In the zone – urban planning in Chiang Mai

The city in constant flux and residents love nothing more than to gripe about unplanned over-development. Citylife takes a look at urban planning in Chiang Mai.

By | Mon 1 Oct 2012

Chiang Mai is a city in constant flux and residents love nothing more than to gripe about unplanned over-development. I am forever squeezing my little car through tight soi, flanked by new buildings and labourers’ fleeting shanty towns. Most of us wish there were better sidewalks, more green spaces, fresher air and reliable public transport around here. And many of us are a little saddened, and alarmed, at the rapid and unchecked growth of Chiang Mai.

The face of this city is without doubt under the knife of some heavy-handed property developers and dubious town planners. Whether rules have been broken, or city planning has been ineffective, it is concerting that the northern rose may be pruned just a little too haphazardly; leaving dead stumps for what were once cheerful petals.

City planning involves everything from the way land is used and how it is built on to issues of noise, garbage and water pollution. The way our environment is designed, manufactured and run, effects the way we live, travel, work, feel and think. Living in urban crowded and multifaceted Thailand, how one person uses property can affect many others. Who wants to wake up to discover a neighbour has decided to turn next door into a round-the-clock karaoke?

On my mission to get to grips with city planning in Chiang Mai, I began by starting top down, the direction of how things often work in Thailand, and contacted Wichai Kajonpreedanon the head of Chiang Mai Provincial Department of Public Work and Town and Country Planning. At the beginning of the interview Wichai explained he would only give a general overview of city planning, as it is a subject where conflicting interests lie.

Basically the city plan is drafted in Chiang Mai at provincial government level and then sent to the Ministry of Interior in Bangkok, where the majority of final decisions are made. In theory, local businesses and residents have the chance to share their ideas but this doesn’t necessarily mean they get what they want. Lobbying interest groups such as developers, are also a powerful force behind the scenes, while the more vocal elements such as environmentalists and conservationsists tend to have less sway.

True, town planning is a controversial subject. Developers and protestors standing in arms, in this newly industrialised country known for rampant corruption, means the battle is often harsh. Residents and the assailable environment are left to endure the effects of investors, businesses or authorities who often operate in get-what-we-can-and-as-much-of-it manner.

“Chiang Mai’s first city plan was introduced in 1984 and is revised every five years.” Wichai continued to describe the city plan consisting of multiple centres. The area inside and around the moat acts as the main centre and the other sub-centres include Mae Rim, Mae Jo, Sansai, Bor Sang and Saraphee.

“The purpose of the Chiang Mai city plan is to manage the city to be a sustainable city. By creating different zones, which have certain uses and regulations, we aim to control development and preserve Chiang Mai’s heritage and agricultural areas. The new plan ¬†will come into effect soon.”

Navigating the map’s codes, I saw how the government plans to preserve the old city in and around the moat (light brown) which is labelled as a Thai artistic cultural conservation zone and has a building height restriction of 23 metres, or eight floors. Stemming around the city centre in red (a development zone) are commercial and high-density residential zones, which have less restriction on height. Wichai mentioned the possibility of a lofty edifice (309 metres), like the Baiyoke Tower, the tallest building in Bangkok, that could soon be planted in this development area.

The plans read that the further away from the centres you go, the smaller the buildings must be and the less densely compacted. On the map, orange signifies medium-density, yellow equals low-density and green rural and agricultural zones. Light green represents zones of recreation and environmental preservation, blue is for state agencies and public utilities, purple for particular industries. The plan promises to restore the city’s picturesque charm whilst providing the means for the province to act as an economic nucleus to entertain the growth of the Greater Mekong Sub-region.

Talking with a few local business people they agreed that too much emphasis on conservation by designating areas around the ring roads as ‘green zones’ was a flaw in the plan. These green areas, or the breathing apparatus of the metropolis, are prohibited from commercial or industrial development. What is so green about these areas if you can build on them anyway? Residential buildings are permitted, though they mustn’t be more than 12 metres tall and buildings within a 100 metre radius of temples can be no higher than nine metres.

A group of business leaders recently came together and sent a proposal to the government saying that the height ban will scupper local economy. Though activists like Sudarat Uttharat, a researcher at the Social Research Institute and a committee member of Creative Urban Solution Centre, believes a lower skyline is part of Chiang Mai’s uniqueness. “Millions of baht come to Chiang Mai from tourism. If we lose our identity, who else is going come here?”

Buyers and sellers are wheeling and dealing towards the lead up of the – yet unannounced – implementation of the new zoning law. Some properties will devalue greatly due to new zoning restrictions such as our very own Citylife office, in territory which will see a reduction in height regulation enforced, pushing down its value significantly. Our owner is sanguine, however, accepting that the law is the law. However she can’t help feeling a little short-changed, when prospective buyers are telling her the restrictions are ultimately irrelevant and after a bit of hand squeezing with the right people they will make sure they can build higher than the law states. Back in the town planning office, Wichai told us that the Chiang Mai council will enforce the laws and any violations will be punished. In fact, many investors may find that under-the-table deals are not so forthcoming, as there is much scrutiny over this issue.

The fact is, the population is growing, and demand for housing is increasing. While studies conducted by Chiang Mai University have shown the need for housing estates to rise from 345,552 units in 1990 to 401,996 units by 2015, there is also a need for high-rise condo type units. The Chiang Mai-Lamphun Association of Real Estate Agents claim the new zoning plan would aggravate the housing shortage. So, how are we to accommodate all these people? Do we go up? Or lower and spread out?

Despite controversy, the city plan has some helpful intentions. Although there are always ‘winners and losers’ when it comes to town planning as Martin Venzky-Stalling, advisor of ¬† Chiang Mai Creative City describes.

Pranom Tansukanun, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design at Mae Jo University and local activist, walked to see me at the Citylife office from her nearby home. Pranom told me how often developers will manipulate rules and cut corners in order to get the go ahead for their property. However, she has also witnessed various successes where residents have fought for changes in their local surroundings.

City development is inevitable, preserving quality of life and Chiang Mai’s character is something which puts a strain on the natural growth cycle. It is inspiring to see local people standing up to the powers that be and making positive changes in town planning which are called for by local residents. Chairat another local activist told me about the importance of communication between local people and town planners; “We believe in quality of life over money. Residents should have the right to be involved in town planning.” Wichai told me the authorities do focus on public participation such as meetings and consultations. “People can agree or disagree with the plan. The plan will be posted in public for 90 days. Those who want to comment on the city plan can report here.” (Please see phone number in box below). Though people can express their views on this new plan, he admits that it is, however, now set and isn’t open to any changes.

City planning is a big deal and effects the natural environment around us. Activist Sudarat told me how “The temperature of the ground in Chiang Mai increases by one degree Celsius every year.” More concrete and less trees have also contributed to flooding. There is still hope, and Venzky-Stalling believes there are ways which art and creativity can be used to make our city a more enjoyable place to live “We need to create a sense of community, and get communities competing with one another to make their area the most pleasant.” Venzky-Stalling told me how projects had been set up in Latin America where communities were given basic resources to improve their surroundings. “Spaces in-between houses are often left uncared for, no one takes responsibly for them and they get ugly. We want people to get together, paint their houses and clear up rubbish; it should catch on. There is also a lot of potential in Chiang Mai for more creative spaces to be used by the community and areas which can be given to local artists to make more attractive and enjoyable.”

For all its thorns, I believe Chiang Mai still blooms. To insure its future well-being it is important that all parties involved; public, private and government co-operate towards a city which is equally better for all. As usual, only time will tell.