There are better ways to realise riverside dream
If the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has its way, the capital city will soon have its own riverside promenade like many other metropolitan cities. Except that the Bangkok version is riddled with controversy.
The BMA said recently it's ready to go ahead with the project, claiming there are no opponents.
I don't know how the BMA and the government gained such confidence, as their claim certainly appears to be false. They appear to have turned a blind to strong public opposition over the past five years which has led to a case currently with the Administrative Court.
As far as I know, Friends of the River, with 35 groups of professionals from various fields including architects, historians and academics, have never changed their standpoint against a promenade they say would cause irreversible damage to the country's most important river. And I, as an individual member of society, and many in my circle do not think we need to spend a fortune on a contentious project that will see an alien structure added to the river bank. Some liken the structure to "an expressway" along the Chao Phraya.
Despite the strong public resistance, city officials have countered by releasing a series of surveys to justify the controversial project. In May this year, in an attempt to give the impression that the project is progressing according to plan and has won public support, King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL), which was commissioned to conduct feasibility studies, said there was strong support among its focus group.
According to the survey, published by local media, three-quarters of the participants agreed with the project. Some 65% of respondents saw the benefits of the project while only 10% thought the scheme could damage the way of life of people in riverside communities; the rest were not sure or thought the project had both benefits and shortcomings. KMITL also claimed 68% of those surveyed agreed that the project should materialise.
I wonder who the people were in this focus group, as well as how KMITL conducted the survey. I also want to see the details of the questionnaire itself.
As if to soften public resistance, the BMA decided to adjust the promenade details. The agency told the media it decided to decrease the structure's height by one metre from the original plan, and that it will no longer serve as a dyke, but instead will help filter waste from the river. Neither will it any longer block the riverside view -- another chief concern of the civic groups.
The path is to be shortened by about 500 metres and end at Phra Sumen Fort rather than Phra Pin Klao Bridge. It will also break the construction plan into smaller sections with a vastly reduced budget.
The first section, a 2.99km stretch on the Bangkok side from Rama VII Bridge to the Royal Irrigation Department, will receive a budget of 1.77 billion baht. There were reports that it has had to drop the second section to avoid the historical area, as demanded by the Committee on the Conservation of Rattanakosin and Old Towns. The 3.2km third and 2.98km fourth sections will be on the Thon Buri side. Each will cost two billion baht.
I am well aware that a large number of city residents, who have seen riverside public space in many metropolitan cities, including London, Paris, New York and Sydney, or closer to home in Singapore and Taiwan, may welcome the Chao Phraya promenade.
But they may not realise that in those foreign cities, riverside public space was included in the original city planning. None of these areas was built separately.
Manggahan Floodway along Pasig River in Manila, the Philippines, is probably the only relevant comparison that was built separately, but it soon failed and was eventually taken over by the homeless.
Learning from Manila, Friends of the River called on the state agencies along the river to turn their property into public space that the public can access, instead of building a new structure. Such an idea should also be applied to riverine temples.
I can't agree with them more. A quick look on Google Maps shows quite a few such areas along the first section that could be turned into public space without the need for land expropriation or evicting existing communities. There is Bangsue District Museum, Wat Anam Nikayaram, Bang Pho Police Station, Phracharath Sai 1 Park, Wat Kaew Chulamanee, Sappaya Sapasathan Parliament, and the Royal Irrigation Department on the Bangkok side. On the opposite side, there is the Egat learning centre and Wat Wimuttayaram.
We already have underused space. What we need to do is to open it to the public and link it to nearby communities. Without land appropriation, it would save a large amount of money and allow the riverside communities to thrive.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.