Open-air Bangkok

The concept of a shared green lawn for the public is relatively new. The first free public park in the west was Liverpool’s Birkenhead Park, which opened in 1847- an idea devised by a Liverpool Councilor who recognised the need for an open green space for the city’s increasing population¹. The public park’s role is paramount for urban dwellers that will make up 70% of the world’s population by 2050. It is the essence of democratic civil society: people of any socio-economic status, age and ethnicity can gather, participate in civic events, improve their physical and mental health, and ensure sustainable urban growth.

In Bangkok, green patches are hard to come by in typical neighbourhoods. Most parcels of land have already been taken up to prioritize car-based economic development. Concrete masses, parking lots, roads and elevated rail system (BTS) occupy a chunk of one’s view. With 3 square metres of green space per person (below Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Mumbai, but above Jakarta)², it is not surprising the locals spend their leisure time indoors and out in the streets.

Of course, one could always drive or take public transport to get to a park. Lumphini Park, Bangkok’s first public park, was granted by King Rama VI in 1925. Having been used as a Japanese military camp during the World War II and as a beauty contest venue after, the park offers an interesting historical background as well as a large pond with row boats, playgrounds and bike paths on 58 hectares of land. It is also one of few public spaces where people can gather and voice (or sing and dance) their opinions. (Note: During the 2010 political protests that killed almost 100 civilians, soldiers and journalists, political assemblies of more than 5 people were prohibited – more on politically charged public squares later.) Parks don’t need to be 58 hectares, or even 1. Bangkok could start with a network of small, accessible green patches where one can easily walk to, to sit on a bench, meet a friend, watch people, have lunch and remember what nature looks like.

¹ http://www.liverpoolparks.org/red/docs/parks/birkenhead_park/index.html
² Economist Intelligence Unit. (2011). Asian Green City Index. Munich: Siemens AG.

photo
Walking the Streets of Thailand.
Large hotel developments typically demarcate their property lines with nondescript concrete walls.
Large hotel developments typically demarcate their property lines with nondescript concrete walls.
The main road at Phloen Chit BTS station is one of the better ones, with some landscaping and continuous footpaths.
The main road at Phloen Chit BTS station is one of the better ones, with some landscaping and continuous footpaths.
Zebra crossings are rare and continuous ones are precious.
Pedestrian crossings are rare and continuous ones are precious.
A tall abandoned apartment at Saphan Taksin is now used as a billboard.
A tall abandoned apartment at Saphan Taksin is now used as a billboard.
Lumpini Park is a well-landscaped and attractive place to visit, exercise, play and relax.
Lumpini Park is a well-landscaped and attractive place to visit, exercise, play and relax.
Lumpini Park  anti-government protest.
Lumpini Park anti-government protest consists of singing and dancing.
Lumpini Park's food stalls.
Lumpini Park’s food stalls are set up for the day.
Lumpini park is one of the few public spaces in the neighbourhood.
Protesters and passersby sit down for a quick lunch.
Houses along the  Chao Phraya need an upgrade.
There is no riverwalk along the Chao Phraya river. Both sides are fully occupied with housing and hotels.
Fishing at the Chao Phraya
Fishing at the Chao Phraya- bring your own ladder.
Wat Arun
Wat Arun is one of the few remaining public spaces along the river.

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(c) 2014 Julia Suh

Urbia by Julia Suh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://juliasuh.com.
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Car-free in Suwon

Suwon City’s mayor Yeom Tae-Young has the guts. The kind required to successfully turn a neighbourhood of 4,300 people into a pedestrian zone for a month. Some 1,500 cars and motorbikes are temporarily relocated to outside of Haenggung-dong for the month of September, giving its residents and visitors an opportunity to live in a car-free environment. The construction of new shared streets, public spaces, building facades, signage and landscaping took about a year, leading up to Sep 1st opening of Suwon Ecomobility Festival. During the construction period, project implementation was often hindered by residents resisting change. Fair enough, suddenly being unable to park one’s car right outside the front door may have seemed unreasonable. Unless it could be illustrated to them that new benefits counterbalance such inconvenience: like clean air; safe environment for the vulnerable; quiet streets; more public space where one can engage with neighbours and nature; an urban environment that encourages an active healthy lifestyle; pleasant walking and cycling experience without congestion. On the first few days of the festival there is a different kind of energy in Haenggung-dong. It is not from fast moving cars, sound of growling engines and flickering traffic lights. People look happy, relaxed and they are outside. They are watching a performance, watching other people walk by, cycling, eating outdoors, sitting on a bench, talking to strangers, teaching their kids how to rollerblade, and playing badminton.

Hee is a female resident in her 70’s who has lived in the neighbourhood for over 20 years. She says she likes how she can walk around without worrying about getting hit by a car, but worries about where her son would park his car to take her to the hospital. Walking is an enjoyable but sometimes a painful exercise for her.

Ree and Tae are residents of Ingye-dong, out and about in Haenggung-dong for a night out. They walked for about 10 minutes from their home through busy roads to hang out in the car-free neighbourhood and watch free performances. They are delighted they don’t have to give up their cars, but still can enjoy all that Haenggung-dong has to offer.

Pil owns a restaurant on one of the newly pedestrianised streets. He is happy the festival has brought a lot of customers, but worries sales may go down after September.

When the festival is over, the Haenggung-dong community will have to decide how they want to live. They may decide socioeconomic, environmental and health benefits of Ecomobility experience is insufficient for them to give up their parking space. But at least, the festival is reminding Koreans there is an alternative, healthier way of living. We just need more mayors to take the lead.

Hwaseong Haenggung Palace (화성행궁)
Hwaseong Haenggung Palace (화성행궁) is the heart of Hawseong Fortress, a UNESCO listed heritage site.
Residents turn their carless street into a badminton court with a piece of rope
Residents turn their car-free street into a badminton court with a piece of rope
Children
Children roam free in the new pedestrianised zone.
Watching performance
R and T take a break from their night stroll and sit down to watch a performance.
new public space
car parks and unoccupied buildings are converted to new public spaces
facade detail
Tiles painted by Suwon community make up the building facade.
Samulnori
Hwaryeong Jeon(화령전)’s main gate provides a spacious stage for Samulnori, traditional percussion music and dance.
Watching Samulnori
Residents and visitors gather to watch Samulnori.
occupy roads
At least for the month of September, kids can walk, rollerblade and cycle in Haenggung-dong without worrying about car accidents.
eating out
Eating outside is much more pleasant without polluting, honking, noisy cars zipping by.
transportation modes
We sometimes need a reminder that car is not the only mode of mobility.
new public space
A new public space is created with recycled materials.
protests
Some protests continue during the festival.

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(c) 2014 Julia Suh

Urbia by Julia Suh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://juliasuh.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at info@juliasuh.com.

Life on the streets of Yangon

Yangon’s street scene has changed dramatically in the last two years. The government launched a new car substitution scheme in 2011 (only a few thousand cars per year used to be allowed for the population of 48 mil until then), introducing additional 100,000 cars onto existing roads. Inevitably, streets are packed with crawling, honking, polluting vehicles and very new drivers. Still, smaller streets have maintained Yangon’s way of life. A strange and beautiful mix of British colonial architecture and make-shift housing form the city grid. Within it, opportunities to participate in the city surface. Every street is lined with stores with their facades right open to receive customers. Restaurants and food stalls invite the famished to outdoor tables and chairs, with sweet smell of soups and herbs. Residential apartments, pre-schools and offices take up the upper floors providing views to the dynamic street scene below. Right in the city centre, a strong sense of community prevails, for now.

Some large new developments are taking place too. Traders Hotel is one of the few 4-5 star hotels and it takes up half a block. The building is a giant solid gated mass, with the obvious intention to block off the rest of the city. Soon enough, the little stores and stalls will be driven out, away from the new hotel developments. Following the break up of 50 years of military rule in 2011, Yangon’s new political climate and foreign investments are changing the city, fast. Cars are moving fast, buildings are going up, people are moving out. Few places remain as public spaces. Amid all the noise and pollution, pagodas are still quiet, accessible and safe places for people to gather, walk (barefoot) and relax. They are essentially a shared outdoor living room set in nature. Several potential landmarks already exist in the city centre, including Minister’s Building, where Aung San was assassinated in 1947. It is currently abandoned and fenced in but its significance is immense both architecturally and historically. The building site, along with other heritage buildings, presents opportunities to support history education and tourism.

Yangon is getting bigger, taller and more accessible. The Circle Line’s expansion plan is waiting on a green light from foreign investors. Cranes work day and night. Cars are in use day and night. Now seems to be the right time to divert the city from turning into another car-oriented one and remind the Burmese cycling is a smart idea.

Main road leading to Sule Pagoda is one of the busiest streets.
Sule Road, the main road leading to Sule Pagoda, is one of the busiest streets with heavy vehicular traffic and few pedestrian crossings.
Cars, pedestrians, stalls all mix on the street.
Cars, pedestrians, stalls all mix on the street.
Existing buildings have not been maintained well but present a lot of potential with their interesting facades and pleasant height.
Existing buildings have not been maintained well but present a lot of potential with their interesting facades and pleasant height.
Makeshift outdoor restaurants like this one is the most common option for eating out.
Makeshift outdoor restaurants like this one is the most common option for eating out.
Stores open right up to display their products.
Stores on both sides of the street open right up to display their products.
Some stores contain a living quarter at the back. Frequent flooding in the rainy season means raised ground level for the stores.
Some stores contain a living quarter at the back. Frequent flooding in the rainy season dictates the ground level.
Bus stop is where the bus stops.No bus stop signage is seen.
Bus stop is where the bus stops. No bus stop signage is seen.
It seems like any stall can occupy any corner of the street.
All kinds of food is available for purchase at every street corner.
Walk wherever you can.
The narrow North-South street width reduces the number and speed of cars.
Preparing the ground for a new urban future.
Preparing the ground for a new urban future.

Stalls sell various food products made on the spot- this one is betel nut.Stalls sell various food products made on the spot- this one is betel nut.

Organic, chaotic and dynamic streets of Yangon.
Organic, chaotic and dynamic streets of Yangon is human scale.

Creative Commons License

(c) 2014 Julia Suh

Urbia by Julia Suh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://juliasuh.com.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at info@juliasuh.com.