Urban architects - agents of change

Economy February 27, 2015 01:00

By Assistant Professor Komgrij Th

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Almost everyone recognises that an architect designs houses, commercial buildings and all types of spaces. To be more exact, we acknowledge that an interior designer designs interior spaces, and a landscape architect works primarily with outdoor spaces.

In the design of spaces that display a public character – that is, a publicly owned space that has been set aside for use by all individuals and communities and is marked as distinct from the surrounding context – who, then, should we recognise as the designer?

In the West, the profession of urban planning developed at key moments in the interconnected relationship between city form and socioeconomic circumstances. Before the industrial revolution, no distinction was made between the design of building components, buildings, and building complexes – all were continuations of one practice.

The industrial revolution collapsed this generalism and consolidated urban or city planning into a stand-alone discipline. Incorporating principles taken from economics and public works engineering, urban planning became a discipline that organised and coordinated the operations of the town and its environs in order to support economic productivity and efficiency.

As the profession grew, so did an associated body of knowledge, which became the theoretical discipline of urban sociology.

Early urban planning was critiqued for its disassociation from the needs of society. In countries with exploding cities, “urbanism” emerged as an inter-disciplinary approach to investigate the city with the goal of enhancing the lives of its inhabitants.

More recently, the discipline has increasingly focused on the effects of greenhouse gases and pollutants on weakening environmental health.

The interdisciplinary nature of urban planning, which can be considered the “practice” of urbanism,” requires skilled, versatile practitioners drawn from a variety of concentrations. However, most practitioners are guided by three lead disciplines: urban planning, architecture and landscape architecture.

In Thailand, practitioners of city design are officially recognised as “urban architects”. These professionals are constantly in demand as the population in cities such as Bangkok swell and strain its existing infrastructures and services.

The Bangkok metropolitan region and other Thai cities will experience severe challenges in the 21st century. To alleviate the ill effects of environmental degradation, we must be encouraged to give up our car-centric transportation network for a robust, multimodal transportation system that is responsible for the mobility of both people and goods.

Bangkok has evolved into more than just Thailand’s industrial centre. It is also the heart of the tourism and service sectors, of enterprise businesses, and of entrepreneurship, and, as a result, needs to attract and nurture talent to sustain these industries.

The immense needs of this economic reshaping will strain land and infrastructure resources, potentially threaten areas already set aside for conservation, and bring about instability by heightening social inequality, degrading the environment, and compromising public health.

This accumulating set of pressures calls for effective moderators who can help the city prepare for change and emerge at the other end stronger and more productive.

Urban designers or urban architects are trained to take on this role. From their analyses of converging social and economic circumstances, they work in collaboration with other professionals in order to effect development strategies to secure our urban future.

This column was written by Assistant Professor Komgrij Thanapet, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University.