Bangkok: Transforming a city

An Interview with Gary Hack

Bangkok City
Photo: Mtwthailand.orG

Bangkok and Dhaka share remarkable similarities in urban conditions, but recently due to a combination of foresight, planning, and bold decisions, Bangkok is transforming itself into a truly modern metropolis. Gary Hack is a renowned urban designer and planner who was involved in the team entrusted for creating the new plan for Bangkok which is triggering the transformation. Gary Hack is dean of the School of Design, University of Pennsylvania in the USA. His various projects include waterfront plans in New York and other cities, downtown plans in the US and Canada, redevelopment plans for urban complexes, and metropolitan plans in cities throughout the world. He collaborated with Studio Daniel Libeskind on the competition-winning plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center in New York. Most recently, he has been part of an Urban Land Institute team advising the mayor and other officials on the reconstruction of New Orleans. Gary Hack spoke to K. Ashraf in Philadelphia in December, 2005.

KA: What was the background to the Bangkok project?
GH: Thailand is what people referred to as one of the emerging tigers. Economically it became a success story in the late 1980s when lot of industries moved to the country. Thailand actually made a decision that they wanted to specialize in few industries, especially automobile. As part of the urbanization process what went with all this industrialization was that they gave industrial companies land for their plants. In fact, the government built the plants for them. In order to get trained employees there, they often built housing around the plant. And then they under-invested in infrastructure that connected one place to another within the city.

The other thing the government decided to do was clean up the difficult congestion and industrial pollution that was going on in Bangkok. They wanted to relocate many of the heavy industries out of the city to remote locations. One of the strategies was to move the port out of Bangkok and to create actually two ports at some distance, 50 km. from the city and with that more things like steel plants and heavy industries. This did a bunch of things. One is that it displaced a lot of low-income workers. People were not happy about that. Unemployment in the city went up. Slowly and surely industries started to follow the port to that location. And so the city was in a kind of a vacuum.

At the same time, there was also a growth in office industries, in white-collar jobs in the city. When you have a country like Thailand that has a single language group, all the telecommunication industry, advertising and other services are located in the primate city. The same is true for Tokyo, Seoul and elsewhere. As they become modernized, all the instruments of modernization telecommunication, legal services, management services, higher education, all those kind of things tend to be growing within the cities. The city was transforming itself economically but there was very little investment in infrastructure. By 1990 there was no sewer system in the city. They were basically using the waterways as their sewage system. Water quality was very poor. In the flood and rainy seasons, typically the agricultural land around the city were allowed to flood and all the water drained off over a period of time, but those areas were being filled with industries. And nobody was planning for the drainage system in the city and so they were experiencing more and more intense floods every year.

And the other thing that was occurring was as motorization was going ahead as the country had more and more middle-class people owning cars, commuting just became impossible. In 1990, on an average people were commuting two hours each way, four hours a day, between going to and coming back. And people were just struck in traffic. So that was the condition.

Still the city had some delightful areas, wonderful street life, many neighborhoods that were stable and were actually heterogeneous, and so on. What happened in the meantime was that a governor was elected who was an architect, a MIT graduate (from Boston). Shortly after he was elected he came to Boston and said to us, look, I need some new thinking on this, come over and give some advice on what should happen. A number of us went over. Ralph Gakenheimer, a transportation planner, Paul Levy, an infrastructure planner, and myself, and a couple of others. We looked at a number of things. I became particularly interested in the transportation issue.

What became absolutely clear was that the problem of transportation was not created by roadways; it was created by the land-use pattern which meant far too many people had to travel too far every day between home and work. What you had was highways that were absolutely clogged going into the city during the day and at night it was reversed. We argued that some infrastructure improvements were needed to build an expressway system to get the people off the roads basically. In the long haul what was needed was a mass transit system. The real issue was that they had to gain control of land development patterns. We argued that there ought to be a job-housing balance in every sector of the city, not to say that everybody would live and work in the same sector. They also ought to create some nodes in the city where you could actually make connections with business and work without having people to get on the roadways and drive.

We had a series of ideas about this. Until then Bangkok had a number of master plans but they were impossible plans. They went for more regulations than they were capable of carrying out. They didn't alter the overall structure; they basically followed the land growth pattern in the city. For a year and a half, we went back and forth, sent policy proposals to the city. We had a big seminar where people in the city were invited to come and debate and discuss the issues. That's what the governor wanted. Up to that time, the national government prepared the master plan of the city. They had decentralized it. They asked the city government, actually called the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), to do that. And the governor said, we want you to draft it this time. What he suggested to us was that we come, bring a team of people, and lodge them in the city planning departments, and the city would bring ten of their bright young people to work with us. We produced a new master plan for the city in eighteen months. The idea was two-fold: to bring in new thinking into the picture, but also in the course of that train a set of people. The planning department continued that in the living knowledge of the plan and also has the capability and skill to carry out the plan over time.

KA: Who was funding this? The BMA?
GH: The BMA funded this. They used some ADB money they had for some infrastructure planning in the city. Our work was finished by 1998.

KA: What about follow-up plans?
GH: What happened is that these plans were taken up by the minister of interior who had the bottom-line responsibility for adopting the land-use plans for municipalities and mandating them. They made some modifications to our plan but incorporated that in the master plan of the city. It is interesting. They require the master plan of the city to be revised every five years and what we were doing in theory was revision of the previous master plan. But in fact we started from scratch as previous master plans really did not address most of the issues that were important to the city. The city recently did a new revision to the plan, and they maintained all the key elements we proposed.

KA: Have you visited Bangkok since then? Do you think a catalysis has happened?
GH: Yes, they are doing some things. They are creating metropolitan sub-centers. They have revised the development regulations, installed the transportation system. I will give you an example: At one time, three transportation systems were being proposed. One above ground which would essentially serve a circulator system in the center of the city, and two below ground. One was being done by the federal government, one by the municipal government, and one was a concession they were offering to a private company. In the original plan, before we got involved in any of these things, there was actually no connection between these three systems. There would be a station here and half a block away there would be a station of the other system. There was no transfers, etc. We worked very hard to get these plans revised as they were emerging so that they could actually make connections to various places. There was a rudimentary regional rail but there was no connection to that for people coming to the city to get linked with the mass transit. So our coordination and pulling things together pointed out the nodes where the regional rail, the mass transit system and expressway systems come together. You can actually plan major developments that got people moving between these systems. That actually got adopted and couple of the big, opportunity areas are going through development now.

KA: Two things come to mind. What about the political will at the national, regional and urban level? And the other is the financial part of it. Who finances something like this, something like a major transportation transformation? Could Thailand itself do this or did it need external help?
GH: Both are needed. The Thai government put up much of the money for the regional transportation system. The expressway system was done as a concession they gave to outside investors, privately owned and operated that will revert to he city or government after fifteen years. In some of these cases, they had loans from ADB, World Bank and other sources. In many cases, there is private capital.

KA: What about the political will to take this on?
GH: Well, Thailand is not terribly stable politically, but I must say that the current prime minister is in place for quite a few years. And he is quite an amazing man. He was elected after we finished the plan so he was not involved with it. He is amazing in the sense that he is a private entrepreneur, a pretty wealthy one, one of the wealthiest people in the world. He took on his job partly to prove that the country could be efficiently managed. Besides the ethnic conflict they had which was very taxing for the government, he has done a very god job of getting the country going managerially. Before that Thailand had a really unstable governmental system. There was more stability at the municipal level than the national level. And the governor of Bangkok is elected not appointed like in other cities. In a couple of four-year terms, the governor was able to accomplish quite a lot.

KA: One of the key elements in your proposal is the creating of sub-centers that rearranges the matrix and relieves pressures from existing districts. What were the strategies for making these sub-centers?
GH: Bangkok like many cities are primate cities. They are both capital cities and are also the largest economic unit in the country. Bangkok was facing calls to relocate the capital out of the city. This is a very intriguing idea in many countries like that. On the books for the last twenty years, there is a law passed in Japan to move the capital out of Tokyo but is has never happened. This summer I was in Korea and the government wanted to move the capital out of Seoul and it hasn't happened. The parliament in Thailand voted to move the national capital as a way to decrease congestion at the center of the city. What happens when that occurs is that there are certain reactions from several groups. People with property interests are keen to keep the capital where it is because of industries and headquarters, and how they are close to the center of the city and government. People who work for the government do not want to relocate 150 km. out of the city because their children are at school, etc.. This is a deadlock issue.

It is clear that some of the functions within the center of the city could actually be relocated and redistributed at the perimeter of the city. They would be the first piece of the process of getting better jobs and housing in various sectors of the city. A number of metropolitan sub-centers were seen as places of decentralizing certain government units out of the center and out to the perimeter. The idea was to put them in locations where there was either, in short-term, a mass transit service to them from the center of the city, or in long term, a corridor, a good highway access.

The strategy was that a city had limited money for infrastructure improvements, and rather spending it on a little bit of roadway here and a little bit there, we argued that they consolidate this money in these areas, and create a really good infrastructure there with sewer, water, roadway, electrical lines, all of which would make them attractive as locations for commercial, residential and other high density developments.

KA: One thing about the geography of Bangkok. I find it remarkably similar to that of Dhaka. The other day I found out that you are now involved with the reconstruction of New Orleans.
GH: The problem Bangkok was facing was that they were using up all the storage capacity for the rainy seasons, draining into the klongs and the klongs were overflowing and flooding the city. They didn't have a very good system of regulating the klongs. It was just total chaos. We proposed creating large reserve lands in the perimeter of the city that could be parklands but would have the capacity to hold the water during the rainy season, drained over longer periods of time. It also clarified the drainage system around the perimeter of the city. This was really a difficult thing because the national government was looking after this and was simply incompetent in managing it. It's not so different than New Orleans in that sense. But I think Bangkok is now moving according to the proposals.

KA: You have studied cities closely, and have looked at how cities transform. How can one see cities that are in an industrial or post-industrial developed state, and cities that are in some extreme kind of transition, cities that do not know where they are heading? What is your thought on where cities are going?
GH: Well, cities go through a dynamic, and countries go through a dynamic. There are traditional cities and traditional societies for sure, but cities go on an economic growth cycle, and now they usually capitalize on low-wage labor starting with garments which are always the first, and going through increasingly sophisticated technologies. Usually during that early phase which is catering to mass markets in the west, there is basically assembly work and not much basic design and research. The cities have to accumulate enough capital and enough infrastructure to be able to support the next level of growth that is usually services and banking and things that require large amount of capital to be able to work. At each stage, the city basically has to create the platform for the next stage of development and if it doesn't, the city stalls. Look at Manila for example. There is a city that has never been over the initial stage of development, in part because there is huge amount of capital in the Philippines but it resided with a very small group of people of the population. They have not invested in the infrastructure of the city, and so it hasn't had the capacity to move on to the next stage of development.

Ultimately developed cities are not places of production but places of consumption and places of culture. On the route to getting there what's really important is a new stage to build the structure for the next stage. Cities are in fact the instruments of economic development. Look at Bangkok. Here is a city with 20% of the total population but 40% of the GDP. You find the same for Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, a disproportionate share of GDP in those countries. Why? Because as the city becomes more advanced in its economy, there is more and more production in software and services. You have to get to that point.

©, 2006. All Rights Reserved