Roiling on the river

Architect-activist sees dangers in the government's plans to redesign the Chao Phraya's banks

Yossapon Somboon is staring out at the Chao Phraya. He's standing at Phra Sumen Fort on Phra Athit Road, with its green park that offers one of the best spots to look at the river. There is a giant cork tree. There are slopes and well designed terraces where visitors come in the evening to rest, picnic or just look at the water. Nearby is the ancient fort, a traditional community -- a tranquil scene, a pocket of peace in the bustling capital.

But as an architect, Yossapon, 39, also sees something else. Beside the splendid scenery, the temples, palaces, tourists and business opportunities along the river, he also sees problems.

"I see natural disaster, and I see the problem of coastal erosion. Architects are trained to think of a solution, and we are taught to believe that there is always more than one solution," Yossapon said.

He uses his mobile phone to take a photo of a white house perched on the bank. The house would have been on the most envious spot -- situated at the bend -- if not for a high concrete embankment built by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) to protect against floods.

"To prevent floods, there is more than one solution. You can create a wetland along the river bank to retain and absorb the water, or you can dredge canals to ease water flow.

"But if you think there is just one solution for the flood problem and you keep building high concrete dykes along rivers and canals, you are giving up. You are surrendering."

Yesterday, Phra Sumen Fort was where Friends of the River (FoR) -- a group that Yossapon and his architect friends formed last year -- held "Hug The River" as part of the campaign against the government's plan to build a promenade along the Chao Phraya, the controversial 14 billion baht project that would create walkways and bicycle lanes along both sides of the river from the Rama VII Bridge in Nonthaburi to the Pin Klao Bridge. Each side will be 7km in length.

A digital rendition of the 14km Chao Phraya bicycle lane. Photo courtesy of Friends of the River

FoR has asked the government and the BMA to reconsider the project and listen to the concerns of riverside communities, experts and environmental scientists on the potential adverse impact on flood and riverbank erosion. The event yesterday was participated by hundreds of people who turned up to hear speeches and attend a forum and concert, joined by celebrities and alliances of FoR to raise public awareness.

The Chao Phraya promenade was one of the first big projects initiated by the junta after the coup of May 22, 2014. The plan, which will require relocation of at least 12 local communities, intends to create bicycle lanes and riverside parks as new Bangkok landmarks. But a number of architects who have led the campaign against the construction have pointed out that the project would plant large pillars into the river to support the 12km of promenade on each side. There also will be 3.7m-high flood wall running along the promenade. The BMA was not required to submit an environmental impact assessment for the project because the authority claimed it was for recreation purposes.

As recently as Oct 1, the government confirmed that it would go ahead with the plan despite the clamour from conservationists and urban planners. A budget of 1 billion baht has already been allocated for the first phase, and the bidding will take place in January 2017 before the actual construction is scheduled to start in March.

Yossapon is among a number of architects who have vociferously opposed the plan (another high-profile activist is architect Duangrit Bunnag). That gives the anti-promenade campaign a different perspective: Yosspaon and his group are not traditional conservationists -- those who acquire the image of anti-development. He is the co-founder of Shma Company, a leading landscape and urban design firm that has designed a number of commercial projects, and most of his clients are property developers. The company has also designed public projects for the BMA and other state agencies, including some parts of the BMA's master plan for the Chao Phraya River area, precisely the project to transform the traditional community of Kadeejeen near the Memorial Bride into a tourist information centre.

An activity to protest against the 14 billion baht Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade Project. Photo: Wichan Charoenkiatpakul

Another project undertaken by Shma is called Masterplanning Future, Co-Create Charoen Krung-Bangrak; the design of the project is shortlisted for the design competition at the World Architecture Festival this year.

Yossapon's campaigning against the Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade has drawn criticism. What is the difference between the new promenade and the ones Yossapon is involved with, such as the Kadeejeen and Charoen Krung projects?

"I have been constantly attacked that I've protested against the project because my company did not get the contract. Such allegations do not benefit society at all."

During the last five years, there have been several landscape development and urban redevelopment plans along the Chao Phraya, such as in the Yannawa area by Urban Design & Development Center, and at Talat Noi designed by Arsom Silpa Institute of Arts.

The difference, according to Yossapon, is that those professional landscape and urban developments will give priority to local communities, they encouraged public participation and conducted a feasibility study. But the 14 billion baht Chao Phraya Riverside Promenade focuses on only one thing -- to build the project as fast as possible without listening to other stakeholders.

Deputy Prime Minister Gen Prawit Wongsuwon said on several occasions that those who object to the promenade are in "a minority". He said the construction will not excessively protrude into the river and will not ruin the visual landscape. In fact the plan is to remove communities that have encroached into the water, which will actually open up and maximise the potential of the river, he said.

After the cabinet approved the project last May, Yossapon, his architect friends and civic groups formed FoR. They argued that the promenade will protrude at least 10m into the river, and narrow the width of the Chao Phraya by 10%. Also, as Yossapon said, FoR encourages the possibilities of other options based on thorough studies.

Over the year, the group has organised events and seminars to inform the public about community life, cultural heritage and the river environment, and how they might be affected by the massive new construction. The group joined hands with universities to launch a design competition to encourage architecture students to conduct survey trips along the river, gather information on the historical, economic and cultural aspects of life along the river and draft new designs that would possibly respond better to the cultural diversity that sits along Thailand's most important river.

"Make no mistake. We're not saying that the state must not build the promenade," says Yossapon. "But any development must not destroy other assets of this river. The Chao Phraya is already a city landmark. It is part of the cultural heritage that draws tourists. It has traditional communities who have been living there and that characterise the identity of the city. It has environmental purposes and it has transportation purposes. Without careful study and input from locals and experts, the building of bicycle lanes and walkways might jeopardise the essence of the river."

With the construction set to start in six months, and with the government seemingly unrelenting in its push ahead, Yossapon and FoR know that the fight will intensify.

"We hope our campaign for dialogue will help society decide the best option for the Chao Phraya. It is no longer acceptable for the state to use the term khon dee [good people] to justify the project and stop the criticism."

About the author

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Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Editorial pages editor