Capital needs a new approach to tree surgery

Capital needs a new approach to tree surgery

Pictures of numerous chopped down tree trunks scattered near the walls of Wat Po in the Rattanakosin old town area were shared on social media and immediately triggered public outrage.

Netizens exclaimed in disbelief. "Not again!" Several rushed to blame the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). Such a presumption was understandable as the agency has gained a bad reputation with its brutal treatment of plants and trees.

However, this time round, it was an initiative of the temple abbot who wanted to improve the surrounding area of the premises. He was also concerned about health and safety.

Kanokwalee Suteethorn, a lecturer at Department of Landscape Architecture from Chulalongkorn University, helped with the initiative from last March.

Originally, the temple wanted to relocate those trees, known as teen ped, but upon finding them in poor condition with decayed trunks, decided to remove them all from the premises.

Many people also found the trees' pungent odour to be unbearable. Disgusted by the smell, some monks were unable to sleep. For technical reasons, some of the trees had to be chopped.

The temple, assisted by the BMA's Phra Nakhon district, also put up a notice 30 days ahead of the felling of the trees. Not many netizens bought this idea.

The case shows a lack of planning regarding the choice of trees. Losing so many mature plants during a time when we are coping with high levels of PM2.5 dust seems senseless.

Ms Kanokwalee also explained how global warming has become a challenge and how every city has to accept changes and learn new things. Some trees that used to match a street or a city no longer do. She cited a dilemma in San Francisco when the Public Works Department had to fell a few dozen ficus trees -- a common street tree known for its impressive canopy which many locals had emotional ties to for decades.

According to the San Francisco Public Works website and a local news website, community residents bid farewell to 33 ficus trees at a public hearing in July last year, as the size and the vulnerability of the ageing trees had become hazardous. As the trees aged, their deteriorating health, such as torn limbs, were a hazard to public safety, while the roots caused severe damage to pavements and other infrastructure. The department also cited two major accidents in 2019. In one accident, branches collapsed, crushing a parked car; in another, a whole ficus tree was uprooted by a storm, blocking the area. The department promised the felled trees would be replaced by red maple and ginkgo trees within three months.

Ms Kanokwalee said Bangkok is facing a similar situation. Some trees we believed to be nice street trees decades ago no longer suit the city. She said it's only been discovered now that devil's trees -- found growing in forests -- that were believed to provide cool shade and green space, don't really work with narrow and shallow pavements.

It's necessary to choose the type of tree carefully. Some landscape architects suggested a few choices of trees to be planted throughout Bangkok but academics cautioned against them as they are prone to insect infestation. If that happens, it could mean the city would lose one-third or even two-thirds of its street plants. I understand that vulnerable and unhealthy trees can be hazardous and cause severe damage to property and people's lives and they should be felled in order to mitigate risks. I also can't agree more that a variety of trees should be replaced around the temple.

But I'm afraid the Phra Nakhon district office, Wat Po and the survey team need to improve their communication with the public. A few physical signs posted near the temple are not enough to communicate with people who consider themselves to be a part of the city and furthermore patrons of the temple.

If the BMA can use social media platforms to promote its events and images of the governor and his son, who happens to be the spokesperson, the same platform should be used to communicate such an important public announcement.

And if the BMA has to learn about street plants, it should be more open and avoid repeating the mistakes that have trapped it in the vicious cycle of planting, cutting and replanting in the past.

Lastly, I only hope the city pays more attention to choosing plants and maintaining them in order to avoiding felling them. We still remember the tragic incident of 2017 when a decades-old tree toppled power poles on Chidlom Road, killing one city commuter and injuring two. The agency removed the tree quickly. Had the agency been more serious about maintenance, we might have avoided the loss of life and the tree.

Sirinya Wattanasukchai


Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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