The "Art of Walking" in Chiangmai ….

 | Thu 18 Jul 2013 14:14 ICT

Let me start by saying that the following composition is not a complaint or condemnation of sidewalks in Chiangmai, my new home, but rather some observations of a particular existing condition(s) that one encounters as a pedestrian. Let me be clear, I love Chiangmai and oddly enough, what I have observed is part of what leads to the charm of the City for me personally. I have merely written this in hopes that perhaps one day the City will at some point pay more attention to improving the pedestrian experience to the degree possible and as deemed feasible as it has to the vehicular traffic concerns.

First, a brief personal background. I’m a retired landscape architect who has recently moved to Chiangmai for retirement. I practiced landscape architecture for a little over 40 years in the United States, primarily in the Buffalo, New York area. Part of my practice involved design of streetscapes … providing design improvements to pavement treatments, adding trees, site furniture, etc. to the area between the street curb and property line or face of building. As a landscape architect, we are charged with designing an environment that looks out for the health, safety and welfare of the user of the space being designed. Further, as part of the design process, I had to adhere to numerous, sometimes onerous, codes and regulations, as stipulated by both state and federal laws. I’ve been here for 4 months now, and so far I have not purchased a motorbike or car so I find myself walking just about everywhere I go, up to at times 2-3 mile distances. Consequently, I have found, by comparison to my western experience, that walking here takes on a certain “art form”. One encounters horizontal and vertical obstacles in the form of pavement cracks, various curb heights, low hanging wires/tree branches, canopy supports, sinking manhole covers to the storm/sanitary sewer below (not to mention at times exposure to certain unpleasant odors), utility poles, permanent and temporary signage, moving and parked motorbikes, tables and chairs, tree stumps, dog poop, and of course, other pedestrians who are also gingerly negotiating the sidewalk. So walking involves the frequent head bobbing, weaving and ducking, frequently looking down and then up and then down again, and some fancy footwork negotiating whatever the pavement condition offers in the way of a challenge with every step taken.

I am under no disillusionment that perhaps the average Thai person is most likely blithely unaware of these impediments or is much bothered by them for that matter, in that as I suspect, its part of their inherited culture. Plus, it seems that they don’t walk as much. Like the Americans and their great love affair with the automobile, the Thais have a “thing” for motorbikes. It’s used for everything imaginable … conveyance for one, two or three people, carrying fruits and vegetables stacked high to or from the market, etc. and for the most part, ridden without a helmet.

And the word “culture” is perhaps one of the reasons why sidewalk conditions are as they are at the moment. The “mai pen rai” (no worries) culture is rudimentary here. It’s widely known that Thai people are, for the most part, non-confrontational. Consequently, why would anyone complain about sidewalk conditions. They are what they are, just deal with it, accept it and keep on moving. The absence of “curb cuts” to facilitate wheelchair traffic? … again, one needs to look at the culture here. My observations have led me to believe, at least so far,  that I don’t see people in wheelchairs on the street by themselves hardly at all because perhaps there’s not a lot of wheelchairs available to those who need them to begin with and that the strong family culture here provides the support the elderly and/or those in need of assistance need as a matter of course. This is very evident by what I have observed on my visits to the hospital. I have yet to see an older Thai patient there by themselves … especially an elderly person. 

Finally, the other cultural aspect that comes to mind is the age of the city. Chiangmai was built in the year 1296 under the guidance of King Mengrai. That is a full 480 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. With the exception of St. Augustine, Florida (noted as the oldest city in America, 1565), most cities on the east coast weren’t established until the early 1600’s. On the west coast, the oldest cities are barely 300 years old. Like many of these older American cities, there are many narrow roads or lanes (Soi) here and many of them have no sidewalks at all due to the narrowness of the road/lane right-of-way. Many of the Soi seem hardly wide enough for one-way traffic much less two-way traffic plus motorbikes and pedestrians!

So with these thoughts in mind, I offer the following with the hopes that perhaps in key areas of the city that some pilot projects might be undertaken to improve, at least in part, the sidewalk conditions, being ever mindful of the cultural aspects as well. 
Narrow width, lots of vertical elements & note the ground surface.I assume the square at the bottom of the photo is where a tree used to be … it seems a common practice to use the “Z” precast concrete unit paver to fill in the holes rather then try to match the existing surface condition (in this case tiles over concrete).Ok, this in my opinion is a good streets cape  … at least it is clean, no impediments, trees outside walking area , two people can easily/safely walk side-by-side. Not always possible but here they made it happen as part of the adjacent building improvements (The Chedi Hotel). The reason for the drainage channels is obvious but couldn’t they be covered with a grate
Imagine this at night time … as one can see, further up, the pedestrian is forced out into the street as part of the walking experience. 
Lack of regulation? Aside from the typical surface & vertical issues, why is parking on the walkway allowed? Another example of parking being allowed on what should be “public” access … notice the low hanging sign above.For some people, particularly elderly, this curb height might be non-negotiable! Starts at 7″ & graduates to about 18″. Option: walk into on-coming traffic?Store vendor encroaches upon streetscape as many vendors do … some all the way to the curb.Clearly a mess here … no option but to negotiate on-coming traffic or cross to walk on the other side of the street if not looking for something on this side.South side of Old City … Aside from the ponding water, which I assume only gets worse during the “rainy” season, the streetscape is cut off entirely by street vendors directly ahead … again, negotiate traffic or cross the street are the options. It seems to me that there is an option to allow for the transitioning of pedestrians into the street vendor space … a win-win for everyone I would think.I personally love the walk around the Moat but oddly I see very few people on this side of the street during the day but in the evenings it is much more actively used.The antiquity factor comes into play quite often especially in the Old City where old structures are in place and impact the flow of traffic, both vehicular & pedestrian. The Moat walkway is behind me and lies ahead of me in this photo, but the transition is relegated to a narrow 1′ wide path … the other side of the street has no walkway at all, leaving pedestrians (and dogs alike) to negotiate vehicular traffic.
Of course, crossing the street takes on a level of “gamesmanship” that is similar to the old video game, Leapfrog. And of course, the pedestrian does not have the right-of-way, ever! Even the hatched area in the center of the photo, typically regarded as the “safe haven”, isn’t safe since it is used often by both cars & motorbikes to vie for position into the traffic flow ahead.
So there are certainly many more instances I could have highlighted, but I think one gets the point. I would suggest that certain improvements could be made that would not take away from the charm of the City but would certainly make the City more easily traversed particularly for an ageing population. While it is obvious that much more study needs to be done to ascertain why conditions are what they are in any given particular area, I would offer that a study could be done to consider at least the following;

  • Construction of curb cuts with appropriate ramps and side slopes where possible.
  • Removal of trees and/or planters, tree stumps, abandoned elements that serve no useful purpose in areas where the walkway is already too narrow.
  • Reconstruct pavements to create flush conditions (no “toe-stubbers”).
  • Look at regulations regarding temporary/permanent signage especially in areas where access is limited.
  • Look at regulations regarding parking of motorized vehicles on walkways, again especially where access is limited.
  • Creation of “streetscape standards” to be followed when new building construction or reconstruction occurs to foster improvements such as those made at the Chedi or River Market.
  • Look to add street furniture such as benches and trash receptacles in open areas where walkway width is wider & can accommodate such features. 

More pictures and information can be found at my blog.