Promenade halt might just save Chao Phraya
The Administrative Court made a crucial decision that might just save the Chao Phraya River from the government's "development" plan it calls the Riverside Promenade.
The court issued an injunction, ordering the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to halt all activities relating to the controversial project, which is one of the government's 11 landscape development projects aimed at increasing green areas across the capital and improving access to the city's older communities.
While the court's injunction puts the promenade project on temporary hold, it green-lights the others.
The plan envisions the construction of expansive promenades and bicycle lanes, running for seven kilometres on both banks of the Chao Phraya from Rama VII Bridge to Phra Pinklao Bridge.
The promenade came under heavy criticism over its exorbitant cost -- the project was initially estimated to cost 14 billion baht from start to finish, which translates to one billion baht per kilometre of 10-metre-wide walkway.
Concerns were also raised about the impact of the promenade's supporting structure -- as some will undoubtedly extend over the Chao Phraya -- on the river's navigability.
Large concrete supporting poles and two-metre flood embankments could also prevent rainwater from draining into the river, which would deal a big blow to some riverside communities. On top of that, the promenade would cause changes to the river's ecology.
Fierce resistance from civic groups which gathered under the Friends of the River network forced the BMA to revise the plan and cut back on costs.
That said, the revised plan also failed to win public support. Instead, it drove critics to question if the project was necessary at all given the costs, which remain sky-high even after numerous cuts.
I do believe their questions have merit -- does it really make sense to spend billions of baht on a project that will have an adverse impact on the river?
At this point, readers might want to know a little more on how the project came about. The idea was hatched about four years ago, after Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha -- then the head of the military regime -- visited the South Korean capital and was mesmerised by its famous riverside promenade, Cheonggyecheon.
The idea was passed on to the Interior Ministry and BMA, which were then tasked with designing a Thai version of Cheonggyecheon. BMA touted the project as an ideal site for tourists and local residents to spend their leisure time by the river, calling the promenade an "ideal cycling lane".
I, for one, truly welcome the court's intervention. It is like the final nail in the promenade's coffin, as the ruling lends weight to the concerns of the project's critics.
The court interpreted the promenade as a "building" under the 1989 Building Control Act. As such, the BMA has to go through many steps required by law before the project can proceed -- for example, it has to have the project's blueprints approved by a number of state agencies and it also has to carry out an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
The BMA assumed the promenade would be considered as a "pier" under the Harbour Law, so it did not submit the project's blueprint for approval, nor has it carried out an EIA as required for the project to continue.
Instead, it claimed to have carried out a "voluntary" public hearing and its own environmental assessment. BMA said it commissioned two universities to carry out the tasks on its behalf, but many believed the claim was made just to get the project rolling.
Indeed, the injunction does not spell the end of the project, as the BMA still can appeal and/or revise the project to appease critics. But that doesn't mean the ruling was made in vain -- it highlighted how costly this project is going to be, despite its questionable benefits. And whoever gets elected in the next Bangkok gubernatorial election will face increased public pressure over this project.
But the most important question is: How should the Chao Phraya be developed in the future? While some are opposed to the plan, there are also others who support it, so is there a right way to approach the matter?
We need to be aware that urban development these days have shifted away from the top-down model of the past. Instead of having the government monopolise the entire urban development process from conceptualisation to execution, the process is much more inclusive and open. Many public landscape projects now involve design competitions open to the public.
Communities should have a say and a project shouldn't be hatched to satisfy the whims of a leader -- it should be built because it is necessary.
Editorial pages editor
Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.