Can Lumpini Park facelift help spruce up city?
I was glad to hear about the major facelift planned for Lumpini Park, which is slated to begin next year. It will be the first maintenance work that park has experienced in almost a century.
At a recent discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) promised to keep as many large trees as it possibly can to help purify the air for the city's residents, as well as to provide shade for park goers. This, is quite a relief.
The promise was in response to concerns raised by some expats who were worried that many trees might be uprooted during the work, and these fears are not unwarranted. The BMA is notorious for its heavy-handed treatment when it comes to dealing with trees in the city's parks and streets.
One expat mentioned that a good number of mature rain trees had been felled to pave the way for the construction of Benjakiti Park, which was opened in 1992.
The expat noted that while there are two major schools of thought when it comes to garden landscaping -- the English school, with its more naturalist approach, which lies in contrast to the heavily structured French style of landscaping -- the BMA has its own, unique approach of managing its parks and gardens.
He said he couldn't figure out, after years of living in Thailand, the style and purpose of the city's parks. Most Thai parks are centred around a large concrete stage or structure, so it is unclear if the parks are designed for exercise, or to help clean up the air.
Well, he isn't alone. I grew up here, and I haven't been able to figure out myself what the word "public park" means to the BMA and our policymakers. It seems that in designing the city's parks and/or other public spaces, policymakers hardly ever take into consideration the needs of their users. A prime example of this is Pom Mahakan Park, which looks like a simple lawn dotted with a few plants.
In Thailand, public spaces tend to be some sort of empty lot that has been paved over with concrete and decorated with some bushes and/or potted plants. Mature trees are felled out of concerns for safety -- it may fall over, or in some cases, act like a partition which blocks out the view, allowing visitors to commit "lewd" acts.
Klong Ong Ang, where the Saphan Lek market used to stand, is another example. About a dozen mature trees growing along the canal were cut down when the area was revitalised. As a result, there is a total absence of shade for visitors during the day, thereby reducing the number of tourists. It is a waste of public space.
To me, a public space should be a safe area where one can hang out, and engage in sports and/or other recreational activities, with friends or alone. But to authorities, public spaces need to be fenced off and only opened during certain hours for safety reasons.
At the FCCT discussion, architect Yossapon Boonsom spoke about his We!Park Project, which is aimed at creating a platform for fundraising, as well as knowledge-sharing about the design and use of public spaces.
At present, funds given by donors for renovations and other works -- usually businesses and/or building owners whose plots are located near a park, such as Lumpini Park -- are managed directly by the BMA.
This model, said Mr Yossapon, skews the flow of donations to parks which the donors want to improve, so the We!Park project aims to bridge the gap by acting as a platform which allows donors to fund works on other parks and public spaces that need attention.
So far, Mr Yossapon said that six potential location are being surveyed -- including an empty plot near Wat Hua Lamphong and the elevated path between Lumpini and Benjakiti parks, the so-called "Green Bridge".
Due to design flaws which effectively isolate the Green Bridge from its surrounding areas, the area isn't exactly the safest stretch in the city to walk after dark. In fact, there have been occasional reports of drug use there.
According to Mr Yossapon, police have offered to regularly patrol the area, while the BMA once mulled closing access to the area during certain hours. However, patrols and gates are short-term solutions which can't guarantee that there will be no crime there.
Instead, Mr Yossapon proposed urban farming along the Green Bridge, as it will provide both food and income for urban residents, and weekend art classes or sports for children. Such activities will not only improve the quality of people's lives, but make them realise the value of public spaces. The idea should be applied to other parks, but with different details to meet local demands.
In theory, such a project would reinvigorate underused plots throughout the city, turning them into useful public spaces that local residents would want to frequent. Will the goal be achieved? I'm still not 100% sure, but it's worth giving it a shot.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.