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Bangkok Thailand is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, elegant shopping centers, spectacular temples and picturesque neighborhoods surrounded by vast urban areas teeming with those who have left somewhere else in hope of somehow securing a better life. Many of these migrants huddle in informal settlements of often self-built shelters, mired in poverty at times as great as that they have left behind. But, they have two things going for them. One as old as ever in the hearts of most immigrants, hope. The other just as old but requiring renewal wherever the poor and destitute gather, the urge to build a new sense of community where they now choose to live. Few things focus a community’s sense of itself better than its public spaces. In Bangkok today several communities of poverty-stricken migrants, aided by governmental and private organizations, have begun to coalesce around improvements to their public spaces.

Bangkok is a riverine city located on at the center of a vast floodplain. It became Thailand’s capital 300 years ago because its rivers and streams, marshes and wetlands appeared to afford superior defensive capability and better trade and commerce opportunities than the nations prior capital located a few hundred kilometers to the north that had been destroyed by the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Thais a few years before.

The internal combustion economy prompted the filling in of many of the canals, wetlands and minor streams to accommodate the motor cars and the industries dependent upon them. Except for the extensive industrial port complexes and a few luxury hotels, the city turned its back on its rivers and few remaining canals leaving them as little more than refuse strewn sewers.

Migrants and Informal Communities proliferate.

As Bangkok grew into one of the worlds great megalopolis of over 13 million people crowding into the flood plain along the banks of the Chao Phraya river, a new type of invasion inundated the city. At first people from the rural areas of the country, then the poor of Burma, Laos and Cambodia flooded into the city looking to better their lives and to bask in the excitement and bright lights of the metropolis.

Many of these migrants pressed themselves into large informal settlements along the now mostly forgotten riversides and canals, living in often makeshift housing in extensive slums with poetic sounding names like Klong Toei, Bang Bua Klong, Managkasila and Soi Sengki. In 1997, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Area was smaller than it is today, an estimated over 300 informal settlements existed, housing more than one and a quarter million people (Pacific Consultants International Suuri-Keikaku Co.Ltd., 1997).

With the emergence of the middle class and the exponential growth of international tourism during the past few decades, attention focussed again on these forgotten waterways as underperforming resources. Slum clearance along their banks commenced as both public and private interests sought to realize their long forgotten benefits. Some of these informal communities resisted and with the assistance of both public and non-profit organizations such as Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), Baan Mankong, The Durang Prateep Foundation, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and many others began to fight back.

Closed environments of the dispossessed.

In Bangkok, like in many other cities, there were primary issues of fundamental importance to the poor communities, such as land tenure, adequate housing, health care and public space. (not jobs so much, the migrants were there because the job opportunities were better here than where they came from. The job issue in Bangkok is one of quality not quantity).

Why is public space, about which this post focusses so important? Because public space is not just parks and open space but includes streets, sidewalks and many other means by which residents interact with each other and the outside world. It affects community and individual health as well as their prosperity. One of the hallmarks of the traditional slums is that they are so often the closed environments of the dispossessed.

Bang Bua Throng: grasping for identity and pride.

The citizens of Bang Bua Throng, a mostly migrant community, located on the northern fringes of the Bangkok metropolitan area recognized that restoring access to and along the waterfront for the entire community could increase distribution of economic benefits to community members. It also would help to focus community identity and pride.

The Bang Bua Throng neighborhood contains about 3.400 families crowded up against the Bang Bua canal. The community, mostly on its own, formed an informal network called ‘Klong Bang-bua Environmental Improvement Network’ in 1999 that organized activities supporting the improvement of the canal and environment. They began earning money by selling recycled wastes collected from within the community. They then pooled the money to embark of community enhancement programs like, fire training for the locals. The Network also negotiated with the land owner (Treasury Department) and related agencies in support of their efforts to securing land tenure for the residents. This activism had its effect. Others took notice.

After addressing the endemic land tenure and housing issues, the community through bottom up planning and with the CODI and the Baan Mankong program’s assistance contributed to the design of a walk-way along the length of the canal. Unlike many waterfront designs, this was not simply an aesthetic venture providing a venue from which to contemplate the beauties of the adjacent canal, but a working access-way. Designed with the needs of the community in mind, it was wide enough for the movement of necessity vehicles but narrow enough to discourage it from being used as a substitute for the adjacent street. It was open for those in the community to use and enjoy as well as the residents of the city at large. It became a focal point of community pride.

Following the implementation or these programs in the community, Kuhn Prapaat a community leader remarked:

“We were a real slum before! There were drugs for sale, and lots of outside organizations did their drugs trading here. There were kids sniffing glue and paint thinner.” “ Back then, a lot of the houses were built on stilts right over the canal, and when one of these houses would collapse – which happened a lot – we would say, that is your problem, not mine!” (Slum Regeneration Bang Bua Bangkok. Veruan Blake)

Some criticism has been leveled that these initiatives like the new walk-way could encourage gentrification, as though preservation of what previously existed had some overarching merit. Gentrification is negative generally only when the existing residents fail to participate in its benefits or if it occurs with such rapidity residents cannot prepare and adapt to it.

Thonglor: ingenuity rewarded.

Other informal communities in the city also recognize the importance of public space to their revitalization. Adjacent to the Thonglor Police Station there are 43 households squatting on a piece of unclaimed land between two property walls only a few meters wide. Cleverly designed homes lean on existing infrastructure and achieve extremely high densities while also providing adequate ventilation for the residents. Narrow walkways outside of the homes have become extensions of interior space and facilitate commercial activity throughout the community. The residents exhibited additional signs of ingenuity by collectively making improvements to the public spaces with salvaged construction material. Again, their efforts have been noticed.

Plans are being made in conjunction with the International Program in Architecture and Design (INDA) of Chulalongkorn University to expand the community’s public space to create a flexible gathering space for the community to use throughout the day and provide a clear entry point to this otherwise obscured community. This space could also accommodate after-school activities for children as well seating for community meetings to further enhance their lives.

A community’s pride in its public spaces equates to its pride in itself.

Providing public spaces are not often seen by the members or a community or even outside observers as important to the improvement in the lives of low-income residents. They are sometimes looked upon as extravagances. What these two examples demonstrate is that a communities pride in its public spaces often equates to its pride in itself. Without that pride the alienation generated by poverty is not relieved. Those most successful lacking any attachment will then often leave the community and further impoverish it.

To enhance that sense of pride and identity design of public spaces should begin by building into the design the needs and wishes of the nearby community. Investment in public space should benefit the existing community directly. Public spaces should be designed to be open to all, the surrounding neighborhood as well as the larger urban area.

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Today's Quotes:

Why would anyone be morally bound or wish to be morally bound to a civil society that does not share the goal that it’s citizens deserve a fair distribution of wealth, income and power? If the civil society is not dedicated to that end what else could it possibly be dedicated to? What is freedom, to those without wealth, income or power?
Trenz Pruca
The last refuge of scoundrels is not patriotism but the claim that no one could see it coming.
Most wealthy individuals are scoundrels, only very few admit it and they usually are already in jail.

Trenz Pruca

Originally posted to Trenz Pruca on Thu Sep 05, 2013 at 08:28 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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