Like any major metropolis, Khrungthep stuggles with how to strike a balance between open space and development, between the green of tropical foliage and the grey of the concrete jungle.
Unlike many other cities around the world, Khrungthep’s development wasn’t concentric, built along major roads radiating out from an old center of the city. There is Ratanakosin Island, the historic old city – the royal island on which the Grand Palace and the government ministries are located.
But it is not truly the center of the city. There were never any high rises there, no physical concentration of the population. It was originally ministries and mandarins and to this day has a lower concentration of residents than many other areas of the city.
The pattern of the city’s growth is of old waterways and canals – khlongs – being filed in and paved. Smaller paths – sois – connect to these khlongs and today form the narrow and often twisted backroads that do not make a coherent alternative to the major, vehicle-clogged trafficways.
Thanon Sukhumvit – Sukhumvit Road – was once a road to the suburbs, where wealthy families would build their weekend houses to escape from the traffic and polution of the old city. These days, these same old houses are being hemmed in, right, by condominium developments, quaint reminders of the days when greenery on your property meant a proper garden, not just a potted plant or two on the balcony.
To this day, there is a surprising amount of green in this city, given how little unpaved area there is. This is more a testament to the robust nature of tropical flora than anything else.
Along Sukhumvit, now permanently in the shadow of the Skytrain viaduct overhead, the Metropolitan Authority tries to spruce up the city, planting median barriers with bushes and flowers and trying to bring some green back to the dark monochrome of concrete. Left, there are even billboards with pictures of tropical foliage, in case the real plants aren’t enough. The trees that are there exist only because they provide a screen for the national police headquarters behind them.
In the aftermath of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the shells of three hundred buildings were left uncompleted, in various stages of construction. These ghost buildings serve as a reminder to us of the pitfalls of an unrestrained lust for development, growth and progress. Sadly, the reminder goes unheeded, as more lots are graded over, trees pulled down, and single family homes meet the bulldozer so more development can occur.
At least this development is “in-fill”, within the existing city limits, not expanding them. Increasing density near existing transit, not encouraging a new generation of car owners. But it is still at the loss of openness and greenery, taking away the lungs we need to scrub this urban air.