Will Thailand have a Green Revolution?

By | Fri 6 May 2022

Central Park, New York. Having Central Park in BKK is on my bucket-wish list.

            I want the green men back on the street.

No, I don’t mean another coup. I meant gardeners. A tonne of them. 

            I have travelled to a dozen cities around the world. One mark of a civilized city, to me, is the presence of urban parks. Why? It means that the residents are wealthy enough to care about their environment and surroundings. It means the strength of the community is still there, not privatised to and captured by corporations. It means there’s some quality of life. 

Life in any city should be more than offices, homes, and shopping malls. 

            While Bangkok and Chiang Mai are listed in the top global 20 places for tourists, we don’t fare that well in livability, especially in Bangkok. There is a huge difference between vacationing for a few days here and taking up residence. Consistently, as evidenced by various city livability rankings, Bangkok is listed in the 90th to 100th.

That is appalling and in need of change.   

            As a former Bangkok resident, and since the Bangkok governor election is underway, I want to pitch new urban green spaces throughout Bangkok and across the country to candidates. Right now there are only four or five parks in Bangkok – the biggest and oldest being Lumpini Park. Lumpini, at approximately 142 acres (360 rai), boasts 12,000 visitors/users daily, and is operated by Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. While good, it isn’t anywhere near enough to cater to 10 million residents in sprawling Bangkok.  

I remember leaving home and spending an hour and a half driving to and from Lumpini park, which was time-consuming, tedious, and unsustainable. Not all Bangkokians have that much time after work. 

            Crucial is the ability for urban Thais to access these parks easily through (1) an effective public transportation system, and (2) urban green spaces in every district.

            Let’s draw on some examples from overseas. One such example is the famous New York’s Central Park. Created in 1857, it has – wait for it – 843 acres (2143 rai) of lush botanical oasis right at the heart of New York! It boasts 42 million visitors annually and is the most filmed location in the world. The park is owned by New York City Parks, which falls under the government of New York City. It’s managed by a private non-profit conservancy.

            Thais will salivate at the new Apple flagship store or a 6-star shopping mall, waiting outside on the grand opening day for hours. But urban parks are considered secondary to them. Good to have, but not worth fighting over.

            How sadly wrong.  

The good news is things are changing. Many urbanites are appreciating urban parks and opting for a healthier lifestyle, thanks to Covid.

            NYC Parks employs 3,745 employees to manage 1,700 public spaces including parks, playgrounds, and recreational areas in New York. Central Park alone has an annual operating cost of a whopping $60 million per year. Why the heck are they spending that much money? Because it is a valuable public asset enjoyed by both locals and visitors that needs rigorous maintenance. Because urban parks are the lungs of the city. They improve air quality, limit heatwaves, increase mental wellbeing, and nudge locals to exercise, reducing the healthcare burden. When you count all these intangible benefits, the park is worth way more than its annual operating cost.

Moreover, property prices near Central Park have gone through the roof, precisely because renters/owners/visitors see the value and are willing to pay for it.

            Maintaining the trees, plants, and flowers requires professional gardeners and workers round the clock. I have seen many small parks in Thailand that start well. The ‘VVIPs’ cut the ribbon in the opening ceremony. Photoshoots. Speeches etc. A year later petty drug dealers and the homeless roam. All because of a lack of follow-up. 

            Another example is Gorky Park in Moscow, Russia. Stalin commissioned the park in 1928. That’s right you read it correctly. Joseph Stalin the head of the Soviet Union. Without him and the millions of Soviets’ lives sacrificed on the Eastern Front, Hitler would have defeated the Soviets and changed the outcome of WW2.

The reason for free education and healthcare today in many European countries? You can thank communism/socialism influences for those things.

            Gorky Park has 300 acres (750 rai) situated next to the Moskva river. It is readily accessible by Moscow metro subways. I was there several years ago. I rented a bike and cycled in the evening. Muscovites were relaxing, rollerblading, and walking their pet amidst cool and fresh air. Russians certainly know how to relax and enjoy a life-work balance. 

Let me tell you that their parks – about 50 throughout Moscow plus over 500 public gardens – are better maintained than Thai parks.  

             As for Chiang Mai, there are several parks available. The 700th Anniversary Stadium Chiang Mai, Rama 9th Lanna Park, Huay Tung Tao reservoir, etc. But in no way can they compete with Central Park or Gorky Park. And a lot of Thai parks are technically not parks but mixed-use, with flats and housing, and roads through them. 

            For Chiang Mai and Bangkok to be serious urban green city contenders, which mayor after mayor promised during elections, we really need a green revolution. A mini central park right at the heart of every city across 77 provinces.

Compare the green spaces in Moscow (top) to Chiang Mai’s (below). Notice more green areas in Moscow than in CNX. A central green park inside the old city would be ideal.

           Owned by a Thai oligarch, the One Bangkok is being developed at the cost of $3.5 billion in the CBD area. It’ll incorporate luxury hotels, premium offices, condos, and malls. Sounds nice right? Not really. No one is heading to offices anytime soon, given the growing trend of working-from-home and working-from-anywhere. Why would you want to be stuck in the traffic for hours if you had a choice? The truth is 99% of Bangkokians won’t go to the One Bangkok once completed. They are priced out. Much more useful is to turn it into a new lush green park that all Bangkokians and visitors can enjoy freely. 

            Malls won’t increase longevity and quality of life, unlike parks. 

            Growing trees and plants takes time and dedication, which is the antithesis to the short 4-year election cycle. It will require an ongoing annual budget (and transparency) to maintain these parks to a professional level, regardless of who is elected. 

            It’s doable. I’m not asking the Thai government to build me an “AI wife” or spaceships that require scientific skills which we suck. I want them to plant trees and go green. The urban Thais and international visitors will appreciate it and reap its benefits for years to come.

And just maybe Bangkok and other Thai cities will be more livable.