She hesitates before she speaks, as if scanning the room for microphones and spies. She holds an important position at the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) and is close to Governor ML Sukhumband. After a long silence, she whispers, “Most of us at the BMA don’t like this riverside project. But I don’t think we can really go against political will.”
Like many locals and visitors, curiosity led her to a special exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Computer-enhanced images shared a glimpse of one of Bangkok’s most ambitious projects to date: the development of a 14-kilometre river walk along the Chao Phraya— seven kilometres on each side—between the Phra Pinklao and Rama VII Bridges. Re-launched in 2015 by the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, the project now appeared in the public forum, allowing viewers to leave their opinions on post-it notes. They were unanimously negative. “Who stands behind the project: the people or the government?” read one. “I want to see a future for my river” read another.
Viewed from the outside, the idea of offering space along the river earmarked for pedestrians and cyclists only seems a rather positive development. So why has there been so much hostility toward it?
This project is not a novel idea. Over the last two decades, politicians have sketched numerous plans for implementing a promenade along the history-rich river, but they have run into roadblocks every time. One of the issues bogging down the process is that land owners have felt reluctant to give up a parcel of their properties for a public walkway. And now the exclusion of local communities in the planning and discussion of the riverside development has fomented anger and distrust.
“We must understand that the project is complete nonsense as it is conceived,” says Yossapon Boonsom, a landscape architect and Director of Shma Designs. “In reality, this project is just recycled from an older one that was being developed by the Chuan Leekpai government 25 years ago. In the 1990s, the government had envisioned building a highway along the river. This is exactly the same project, just restricted to pedestrians and cyclists.”
The draft of the project shows a walkway erected on concrete pylons that rise from the river waters. This elevated path has a width of 19.5 metres and a height of 3.25 metres and it is surrounded by barriers, impeding the view of the river from houses and historical buildings. Computer-generated images more or less confirm that communities along the river really would be living beneath a highway.
“We are not against the idea of having a walkway, but the planning needs to involve the local communities,” says Boonsom. “I also wonder why there isn’t an open contest in which the best architects in the world are invited to present their own plans for a riverside promenade.”
Boonsom also fears the height of the walkway would combine with the elevation of the riverbanks and the sunken concrete pylons to exacerbate the fragile river ecosystem. “We forecast a change in the flow of the water. It would run more quickly and generate more frequent flooding,” says the young architect.
The Chao Phraya riverfront has fast become a coveted location among Bangkok’s real estate developers. Neglected for decades as the city progressively concentrated its trade activity along newly developed highways, the lifeblood of Bangkok only recently came back into favour. Giant shopping malls, condos, and new hotels are now being built, certain to re-shape the landscape in the next five years. The walkway could mark a nail in the coffin of the historical riverfront as visitors and locals know it today.
In an effort to save the river from its uncertain fate, Boonsom created the “Friends of the River” association, whose aim is to revise the project by including Chao Phraya communities in future discussions. Friends of the River has raised awareness among local groups, getting the public to participate in the design of the walkway and calling for proper environmental impact studies as well as the opening of future projects to international architects.
“We’ve taken inspiration from riverfront re-developments done in Europe and Australia,” says Boonsom, while adding a word of regret for the absence of urban planning in Bangkok. “Only private commercial interests seem to be considered. And these are rarely compatible with aesthetics, environmental protection, or the respect for the local communities.”
Still, hope for a brighter future exists. Despite having pressured the BMA in the past to start as quickly as possible, the government finally agreed to be more transparent and ask locals for their opinions. A study of the walkway’s environmental impact has been launched. Urban planners have looked at developing alternatives to integrate the walkway into the landscape, creating green spaces, gardens, and terraces that respect historical structures. Will Friends of the River succeed in its quest? While the odds may have once looked stacked against them, like David against the Goliath, these small steps suggest compromise in the future. As hopelessly romantic as it may sound, perhaps, for once, everyone can win.