least then locals could enjoy superb views of luxury five-star hotels, high rises and shopping malls. Those luxury property owners should be pleased with the new infrastructure, which City Hall insists serves a crucial role as a flood prevention dyke. After it, it should help keep their expensive properties dry.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist, Bangkok Post.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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