A touch of Seoul in Chong Nonsi

A touch of Seoul in Chong Nonsi

Critics raise questions about the city's new canal park even as first stretch opens

A gentle stroll: A couple take a walk on the newly built walkway inside Klong Chong Nonsi canal park inspired by the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul, South Korea.
A gentle stroll: A couple take a walk on the newly built walkway inside Klong Chong Nonsi canal park inspired by the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul, South Korea.

The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is never short of projects to increase clean water access and green spaces.

The Klong Ong Ang canal renovation scheme has won a 2020 United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) Asian Townscape Award and is hailed as a model for community development projects in the capital.

Its latest plan -- the 980-million-baht Chong Nonsi canal park that will run for 9km on both sides -- is slated to be the first of its kind in the country. Divided into five phases, the first phase of development is under way.

Ahead of the opening scheduled for Saturday of a 200-metre stretch from Sathon to Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra 7, questions are being raised over the canal park scheme inspired by the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project in Seoul.

The design, its aims and benefits, public participation process and cost-effectiveness are among issues which critics are urging City Hall to address.

'Sketchy on the details'

Asst Prof Niramon Serisakul, an academic at the department of urban and regional planning, faculty of architecture, Chulalongkorn University, has concerns about the canal park.

"The project is rushed, offers limited information and lacks public input," Asst Prof Niramon said.

"The public is familiar with 'before & after' pictures of the project's perspective, but is left clueless as to where to look for essential information like water management and traffic management."

Apart from being a large-scale urban project located in the central business district (CBD), she said the Chong Nonsi canal park is a far cry from the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project.

While the demolition of an elevated highway built on top of Cheonggyecheon stream remains a much-talked component of the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project, there is more to it than that.

It was woven into what was known as the Seoul Downtown Development Plan to revitalise the central business district that was losing competitiveness to fast-growing commercial districts like Gangnam.

The Cheonggyecheon project affected 100,000 businesses with more than 200,000 stakeholders, not to mention motorists using the highway carrying an average of 170,000 cars per day.

In its 30-month-long study running from 2003-2005, about 4,200 public forums and hearings were held to gather input, exchange views, promote an understanding and build a consensus.

Along the 2km length of the Chong Nonsi canal park are over 200 shops and 400 office buildings. Some 293,000 cars pass through the neighbourhood a day.

The BMA held a press briefing in November last year and revealed the canal's new look with a "for exhibition only" label. Its previous press conference on Oct 16 offered no further details about the park with updates being given on Facebook.

Asst Prof Niramon also raised questions about the project design which could possibly hinder flood management plans for the neighbourhood, as she pointed out that Chong Nonsi canal was planned as part of water drainage infrastructure.

Designated as a water retention area or "monkey's cheek", the water is supposed to be drained to make room for rainfall during the monsoon season.

Under the redevelopment project for leisure, the water level was likely to be maintained to keep the canal flowing all year round. If Chong Nonsi canal loses its original function, the BMA has yet to show how it would mitigate flood risks and at what costs, she said.

When the Cheonggyecheon restoration project was implemented, it included design of the stream not only with pedestrian-oriented public spaces but also a flood control capacity, she said.

Even if Chong Nonsi canal would still retain its drainage function for southern Bangkok, there are doubts it will be up to the task. Based on the design, certain structures in the park could block the water path.

Asst Prof Niramon also said the canal park project gave little details on water quality and water treatment systems used to rehabilitate the heavily-polluted water in the canal. She also expressed concerns about the way the project has been explained to the public, saying it could lead to inaccurate understanding of "urban design".

The field involves many disciplines including architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, demography and social sciences.

She expected her views would lead to wider discussions among the public and could serve as a guideline for people to question future restoration projects. The canal park also faces scrutiny from the Office of Auditor-General following a petition by activist Srisuwan Janya on Friday, one day ahead of the opening.

Mr Srisuwan said a wide array of issues needs scrutiny. First are the project spending, transparency in drafting the terms of reference, and its environmental impact assessment study.

BMA: transparent with public input

Deputy Bangkok governor Sakchai Boonma insisted the implementation was in line with the procurement regulations with an e-bidding held to select contractors for every phase.

He said stakeholders were engaged in the project and public input was a priority. The BMA was aware of the importance of the public participation process and proceeded to gather opinions in the districts of Sathon, Yannawa and Bang Rak.

The project also received contributions from movements like Transportation For All, Friendly Design, and interested parties such as Asst Prof Pongporn Sudbanthad, adviser of Urban Action.

It was unveiled on Nov 11 last year at the Chong Nonsi Skywalk with a Q&A session and an exhibition offering project details and findings from public forums. The was held for one month to raise public awareness and collect feedback. Views were also gathered via online platforms.

However, he said the canal park was redeveloped from the existing structure and it was determined not to be of a type that would cause adverse impacts on health, the environment or local community, or it would have required public hearings.

Mr Sakchai said the Chong Nonsi canal park project was conceived in 2007 during the tenure of Apirak Kosayodhi with Chong Nonsi and Sathon canals seen as a Thai version of Cheonggyecheon.

The project design started in 2011 with a consultant firm hired to survey, design and estimate costs. In 2015, then governor MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra assigned the BMA's City Planning Office to draw up a master plan for revival of old towns and old communities with Chulalongkorn University's Chula Unisearch.

In the study in which Chong Nonsi canal is in the Bang Rak-Pathum Wan and Bang Kho Laem-Yannawa clusters, Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra was proposed as a main road for the old town revival project that would also see more green spaces.

In this scheme, 758 people took part in a series of 10 public forums and 99% of 415 residents in Sathon who were polled in an opinion survey agreed with the proposal to increase green spaces.

The canal project came into the picture during the tenure of incumbent governor Aswin Kwanmuang when the BMA addressed heavily-polluted water and piles of garbage in the canal. The BMA's public works, irrigation, city planning and development, traffic and transport, environment and district offices of Bang Rak, Sathon and Yannawa joined the effort.

He said efforts are under way to solve the polluted water in Chong Nonsi canal which receives untreated waste water from three other canals. Once a system is in place, waste water will be diverted to a water treatment facility before being released into the canal. "The canal park will rejuvenate the city and improve quality of life. It will serve as a model to add green space to other city's canals. The BMA has more canal revival projects coming," he said.

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