“What is surprising everyone—including me—is the momentum,” says David Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners (BRP). “That’s also our biggest challenge. There’s a long way left to go, so we have to keep the hype under control.”
The even-keeled Robinson is referring to the incredible volume of attention he and his partners have earned in their efforts to promote and, more importantly, support the riverside in its current and future development. The group has just embarked on a ten-year project. At hand is the task of keeping the river clean, supporting the growth of a creative scene, kick-starting events to attract local crowds, and ensuring that the centuries-old communities retain their heart and heritage as the region transforms into one of the city’s greatest assets. “Not a job for the faint-hearted,” he says.
Despite the scope of the project, the BRP has acted with aplomb since Robinson joined in January. The group has launched river clean-up projects, food fairs, and cultural events, like the recent Big Fish, a world music festival held across ten nights at eight hotels: Anantara Bangkok Riverside, Chatrium Hotel Riverside, the Millennium Hilton, Royal Orchid Sheraton, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, The Peninsula Bangkok, Shangri-La Hotel, and Ramada Plaza Bangkok Menam Riverside—the same eight that partnered three years ago to lasso local attention and steer it back to the Chao Phraya. BEC TERO and the TAT have helped spread the word through their channels, as well.
“It’s a community movement,” explains Robinson, whose diverse background in media, NGO work, and environmentalism makes him uniquely qualified to lead the charge of marketing the sustainable development of the riverside. “There can be great opportunities in finding an old shophouse and turning it into a restaurant, or turning a warehouse into a cinema, [but] we have to understand what the community wants. After we hold committee meetings, we go back to them to get feedback.”
As the luxury of space dwindles in the city, attention has again turned to the river, where property developers ogle rows of shophouses and patches of green space with dreams of high-rises and shopping centres. At risk are some of the city’s oldest communities. Not to mention heritage buildings lying vacant or in states of disrepair, nevertheless graced by the passage of time.
“The oldest cinema in Bangkok, the Prince, is here on Charoen Krung. There’s a congee shop that’s over 100-years-old,” says Robinson of the history of the area. “Development is going to happen. We need to have dialogue to make sure it doesn’t happen everywhere, and that it’s done right.”
To that end, the BRP has held numerous workshops and discussions designed to exchange ideas and knowledge. One of its most successful saw Joshua David—the man who spearheaded the movement to re-purpose the decaying New York City Highline into what is now highly valued green space—visit Bangkok to discuss urban planning. Dozens of key figures, including members of the Bangkok Metropolitan Association (BMA), attended the talks, which, according to Robinson, urged decision-makers to wonder what lessons could be learned from similar projects initiated around the world.
Crucial to these events—and the movement on the whole—have been members of the riverside art community, such as Duangrit Bunnag of The Jam Factory and Thomas Menard of Soy Sauce Factory. In fact, art ranks high among the BRP’s tracks of focus, which also include urban planning, property, and food. Empowered by existing venues, including the galleries at OP Garden, and the future arrival of the Thailand Creative & Design Center (TCDC) to the riverside, the BRP and its steering committee developed the Bangrak Klongsan Creative District. In January, it will play host to the second edition of Buk Ruk, a popular street art party that will this time include concerts on top of live installations.
“For a country that’s moved from agriculture to industry to design and innovation, the Creative District will be very important,” says Robinson, noting that another objective is to create accommodation for the creative industry—offices, apartments, space for architects and designers.
Whether achieved through arts or activities, the end goal remains re-directing the flow of locals to the Chao Phraya, historically the lifeblood of Bangkok. “Even business travellers want authentic experiences, the kind they can’t have anywhere else. You want to go where the locals go. The movement will be made through locals,” explains Robinson.
“In the future, I see the city moving past shopping centres. People will crave authenticity. As long as that 160-year-old chicken rice shop is there, as long as you can visit House No. 1 Bush Lane [a heritage site], you’ll come back to the river,” says the congenial director of Bangkok River Partners, pausing, as if to judge the weight of his next words. “I hold out hope for that.”