Bangkok’s about to open the first piece of a billion-baht ‘canal park.’ Is it worth it?

Workers rush to complete the Chong Nonsi Canal Park in time for Saturday’s opening. Photo: Chayanit Itthipongmaetee
Workers rush to complete the Chong Nonsi Canal Park in time for Saturday’s opening. Photo: Chayanit Itthipongmaetee

What could be better than transforming a blighted Bangkok waterway into a verdant park where people and nature reconnect? Not putting it in a canal of putrid water surrounded by an obnoxious roadway where no one can reach it, says a respected eco evangelist.

In a city where residents and frustrated city planners clamor for more green space, it may come as a surprise that plans to rehabilitate a smelly canal cutting from the financial district to the river are opposed by some of the same progressive voices who want everything more livable.

“I don’t think it’s good for Bangkok,” said Niramon Serisakul, director of the Urban Design and Development Center of City Hall’s rush to remake the Chong Nonsi Canal. What the city fathers promote as an ecologically sound waterway restoration, she dismisses as poorly planned “greenwashing.”

Niramon knows a few things about savvy urbanism. A year ago, she won plaudits far and wide for converting a Chao Phraya River bridge into a park. While she partnered with the city on that, she’s now a dissenting voice to its latest green ambition. She says people just won’t be able to reach or enjoy the canal park, which doesn’t further sustainability goals and comes at a great cost. 

In fact, she believes that once the first 200-meter phase is complete along Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Road, running southeast of Sathorn Road, its flaws will doom the rest of the project. Strong words for someone characteristically optimistic about Bangkok’s park potential.

“I don’t think this canal can increase the livability of even the people who live around it,” she said. “Nobody will go and use it, I forecast. A few people will go at the beginning to take a picture.”

This has put her at odds with an erstwhile ally, another woman closely associated with woke urban development: landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom, whose resume includes Centenary Park, a university rooftop farm in the northern metro area, and a U.N. award for climate action.

Kotchakorn believes the project represents a turning point in how Bangkok’s foundational waterways are managed by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, or BMA, which has famously neglected or tried to force bad ideas on them, like the time it backed plans to concrete both banks of the Chao Phraya River for boardwalks that would have looked at home in, say, Pyongyang.

She says the work being done now is huge step forward.

“I just feel this is such an exciting moment. Have you ever seen construction quality from the BMA like this?” she said of the first phase, which the city has rushed to complete by Saturday as a promised Christmas “gift” to the public which paid for it.

Pedestrians look at extensive marketing materials promoting the Chong Nonsi Canal Park atop the Chong Nonsi Skywalk. Photo: Chayanit Itthipongmaetee

Both she and Niramon chalk up some of the dispute to politics – the first gubernatorial election in nine years is right around the corner and the junta-appointed governor is expected to make it a centerpiece of his campaign. 

Venice of the East

But where Niramon sees fatal flaws, Kotchakorn sees promise, a down payment on long-term plans that will revitalize the canals for which Bangkok was once famous before they were paved over for automobiles.

“[If] you’re only using canals for sewage, this is a big loss,” she said. “What is the nature of Bangkok? It’s a city of canals, it’s a city of water.”

She said that she got involved after watching the city’s missteps in waterway restoration.

After wrinkling her nose at what it recently did to Khlong Ong Ang – the kind of poured-concrete “beautification” only a military mind can love – she went to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration with a simple message:

“If you’re going to do this, your canal’s going to smell, it’s not going to work, no one is going to come.” She volunteered her services; that was about a year and a half ago.

The park project is ultimately planned to run all 4.5 kilometers of canal sandwiched by Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Road, from Surawong Road to the river. The whole thing is expected to cost taxpayers just shy of a billion baht, or THB980 million (US$29 million).

In the final days left to finish, workers were seen pouring concrete and installing plants along the boardwalk of overlapping arches over the canal. 

Since it was announced, City Hall and project supporters have likened it to the Holy Grail of New Urbanism: Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon Stream Project, a favorite example of “daylighting” paved-over waterways since it was completed 15 years ago. 

Niramon says that comparison is feel-good baloney. She says it has no redeeming ecological qualities and couldn’t be in a worse location.

While she may be the loudest, she isn’t the only one criticizing the project.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, a famed student activist and rights campaigner who has championed small community causes, told Coconuts Bangkok that he agrees the project amounts to “greenwashing.”

 

Rendering of the future park. Image: BMA

He believes the whole hurried process has been suspect – as have the the people driving it – particularly in the run-up to electing a new governor.

“The information about the project is unclear, and they accelerated it in such a short time. I want the city to be better, but not with just ‘window dressing’ like this,” said Netiwit, who is Chulalongkorn University student president.

He would like the city to “rethink” and “review” the project, obtain more public input – or call the whole thing off.

This past week, Niramon and her team were joined by opposition lawmakers in grilling City Hall reps about their plans. One key person was missing: Bangkok Gov. Aswin Kwanmuang, a former police general handed his job by the junta five years ago after it fired the elected governor. 

It doesn’t help the smell test that Aswin has deployed City Hall spokesperson Pongsakorn Kwanmuang, who just happens to be his son, as project cheerleader. But then again, nepotism and princeling-grooming are widely seen as indicators of healthy family dynasties.

At the meeting, they sparred over key questions about the canal project’s viability, from the quality of its water and impact on the community, to how people will enter it.

Foul and fetid

Lawmaker Surachet Pravinvongvuth of the opposition Move Forward Party, who has criticized the project, questioned its practicality.

“The project is built in the middle of the canal, how do you control the water quality?” Surachet said. “According to the plan, it says they will use natural plants for treatment. So my question is how many plants need to be planted to be able to treat this wastewater?”

What’s under construction right now does not answer these questions. It is primarily aesthetic instead of ecological, with landscaping designed for human enjoyment rather than water recovery.

Kotchakorn said the importance of beauty isn’t to be dismissed. 

“As a landscape architect, it has to be beautiful for people to feel it’s a place for them,” she said. “It’s got to look better than what it was. City beautification is a must.”

But getting hung up on that and other specific issues misses the point, Niramon said, noting that the 200 meters opening Saturday amount to less than 5% of the canal project area, which has ample space for future eco considerations.

A cross section of the road, canal and planned parkway. Image: Landprocess

Bangkok’s canals today are glorified neighborhood sewage pipes that also retain water to mitigate seasonal flooding. And the water in Khlong Chong Nonsi is really nasty. “Sludge” would be more accurate. 

A park built around it would require a constant flow of clean water that will disrupt the canal’s current function – and come with an exorbitant cost, Niramon said. While the city likes to compare its project to that in Seoul, she notes that it leaves out the hundreds of millions (dollars) spent annually there for water treatment.

Somsak Meeudomsak, director of BMA’s Drainage and Sewerage Department, said the project includes waste stabilization ponds on both sides of the road to prevent wastewater from pouring into the canal.

As for the quality of the water flowing through it, Kotchakorn said it is being “flushed” with water from the Chao Phraya River to soften the stink; but ultimately, covered pipes must be laid to move the sewage water in parallel through a process called pipe-jacking. 

The problem is that those plans are not part of the current project and will require additional funding. 

“We’re hoping at the end it will be like that,” she said.

And that’s a theme here. While project boosters say the criticism is premature – just wait and see – its detractors say that’s because they don’t have answers.

Netiwit worries that approach – build first and solve later – will lead to snowballing costs.

“When it comes to this project, which aims to improve the landscape, is there any effective way to deal with the existing problems? Is it actually convenient for the visitors, and how will it affect traffic in the area?” he said. “Are you sure that you won’t have to find solutions after problems have already happened, and that’s then just an excuse for needing a bigger budget?”

Surachet demanded City Hall report back with responses to the unanswered questions by this Thursday.

Out of reach?

Another topic raised at a previous Dec. 13 meeting, which lasted three hours, was how people will reach the park. 

Anyone who has crossed Naradhiwas on foot knows that, with few exceptions, it requires a climb. Between Silom and Sathorn roads, that means hiking up to BTS Chong Nonsi, which infamously requires wheelchair users survive three lanes of balls-to-the-wall traffic to reach a lift.

The canal runs down the middle of Naradhiwas Najagharindra Road, with three lanes of traffic on both sides including the dedicated BRT bus lane. Photo: Chayanit Itthipongmaetee

From Sathorn to the river, it means using one of few pedestrian bridges, some of which service the dedicated BRT bus lane – and none of which is accessible for people with disabilities.

“Why build a park in middle of the road, where air pollution is very bad?” Niramon said. “By the principals of park design, you must find the best location you can.”

Prapas Luangsiri, city director of transport and traffic, said that 12 future entrances will be designated – half of which will be zebra crossings with traffic lights.

There is no wheelchair access to the BRT station by which visitors will access the park. Accessibility is something City Hall has fought in court and dragged its feet on implementing.

Kotchakorn said that between the BRT stations – the first stretch opening Saturday is accessible by stairs and escalator from the Chong Nonsi Skywalk –  and other points of entry, there will be more than adequate access.

And she has no time for complaints about air pollution in a city where every bit of green is an improvement.

“I personally get very angry with this question,” she said. “Air pollution is everywhere. If it’s a bad thing, why don’t you want to make it better?”

Community impact

Netiwit said that while Bangkok is trying to compare itself to Seoul, it ignores that city spent over two years holding nearly 4,000 meetings with residents to gain their input. The Khlong Chong Nonsi project, he said, was rushed over a period of months without community input.

Jiradet Karunkrittakul, deputy director of public works, blamed the pandemic but said a “sample” of stakeholders had been involved.

Photo: Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal / Courtesy

“When the project is open, we will be able to see how we can improve it. We try to use the available potential because we are still concerned about the traffic,” Jiradet said. “We will study this matter carefully.”

Hundreds of shops and office buildings line the canal, and nearly 300,000 vehicles pass through daily. Niramon, who lives in the area, estimates that a third of a million people will be affected by a project most know little about.

She thinks there are communities in much greater need than the Sathorn-Silom area, one of the capital’s toniest areas. 

Could the city get more bang for its baht in Ramkhamhaeng, Ram Inthra, or Bang Bong?

A central location in a dense area gives the best value for taxpayer money, Kotchakorn said.

“When you want to revitalize the city, you have to come to the core of the city. All the foreign tourists, and even Thais ourselves, we use this area very intensively, and … this is also [one of] the most dense areas,” she said.

Monorail fever

Finally, critics worry that City Hall’s schizophrenic approach to projects – and impulse to chase the latest shiny objects – will spell the doom of its own project.

It plans to build a genuine bona-fide electrified monorail (“Grey Line,” for those keeping track) over the same road the canal park is now underway.

Niramon said people should look at how every other elevated Bangkok rail project has turned roadways into post-apocalyptic wastelands during construction and worry what that portends for the canal park.

Those concerns are unfounded, the roadway is very wide and the city can work around the parkway.

“You’ve got plenty of areas to work, you don’t need to rip out my green,” she said.

Ultimately, while the policy dispute has pitted the two against each other – and Kotchakorn is clearly stung by the onslaught of critical coverage – she says that she admires how Niramon has brought the issue to public awareness – even if she thinks it’s a “disgraceful gesture” that she violated professional taboo against criticizing others’ work.

“We were buddies and allies, and I worked my ass off with both her and the BMA,” she said. 

And she isn’t without her own concerns. The things that are out of her control. Namely, City Hall’s tendency to turn its back on completed projects at the expense of ongoing maintenance. 

Bangkok is filled with lush projects that, after the ribbons were cut and photos taken, wilted and died.

It’s just been over two decades that Khlong Chong Nonsi came to look as it does now.

In 1999, City Hall was racing to complete Bangkok’s first Skytrain lines in time for late King Bhumibol’s birthday on Dec. 5. For the stretch that bends along Naradhiwas, a British engineering concern renovated the canal, encasing it in the concrete berms that, combined with some half-hearted foliage, serve to keep it somewhat out of view – and away from passing noses.

And if history is any guide, building a park has no long-term guarantees. A short walk from BTS Chong Nonsi, at the canal’s endpoint between Silom and Surawong roads, a park and recreation area was opened back in ‘99. The one with the brawling children statues, windmill and wannabe Louvre entrance. 

Today it’s avoided by all but the most urgent pedestrians, or the occasional shirtless uncle working out atop its athletic space. 

The city is expected to cut the ribbon Saturday on the first phase of the new park.

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