Bangkok, a Fairy Tale Utopia along the Chao Praya River

Bangkok Chao Praya River (2012)

‘Grand Bangkok, Grand Paris- inclusive cities’ was a series of exhibitions and seminars organized by Bangkok Alliance Française, Bangkok Urban Design and Development Centre of Chulalongkorn University (UDCC) and IRASEC, Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia. Comparing the urban development of both Bangkok and Paris, the forum was also an opportunity to plunge into Bangkok urban future.

A future that Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, the UDCC and architects see a bit through the prism of a fantasized fairy tale. Bangkok tomorrow would be an accessible, green, community-centered city. Pictures of tomorrow Bangkok show residents walking and biking under the elevated tracks of the skytrain, commuting smoothly between boats, busses and trains or strolling in gardens along the Chao Praya River.

“We need to preserve Bangkok diversity, protect and enhance the city’s urban structure against the challenges generated by climate change and give back public spaces to its citizens”, explained Deuntemduang Na Chiangmai, advisor to Bangkok Governor.

Turning Bangkok into a liveable city, open to all will request much efforts, good will and imagination. According to Kanis Saengchote, lecturer in finance at Chulalongkorn Business School, Bangkok has the world’s third worst traffic congestion due to the slow development of public transport: “97% of all commuting in Bangkok is non-rail related compared to 52% in Tokyo”, he says, adding that the ratio car to inhabitants climb to 660 cars for 1000 residents in Bangkok compared to 305 in London and 563 in Sydney. However roads make only 10% of Bangkok total surface compared to 23% in Tokyo or 38% in New York…

Giving Bangkok a community-friendlier face is the wished target of the city administration for the year 2030. Most transformations are due to take place along Bangkok iconic Chao Praya River.

A pilot project is now launched along Thaksin bridge. It would see old communities along the stretch of land between the skytrain station and ASIATIQUE shopping precinct benefiting of open public spaces. This would include a community facility–museum or art centre-, low-rise housing, the renovation of the fish market and a public promenade along the River adorned with water splashes, artificial water falls, gardens and cycling lanes.

More walking spaces are to be created for residents and visitors as only 14% of Chao Praya River banks can be qualified as public spaces. There is also plans for a 14km-long cycling and walking pedestrian walkway. The project is now under reconsideration as its layout –a design similar to a motorway- infuriated local communities.

However, beside the transformation of Chao Praya River banks into open spaces, a more worrying trend is the rampant gentrification of the area, which is still today home to numerous communities, many of them being present along the river since the creation of Bangkok in the late 18th century.

Most emblematic of the changes will be Iconsiam shopping mall, a huge upper class complex surrounded by condominiums and a five-star hotel. Completion is planned for 2017. Iconsiam is not the only major project along the river: The Chao Phraya area is turned into Bangkok’s new upmarket lifestyle destination with some THB200 billion (US$5.5 billion) being invested in new constructions over the next two-and-a-half years.

The existing supply of condominiums on the Chao Phraya riverside is more than 12,394 units from 15 condo projects launched since the start of 2011 until the end of 2014. Until the end of 2017, there will be another 5,000 to 6,000 condominiums units to follow, redesigning the skyline along the riverbanks.

Not only it will affect the city silhouette but it will deeply change the river life. It has been until tcolourfulpatchwork of small communities, residents and workers living side by side.

The gentrification of the river will of course help beautifying the river, for the benefits of both residents and tourists… But it will also let a piece of authentic Bangkok disappearing forever. “The private sector will always have the upper hand on project developments as there is no strong city government capable of controlling Bangkok urban development through effective laws”, regrets Viriya Taecharungroj, Vice Chair of the Business Administration Division of Mahidol University, part of the audience at the Urban forum debate. Bangkok as a welcoming, open city is likely to remain a fairy tale to most.ASEAN TRAVEL CHAO PRAYA