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.
Chiang Mai presents a unique urban future with several geographical and historical advantages: the scale of lanes and Sois (streets) is intimate and inviting, mostly lined with single to double storey buildings; shop fronts are lively with displays and outdoor seating; warm climate encourages an active street scene; the city has conserved its original boundary lines defined by 13th Century moat and city wall; flat, walkable topography of the city is surrounded by rain forests and mountains nearby; and a number of Wats provide opportunities to step away from busy streets and rest.
While above conditions provide sporadic pockets of delight, walking around the city is often unpleasant and physically difficult. Continuous sidewalks, if any, are rare and zebra crossings are almost non-existent. In fact most pedestrians in the Old City are tourists- locals simply don’t choose to walk. They say motorcycles are affordable to buy and maintain. M is a 29-year-old Burmese who moved to Chiang Mai from Kachin 5 years ago in search of work. He is one of 100,000 refugees forced to seek homes elsewhere, mainly in China and Thailand, due to the ongoing civil conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and Burmese Army. M works as a waiter in the Old City and commutes on his motorbike, a 15-min ride each way. Petrol costs about 90-100 Bahts (US$3-3.30) per week, price that he says he can afford. Some of his Burmese friends though, who earn 5,000-6,000 Bahts a month (below minimum wage) have to cycle or walk- given the lack of sidewalks, absence of bike lanes and urban sprawl, both options seem unattractive and unsafe. Buses don’t run very often or on time. Taxis and Tuk Tuks are expensive (going across the Old City costs about 100-120 Bahts). K, who manages a massage shop in the city, says kids will start riding motorbikes in high school and own one as soon as possible. It is difficult to get around without one. Three giggly teenage girls in black and white school uniform make a quick snack stop at a gas station on Kotchasan Road- all of them on motorbikes and without helmets. Yet, they may be safer driving than to walk along that road that has no sidewalk.
Chiang Mai’s biggest urban planning challenge is sorting out vehicular traffic. At present, a motorbike is the most convenient, affordable and fast mode of transport. Without one, or the ability to drive one, accessing the city is limited. The city’s development priorities should include reducing vehicular traffic and providing different transport options; supporting infill projects within the Old City; continuous and safe sidewalks and crossings; active building frontages; provision of open/green space; and using existing Wats as public space anchors. Urban life in Chiang Mai without a motorbike per adult, can be possible.