Ask Thai bureaucrats and they tell you trees a nuisance. Ask a property developer and trees are expensive and unnecessary. Ask Bangkokians about trees and they might tell you they’ve never seen one.
Clearly, trees have a tough time in the Thai capital.
But times are changing, and a host of civic and environmental groups are teaching the old Thai dogs of government and industry new tricks, giving hope for making Bangkok a greener city.
There’s a lot of truth to the “Big Yellow Taxi” lyric that Bangkok “paved over paradise and put up a parking lot”, although that lot probably goes with a shopping mall or hotel. The city has one of the lowest per capita ratios of public green space in Asia – seven square meters for each resident.
The World Health Organization says at least nine sq. meters a head are needed to keep urbanites healthy and sane. Singapore, by comparison, has 66 sq. meters of greenspace for each resident.
Parks are desperate few, with privately-owned Chuwit Park at Sukhumvit Soi 10 – the only patch of green in the business and tourist entertainment district – finally closed to make way for yet another high-rise (after a short stint hosting the trendy Artbox night market).
The lack of parkland leaves people scratching the heads given the large amount of unused property held by the government, transport operators, utility companies and the military, which treat the property as their own, only giving it up for mall and hotel developers.
We Park, a civic organization led by landscape architect Yossapon Boonsom, is working to change that. One of four stakeholders in the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration’s new “Green Bangkok 2030” initiative, We Park has one mission: Get government enterprises to cough up their land, convince companies to fund new parks and invite the public to help design them.
Yossapon estimated Bangkok has about 42 sq. kilometers of abandoned land and buildings, some dating back to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. By comparison, Bangkok has only 40 sq. kilometers of public greenspace.
Currently, We Park is working with the BMA on six pilot projects, including green canal footpaths and connectors between parks, and lush cycling tracks under highways.
An example of another such project – although not We Park’s work – is the recently opened Sky Park, a 280-meter-long, 8.5-meter-wide gardened walkway built atop an abandoned BTS Skytrain track crossing the Chao Phraya River.
Sky Park came about through the Green Bangkok 2030 initiative launched by Bangkok Gov. Asawin Kwanmuang to increase green space to 10 sq. meters a resident within 11 years.
Co-sponsored by We Park, environmentalist group Big Trees and state oil enterprise PTT, Green Bangkok envisions 11 new parks in its first phase. Three of those are planned to open this year, followed by an eco-park incorporating mangroves in 2021 and, later, a 15-kilometer-lng sidewalk greenway connecting mass transit stations along major roads. Phase two targets another 11 sites.
Central to any park, of course, are trees. But growing them in Bangkok has never been easy. City hall seems to view them as a nuisance, and hacks away branches so they don’t fall on people and cause liability problems. Developers, meanwhile, would rather pave their land than plant trees that are notoriously expensive to keep up in a city with few qualified arborists.
Coming to their rescue is the Urban Tree Network, a coalition of more than 60 nongovernmental organizations, universities, public agencies and private companies. It’s also the organization behind the Big Trees Project, a social-enterprise that trains arborists, assists tree owners and holds public events that build tree care skills.
Established in 2010, it has almost 155,000 followers on Facebook and has made trees a cause célèbre in Thailand.
The project so stoked outrage among social media users about the BMA’s vicious pruning of trees along Wireless Road that city hall recently agreed to talks with activists, experts and big landowners to develop the city’s first regulations on tree care.
But Big Trees does more than ferment anger. It has spent 10 years educating, sharing knowledge, connecting sponsors, publicly applauding progress and giving credit where credit is due.
Some city hall officials admit they’ve wanted to expand green spaces for decades, but have been hamstringed by insufficient funding, minimal staffing and outdated regulations.
State enterprises also are joining in with the Stock Exchange of Thailand this week launching a mobile-phone app that lets anyone, anywhere “plant” a tree in Thailand for just 200 baht.
“Today it’s getting better,” Pajariya Mahakanjana, the BMA’s chief architect said in a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. “Climate change, air pollution and the Covid-19 pandemic are helping people understand the importance of trees.”