ASIA'S FUTURE CITIES: Urban renewal to revive Bangkok for its 250th birthday

ASIA'S FUTURE CITIES: Urban renewal to revive Bangkok for its 250th birthday

As part of Channel NewsAsia's look at future challenges and opportunities in Asia's urban centres, Pichayada Promchertchoo reports on how waves of change are set to spread through Bangkok as part of plans to revive its inner districts.

Bangkok will celebrate its 250th birthday in 2032 and efforts are being made to design its future. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

BANGKOK: Bangkok is getting bigger, with more people, traffic and buildings squeezing into its already crowded living space. As it develops into an Asian megacity, strategies are being developed to ensure it remains a livable home for its inhabitants.

The numbers make the challenges clear. Already firmly established as one of the top 10 global cities with the worst traffic, its notoriously congested roads are expected to have to deal with 10 million vehicles by 2029, up from around 9 million currently.

And by 2030, Bangkok’s population is expected to have grown from 9.3 million to 11 million, an 18.2 per cent increase according to the United Nation’s World Urbanization Prospects.

That will mean more people are on hand to celebrate the city’s 250th birthday in 2032. But there are concerns that unless something is done now to manage Bangkok’s relentless expansion, it may not be the most pleasant place for a birthday celebration.

So, as a gift to the city’s population, a large-scale urban renewal project has been hatched. Bangkok250 is a City Hall-backed programme that aims to design Bangkok’s future.

The objective is simple - to create a more livable city with a vibrant inner area by the time Bangkok turns 250. If successful, it should result in improved public transport, optimum use of urban space and revived neighbourhoods.


Bangkok's inner city has begun to deteriorate. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

“Many cities around the world have started renewing themselves. Horizontal expansion is no longer the main trend because it doesn’t help cities to grow efficiently. Now, many countries are reviving their old city areas, developing spaces that have been abandoned or under-used. This is a new trend,” said Pornsan Vichienpradit, deputy director of the Urban Design and Development Center (UDDC).

The urban renewal project is a collaboration between the UDDC and the City Planning Department of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA), as they join hands to tackle the capital’s high density challenges.

DEATH OF INNER BANGKOK

By 2032, with major population increase, Bangkok’s urban space will be more valuable than ever. As a result, Bangkok250 is focusing on 17 districts in the inner city area, which are dying out after rapid urban expansion over the past decades.


Many areas in inner Bangkok are dying out after decades of rapid expansion. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

“If we look at the population, it’s gradually shrinking in these areas. That’s because they’re suffering from physical deterioration and neglect, which makes it hard for people to live there,” Pornsan said.

Since the mid-1950s, Bangkok has spread horizontally, with the city boundaries stretching further and further away from the city centre. But the urbanisation happened without much planning. The biggest problem has arguably been shortcomings with public transport - as people moved to the upcoming suburbs, it became harder for them to get into the city centre to work or play. Businesses disappeared and homes were left to fall into disrepair.

Slowly, the old Bangkok was abandoned. Its society changed. Infrastructure crumbled and social problems emerged. “Without urban renewal, Bangkok won’t be able to move on,” Pornsan added.


Parts of old Bangkok are abandoned. Its society changed and infrastructure crumbled. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

To breathe new life into the inner city, the UDDC has earmarked 75 areas suitable for restoration, covering residential areas, historic neighbourhoods and commercial districts. Its study also found a major weakness of Bangkok, which has been developed into the project’s central theme.

“Bangkok is highly diverse, with different races, beliefs, genders and social values across many neighbourhoods. This diversity will only keep growing in the future but there's a lack of connectivity between these areas,” Pornsan said.

“So we've crafted a masterplan to create what we call ‘strategic connectivity for synergic diversity’ in the old Bangkok.”

RENAISSANCE OF THE OLD CITY

Based on the masterplan, Bangkok's interconnectivity will be derived primarily from its Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. By 2032, there will be 226 stations stretching 226 kilometres around the capital.


Bangkok is full of diversity but it lacks interconnectivity. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Existing gaps between the track-based network and neighbourhoods will be sealed with renewed access routes, mostly neglected or underdeveloped in present-day Bangkok. They include alleyways, lanes and side-streets, which have great potential to accommodate pedestrians and relieve the pressure on road traffic.

On the other hand, water transport and walking routes along the Chao Phraya River and numerous canals, which once made Bangkok the Venice of the East, will also play a key role in transferring city-dwellers to different destinations.


Boats will play a key role in connecting different neighbourhoods with the Mass Rapid Transit system. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

In fact, changes are already taking place in the historic riverside neighbourhood of Kadeejeen. The old community on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River is steeped in history and boasts vibrant multiculturalism, which has blossomed over the centuries from Thai, Chinese, Portuguese and Muslim settlements.

In the late 18th century, Kadeejeen served as a crucial commercial hub and residential quarter for high-ranking officers. The area started to deteriorate when Bangkok shifted its expansion towards the east.

Under Bangkok250, Kadeejeen will undergo two renovation projects, focusing on its old piers and the existing riverside walk.

“For the riverside walk, its current design doesn’t bring into consideration the residents’ way of life, which heavily relies on the river. There are limited access points between their community and the Chao Phraya River. So Bangkok250 will reconnect them,” said Tansorn Pornpanyapat, assistant director of the UDDC.


Kuan Yin, an old Chinese shrine in Kadeejeen. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Fronting the neighbourhood, two old piers are slated for transformation in a separate project. Currently abandoned, the two facilities will serve as an information centre for bicycle and water-based tourism, which city planners hope will drive more visitors and income into the run-down Kadeejeen.

Designs have already been submitted to the City Hall and construction is expected in the near future.

NEW LIFESTYLE BY THE CANALS

Besides Bangkok250, the BMA is also working separately on its own projects. One of the highlights is the renovation of areas around the outer city moat - a formerly defensive waterway built shortly after Bangkok became the new capital on the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River in 1782.

Known as Khlong Rob Krung Canal, the old moat runs through many historic communities with potential for tourism development.


A monk crossing the Memorial Bridge over the Chao Phraya River in the inner city. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

“We plan to create a 10-metre-wide walkway along the canal, which stretches 3.5 kilometres from Sumeru Fortress to Pak Khlong Market, and provide electric boats as well as rowing boats for visitors,” said Vanchai Thanomsak, director-general of the City Planning Department.

“We’ll also clean the water in the canal, making it clear and beautiful.”

The revitalisation of the moat is expected to complete by 2019. Besides a physical change, the BMA also aims to boost the sluggish local economy with cultural tourism, which is expected to boom once the area becomes easily accessible and beautified.

“We have only completed 10 per cent of the project but we’ve already noticed more people coming to visit and use this space,” Vanchai said.

NEW CITY, NEW OPPORTUNITIES

City planners believe urban renewal will not only give Bangkok a facelift but also create new opportunities for its inhabitants by increasing the city’s competitiveness.


An old building in inner Bangkok is left in disrepair. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

“Cities around the world are competing each other with their economic competitiveness. In one day, businesspeople in Bangkok can only travel to two locations for meetings, compared to four or five locations in other cities in the world,” Pornsan said.

“This is an indicator investors use to evaluate the city’s competitiveness and potentials.”

Currently, Bangkok’s competitiveness is mainly restrained by traffic congestion. As a result, plans have been made about unused spaces between big hotels in commercial districts such as Rajprasong, Pathumwan and Watthana.

Each hotel is required to have a six-metre gap between itself and a boundary wall or fence, creating an area which is often underutilised. “So if we have these walls removed, we’ll regain free space of 12 metres between any two hotels, and we can turn it into a walkway for pedestrians,” Vanchai said.


Access points such as alleyways, lanes and side-streets will play a key role in reconnecting neighbourhoods. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

If implemented, a walkway of about 3 kilometres will emerge from unused space in Rajprasong, while more can be expected in Pathumwan, Khlong Toei and Watthana, given that there are about 500 big hotels in the area.

Bangkok's development plans are not exclusive to commercial areas but also cover medical and transport hubs such as the Victory Monument in the inner city. The BMA is considering building a network of suspended walkways around area, where about 20 medical institutes are located. If implemented, they will link medical facilities with the sky train as well as depots of public buses and vans.

“Patients from Samut Prakarn province in Greater Bangkok, for example, can come to Rajavithi Hospital within half an hour via sky train, where they’ll get picked up on the walkway and delivered to the hospital. So, the total traveling time will be about 40 minutes,” Vanchai said.


"By the time Bangkok turns 250, it should be a city of new opportunities." (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

As Bangkok strides ahead to its 250th birthday, ambitious plans have been made to design its future. Despite red tape, many believe those plans can be implemented as long as the government is sincere in its efforts to serve the public.

“If the state places the people’s best interests at heart, changes can take place,” Pornsan said.

“By the time Bangkok turns 250, it should be a city of new opportunities, with more public space anyone can use. People will be able to better live with differences, more mutual respect and growing awareness of each other’s existence.”

Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA

Source: CNA/pp