An endless six-lane herd of neon taxis sputter along a network of brutalist flyovers while scooter drivers weave boldly in between. Spiced scents escape from side alley markets, penetrating the air as sweltering heat rises from oil soaked pavement. This is modern cosmopolitan Bangkok, a now so called Alpha city that due to the Asian investment boom of the 1980s and 90s became a hotbed for multi-national corporation influx, cementing it as a business-financial force, the second most expensive South-eastern Asian city after Singapore.
Diagnosis Pocket Urbanism
Along with explosive city growth, the demand for urban housing increased substantially. Subsequent neglect of guidance and involvement by the central government led to a largely market-dominated housing situation with significant impacts on the affordability for lower classes of society. As observed by the UCL Bartlett Development Planning Unit’s MSc Building and Urban Design in Development (BUDD) course during a 3-week field research project undertaken in May 2011, a vigorous pursuit of big business investment and years of unequal access to financial resources and land essentially yielded a process of social and spatial ‘pocketisation’ by way of ‘slums’ dispersed within central areas and along Bangkok’s network of canals.
The heart of the 3-week field research was a facilitated partnership with the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI). Independent of the National Housing Authority (NHA), yet still fully-funded by and aligned with the Thai government, CODI has, in the last decade with the launch of the Baan Mankong Program (in 2003) become a significant institutional precedent in the support and delivery of social housing and urban community upgrading projects.
In supposed parallel opposite to the contract-driven, pre-designed housing of the NHA’s Baan Eua Arthorn Program, Baan Mankong, under CODI’s leadership, stresses the participation and initiative of people as the central tools in scaling up the program to the national level. Local people and community organizations are intended to control the funding and management and thus, in many cases, certain flexible finance schemes have allowed for the planning and implementation of ‘tailored’ projects that address specific community needs, priorities and aspirations.
Due to a lack of sufficient and affordable housing, communities have settled into the cracks, eliciting a diagnosed social and institutional ‘pocket-urbanism’ that forms barriers of interaction among communities, and certainly between communities and authority figures. Furthermore, the decision making processes revolving around housing policies also manifest in a ‘pocket-like’ manner, having missed the links between planning, design and the true needs of communities they are deemed to represent. Here, power seems applied rather than shared, further contributing towards a vicious circle of pocket-segregation.
At least to some degree, the work of CODI and particularly the Baan Mankong programme has set a new agenda towards ‘de-pocketising’ the city, envisioning housing policies beyond the simple provision of houses, putting people at the centre of the process. Through their attempts at empowering the poor by building social networks, they open up a negotiating flexibility with the authorities that can improve housing processes and conditions at the spatial level. However, it was witnessed during the MSc BUDD students’ field research that the very nature of community specificity, the imbalance of resource capacity across the participating communities and resultant barriers induced by pocket-urbanization has, in a way, stalled the program’s progress and prevented CODI from reaching the scale they so desired. In order to effectively ‘de-pocketise’ Bangkok into a city whose social housing landscape is characterized by flexible social, spatial and institutional integration, CODI must turn a critical eye towards its own protocol and mechanisms for housing delivery.
Cases of a Social Housing Program
To understand CODI’s reach among the region, six sites under the Baan Mankong Program were visited to diagnose a diversity of context, scale and community engagement. The nuances of their socio-spatial characteristics and the particular interactions of local realities including land access, finance resourcing, and political influence reflected a profound complexity of cases.
Bang Khen and the community of Bang Bua, a pilot trendsetter for the Baan Mankong Program, marks the first time the Treasury Department leased land to a network of canal squatters. Located in the centre of Bangkok along the Bang Bua Canal, the network comprises 19 low-income communities with over 2,500 densely developed households. Inhabitants are particularly interested in reducing the cost of upgrading through the recycling of material, hopefully including the poorest members and accelerating project implementation. However, due to pressure from major infrastructural and transport arteries, eviction is a common threat.
Klong Toey, home to 200,000 inhabitants, is characterised by a convergence of mega-infrastructure, Bangkok’s largest 24-hour market and the Central Business District. The communities have continuously faced eviction and arson threats resulting from land speculation and infrastructural developments making land access and tenure a primary challenge to poorer residents. Compounding these challenges, are the divergences between those communities that have signed up to the Baan Mankong Program and those that have not, making it difficult to mobilize communities against such intimidating land owner forces such as the Port Authority.
Pasi Chalern, located in West-Bangkok has also experienced the influence of major infrastructural and transport changes, prompting rapid urbanization and an increase in land prices. Dominated by private landowners seeking higher profits, the act of acquiring suitable land for housing becomes complex as each landowner requires separate negotiations. A mixture of land owning Baan Mankong communities and those that have been relocated to the area sit next to substantially developed National Housing Authority and Bangkok Metropolitan Authority projects.
Rattanakosin Island, an area steeped in history and built cultural/human heritage of the city where Buddhist temples, monuments, and markets coexist, is essentially the centre of the Thai State for more than 240 years. Tourists are blind to the low-income communities hidden between blocks and waterways on Crown Property Bureau or temple land. To a degree, CODI has been working with the Crown Property Bureau to improve housing and extend leases, though other landowners, while allowing land access, also block possible integration into the social, physical, and institutional constructs of the area.
Rangsit is a busy Bangkok suburb on the Bangkok-Ayutthaya transport artery, crowded with shopping malls, universities and high-income housing enclaves. Unlike the city centre’s rapid infrastructure urbanization, major land pressure in Rangsit stems from the speculation for future real estate deals. Though some poorer communities have been granted relocation land in this area, questions remain whether they can stay or will be forced out due to future development and growing land costs. Better heeded strategies of networking and knowledge sharing of existing low-cost construction and renewable energy saving methods could trigger wider mobilization.
Bang Poo, south of Bangkok in the Samut Prakarn province, consists of nine communities cut off from the main urban fabric of Bangkok. Road widening processes and a shifting of the Government Service Department to this region because of the International Airport heighten the threat of eviction. Like others in the first stage program, the Klong Mai Tai community is interested in the re-use of existing house materials in order to reduce the cost of new construction as well as re-thinking the spatial-activity patterns. On a wider scale the community was focused on grasping the relation between the district and the rest of Bangkok’s urban fabric.
While acknowledging a rather brief descriptive overview of Bangkok’s poorer pockets, the struggle over land in relation to the city and the efforts of the Baan Mankong Program is intensified. Communities lack the power to stand up to forces of development- agendas of authority, real-estate speculation and private landowners. This is due to a lack of financial resources and land security, as well as a lack of cohesion within and across different communities. The Baan Mankong Program may be able to increase its potential if CODI can build on apparent successes and mitigate the challenges of community to community exchange and mobilization.
Because the Baan Mankong Program requirements revolve around the capacity to finance building, the diversity of community resources may contribute to an uneven character across CODI’s demand driven projects. However, some communities have a difficulty in simply finding the means to join, let alone funding acceptable subsequent development. Though fluctuation of resources across different CODI sites suggests a range of house size, design standard and overall planning, some communities simply seem to be benefiting from greater attention.
The Emergence of the Community Architect
In regards to the notion of increased attention, a key component in the CODI program is the existence of what is referred to as the ‘Community Architect’. Through the MSc BUDD research, major questions arose in regards to the instrument and role of ‘Community Architect’ in the design and facilitation of housing initiatives. While the concept of ‘community architects’ is clearly paramount and widespread throughout Bangkok and the Bang Mankong program, the identity of these individuals has expanded to all those who may facilitate housing processes and in parallel to a clustering of anti-mainstream architectural voices in Southeast Asia. In turn, the tasks, expertise and overall involvement is sceptical, further questioning whether ‘community architects’ are actually helping communities or masking mere self-indulgent appearance with genuine practice.
The results of MSc BUDD’s regional experience deserve further investigation as little information is available to determine the influence/role of architects on specific sites. Though, it can be argued that these practices have contributed significantly to the international “ethical turn” in architecture. Design practitioners are searching for a specific role in investigating the complexities of architecture and urbanism and understanding their shift towards designing spaces that enable social justice and engage communities. On the other hand, development practitioners have gone through a reflexive rediscovery of how architecture and design may be experimenting with a new pragmatic radicalism oriented to more critically sophisticated outcomes.
Acknowledging that truly participatory design arguably requires additional skill, values, and creativity from the architects beyond those practiced in the conventional practice, the question of how to expand this space within the mainstream architectural profession emerges as a significant purpose of CODI and the various professionals working within the BMP. Visiting different sites in Bangkok highlighted the fact that community architects are practicing separately with different tools and techniques. If the demand for trained architects is increasing, methods of support for architects practicing ‘participation’ are essential.
Clearly important is how ‘community architects’ operating under the umbrella of CODI and the Baan Mankong Program can be more successful in collaborating with communities and providing a service that lives up to its claim. Furthermore, it becomes essential how they can better define their identity and roles so as to not be marginalized or mis-appropriated by lesser convicted and qualified practitioners. Herein, there still exists a critical responsibility to cross-check even the most genuine of practices. If this is done so, strategically with internal vigour, the program can grow to maximize the potentials and efforts of all those involved.
The dynamics and challenges experienced in the Baan Mankong Program pose many questions on space production and the responsibility of architecture and design. For the MSc BUDD students, this particular field research emphasized the frontline debate on critical urban development, ‘right to the city’, and ‘ethical architecture’, and could have only manifested in this manner with the support of CODI and Ms Soomsook Boonyabancha, the Asian Coalition of Housing Rights (ACHR), the inspired communities, and the numerous community architects and individuals who, in various ways, champion a global call for a renewed role of architecture and urban design as resistance practices for an open and just urban development.
Images courtesy of the author and the students of the MSc Building and Urban Design in Development course, Development Planning Unit University College London. Their Bangkok blog can be found at this link and final analysis report found at this ilnk.
I am currently working as an Urban Designer and Planner with Architects Southwest in Lafayette, LA. Prior to my return "home", I worked with the UNLV Downtown Design Center in Las Vegas as a Senior Researcher/Urban Sustainability Strategist on regional projects and Adjunct Professor leading a 4th ...