A shopping complex, or a 'green lung'

opinion May 13, 2015 01:00

By The Nation

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Bangkokians face a stark choice regarding one of the city's last undeveloped tracts



We traditionally plant trees for shade, fresh air and pleasant scenery. In cities, trees act as “oxygen machines”, and the fewer there are, the poorer the quality of the air we breathe. However, that equation seems to have been swept aside in one of Bangkok’s last remaining green zones.
Those advocating that a green tract in Makkasan be developed as a commercial district argue that the land is too valuable to be turned into a public park. They say the profit potential of one of the last untouched plots downtown is the only criterion in the decision on its future.
They see no reason why the 400-rai property shouldn’t be earmarked for more malls and skyscrapers. Leasing the land for a commercial project also suits its landlord, the State Railway of Thailand, which needs to pay off accumulated debts. 
The plans for Makkasan come in the wake of large-scale deforestation in Thailand, done mostly in the name of development. Our country is now considered the least green in Southeast Asia. The problem is worst in the capital, where there is only 3.3 square metres of green space per person, compared to an average of 39sqm in other cities across Asia. Bangkokians thus have 10 times less green space than is standard in the region’s urban areas. 
In a nutshell, one rai of large mature trees produces enough oxygen for 10 people. So to breath good-quality air, Bangkok’s 10 million residents need 100,000 rai of treed land. Currently the city has just 19,000.  
The Makkasan Network, a civic group that is campaigning to have Makkasan turned into a community project and green zone might seem like a “dinosaur” to developers, but this group is certainly not “anti-development”. Turning the vast property into a park with a museum is, in fact, development of a valuable and sustainable sort. 
Commercial interests are blind to this argument because their bottom line is financial profit for the few, not open spaces and quality air for all. 
The Makkasan Network is now inviting specialists in various fields to pool efforts and make the community project happen. If it succeeds, Bangkok will get a new public park along with a library, botanical garden, running track and museum. 
Critics claim that this plan would squander tax money on “pampering” Bangkokians. The issue of providing public green space is too important to be politicised in this way. Almost one in seven Thais resides in Bangkok. Providing them with safe, unpolluted recreational spaces would save on public-healthcare spending for generations to come. 
A greener capital would also attract more tourists. Singapore has little land compared to Thailand, but its government has chosen to retain a far higher proportion of green space. Thanks to the vision of its late leader Lee Kuan Yew, the country can now boast of being one of the greenest in the region.
The debate over Makkasan comes down to a simple question: What do we want to pass on to the next generation – another high-rise shopping district or a “green lung” for our city?