On Aug 12, Bangkokians will officially get a new landmark, though this time -- thankfully -- it won't be a shopping complex. Impressively, even before the gates of Benjakitti Forest Park are to be officially opened next month, it has already drawn praise from many quarters -- a rare feat for what is essentially a landscaped garden in a concrete-crazed city.
"A new pride for Bangkok", one headline suggested. Another spoke of how the 453-rai park promises to give the capital's residents the public green space they so desperately need. These are understandable responses to the park's opening, considering there are only seven square metres of green space available for each Bangkokian in the city.
A Singapore resident, for comparison, has access to 66m2 of green space. The island-city, which essentially has to import sand from its neighbours to ensure its population can live on dry land, is growing more greenery than Bangkok, which lies on a fertile alluvial plain, constantly fed by nutrient rich sediment from upstream. How's that for irony?
The launch of Benjakitti Park shows the government is making some progress in its effort to increase the amount of public green space in the capital to an internationally-acceptable standard. But when one considers the minimum green space recommendation by the World Health Organization, at just nine m2 of green space per capita, that goal isn't that far out of reach. If anything, it is rather unambitious -- especially since the government is aiming to meet the goal in 2030!
Without a doubt, the park deserves praise -- it is quickly becoming a magnet for Bangkokians who are looking to slip in some peace and quiet into their daily routine. Similarly, tourists are embracing the park as a new city new landmark, given its downtown location. One rather optimistic report even said around 12,000 people visit Benjakitti Park on the weekends. But wouldn't it be nicer if the verdant landscape extends beyond the park's boundaries?
As soon as one looks beyond Benjakitti's borders, one will realise the plush greenery in the park, as well as in more established parks like Lumphini, remains an exception, not the rule.
Wander a few metres beyond their gates, and one can see old-growth trees hanging on to dear life as municipal workers chop away at their branches with reckless abandon. Outside the parks' gates, trees are not a part of the landscape -- they are nuisances to be cut down when their offshoots threaten overhead wiring and street lights. And it seems, the older they get, the worse they are treated -- the damage on the tamarind trees around Dusit district reflect the heavy-handedness with which gardeners hired by utility companies treat these ageing giants.
As a result, their branches no longer provide protection from the sun or rain. Instead, they threaten anything directly around it, posing a fire risk when the weather is tinder-dry, and collapsing altogether when storms approach, which in turn necessitates periodic trimming. These trees, which for decades, if not centuries, made walking along the city's roads more bearable, no longer enhance the landscape. Now, they have now become a threat in the absence of aggressive cutting.
These trees could once again serve their function if the government is serious about moving the eyesores that are overhanging aerial cables laid out by utility companies.
Without them, trees all over the city could once again be allowed to grow beyond the powerlines, providing cover to pedestrians underneath and absorbing environmental noises from above-ground sources, such as the skytrain and other elevated roads. Tree clusters help reduce the urban heat island effect, which could potentially help dissipate smog that blights the capital when the winter brings in cooler, dry air from regions surrounding the capital. The benefits of moving these overhanging cables underground are plenty, so it's a wonder why there is so much complacency around the plan.
Last week, the government stepped in by subsidising part of the cost, out of fear if internet service providers were to wholly absorb the cost of laying cables underground -- estimated to be around 20 billion baht -- the cost of internet services would go up.
The move, while laudable, shows those in power still do not understand the value of the entire effort. Moving these cables underground isn't just about aesthetics and or safety -- it's also to ensure city-wide improvements can be carried out more smoothly, so the process of gentrification can benefit a wider set of people.
Only when these cables are underground and the trees on the city's sidewalks are allowed to grow can the city's public green spaces be organically connected -- unlike now, where "green" walkways have to be artificially built to connect Bangkok's major downtown parks. For as long as there is no serious shift in perspective, planting trees in Bangkok will remain a fool's errand, and the city's green goals forever will be out of reach.