City heritage needs new conservation law
Bangkok's claim to fame is undoubtedly its cultural heritage. Magnificent sites like the Grand Palace, Temple of Dawn and Temple of the Golden Mount delight visitors and make Thais proud.
But these monuments are just part of it. More and more these days, we value the uniqueness and diversity of Bangkok's everyday heritage: its vibrant neighbourhoods of shophouses, fresh markets and street vending. As crass modernisation makes the world more and more homogenous and bland, this local culture is where to find the spirit and history of Bangkok's people.
Our old neighbourhoods show that our ancestors knew how to make a town liveable and economically productive. Today, these places stand as pillars of our tourism, our creative economy, our grass-roots capitalism and the resilience of our society.
But Bangkok's community heritage stands on unstable ground. Unlike the national heritage sites, which are protected by strict regulations under the ancient monuments law, the local heritage of Bangkok is up for grabs. We have not established a law to safeguard these important community assets. Under today's loose regulations that favour developers, our nice old places tend to disappear. A few companies and property owners might gain a bit. But the rest of us surely lose.
Bangkok's uniqueness loses too. Other world cities besides Bangkok have heritage and cultural diversity. But they protect it, a winning move. Meanwhile Bangkok keeps losing its edge, its appealing identity as a city of living heritage.
Many countries around the world have recognised that it's not enough to have a law that protects only ancient sites and national landmarks. Local heritage tends to be under private ownership and under local authority. It tends to be intertwined with other uses and purposes besides "heritage", as when an old shophouse or warehouse hosts a restaurant or small hotel. To cover all kinds of such cases, savvy planners create an alternative law to enable preservation.
What are examples? In the United Kingdom, planning law carves out special regulations for listed buildings and heritage conservation areas. In the United States and Malaysia, national historic preservation laws promote registration of sites at the local level.
This kind of local heritage protection helps ensure harmonious results when, for example, new public infrastructure gets put in place, such as roads, bridges and mass transit. In Bangkok, unfortunately, the installation of much-needed subway lines has led to the needless destruction of heritage because we lack such local laws. Two examples are at the MRT subway's stations in Bangkok's old town.
At Sam Yot Station, a row of a century-old shophouses was pulled down during the underground construction work. They were reconstructed afterwards, but the replica work destroyed the authenticity and historical significance of the original place. All we have now is a fake façade.
Near Wat Mangkon Station, a handsome row of three old shophouses on Charoen Krung Road was ruined when the middle house was destroyed and replaced with a much taller building.
Let's keep in mind that places like Charoen Krung Road are not just historic districts but official "creative districts". That's no accident. Local heritage provides the vital cultural roots that support the sustainable development of new culture. These places inspire people to make art, set up innovative projects, hold events and establish creative businesses. This is why so many artists, designers, performers and entrepreneurs want us to preserve old neighbourhoods.
Protecting local heritage also helps protect the environment. Preserving a building is more ecologically sound than new construction, which demands lots of new materials. Production of cement generates huge emissions of carbon that heats up our planet.
But the situation is not hopeless. We can learn from two important organisations that have helped to identify, study and publicise conservation success cases. The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization, (Unesco), organises an annual award competition recognising preservation work throughout the Asia-Pacific region. And annual awards under the Association of Siamese Architects (ASA) celebrate heritage projects within Thailand.
Some good news came last year, when the Rattanakosin Committee, set up by the national government in 1978, expanded the heritage conservation area in our capital's old quarters. This group extended the official boundaries to include the area from Khlong Ong Ang to Khlong Padung Krung Kasem, so that Chinatown would also be covered. This shows that the central government recognises the cultural importance of shophouse districts. It's not enough. We still need a local heritage law so that the shophouses themselves can be registered as heritage buildings and protected. But the project expansion is a step in the right direction.
Another sign of hope is an effort by the Planning Office of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) beginning in 2017 to introduce an incentive to mitigate the development pressure on heritage by using an air rights transfer (ART) programme. The ART is a voluntary scheme allowing ownership of a low-rise property in a heritage district to become more economically viable while keeping a site intact. The heritage site owner sells their unused "air" rights above their short building to a developer of another site elsewhere that wants to build a structure higher than zoning regulations would otherwise allow. The BMA is still working on the details of how to implement this programme, but ART programmes have proven beneficial to heritage in other countries around the world.
Most hopeful of all is an ongoing study on how to write and implement an alternative law for heritage preservation. This research is being supported by the Tourism and Creative Economy Section of the Program Management Unit for Competitiveness Enhancement (PMU-C), under Thailand Science Research and Innovation, a government advisory body.
The study will be finished this year, then sent to the Senate for review. To get good results, the public must be informed and must speak up. And officials and political leaders must listen.
The BMA and people of Bangkok can help national officials on the law by creating an inventory of the city's heritage buildings and sites. A big task, but necessary.
One more ingredient would help. The BMA should establish a diverse advisory committee of local citizens and stakeholder groups to provide ongoing public input on the laws and processes needed to conserve our city's cultural assets.
If we let the people help take care of their heritage -- and back them with a good conservation law -- we'll all win big.
Yongtanit Pimonsathean, PhD, is an expert on community-based urban planning and heritage conservation. Heritage Matters is a monthly column presented by The Siam Society Under Royal Patronage to promote public awareness and discussion on sustaining the architectural and cultural heritage of Thailand and the region. Each column is written by a different contributor and appears on the third Thursday of the month. The views expressed here are those of the author.