Urban and Landscape Planning as Disaster Risk Reduction

Asan Suwanarit, Dean of Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Thammasat University

In recent years, Thailand has seen various environmental issues, ranging from problems with air quality to coastal erosion, extreme seasonal flooding to water scarcity. These catastrophic and devastating events are no longer natural calamities; they are undoubtedly man-made disasters.

The events have also left the government and experts with no choice but to re-examine strategic policies and infrastructure with the objective of ensuring that, in the long term, the country will be in a much better position to manage these disasters, especially as they are likely to be more frequent and more extreme.

It is imperative for any future development to respect nature considerably more than history has shown us. By extension of that, urban and landscape planning must be developed with full cognizance and understanding of the ecosystem to which the landscape belongs. Under this framework, biophysical and sociological information generates opportunities and places constraints on landuse decisions.

For a sustainable future, land development projects across the country should consider alternative approaches that ensure that they maintain the original ecosystem and biodiversity without endangering them. These approaches require an understanding of the area’s dynamism on various scales and from several perspectives. The challenges that future generations of decision-makers, planners, developers, and designers must face include gaining a clear understanding of natural, scientific, and cultural perspectives and incorporating them into future developments.

Further, one of the essential challenges experienced by a landscape planner and designer is creating a design that allows urban and rural elements to coexist in mutual respect. Marrying the dynamism of a city with the beauty of the environment, however, is not always an easy task. So why, when the suburbs seem to promise the benefits of both, is the opposite all too frequently the case? You only have to take a long hard look at some of Bangkok’s suburbs to see how often the encounter between cities and the countryside can become a battleground.

In fact, across the world, there is growing recognition to the fact that suburbia has not been an unqualified success. In the United States, where suburbia was largely invented, there is now a movement to ‘retrofit’ many of these areas – by creating more urban elements locally, such as pedestrian downtowns and communal areas, or ‘naturalizing’ them by restoring environmental features such as waterways that have been damaged or concealed by redevelopment.

Everyone knows that the world is urbanizing at a dizzying rate. In Asia particularly, it is now the age of the megacity. What is not always acknowledged, however, is that the bulk of this transformation is projected to occur not in the heart of our cities, but at its fringes – and Thailand is no exception. Though this may seem hard to believe, an important part of Bangkok’s future as an emerging megalopolis may play out among the fields, villages, and canals of its peripheral landscape.

Therefore, if we care about the future of our city, getting the suburbs right should be our top priority. While Bangkok’s sprawl is already notorious, compared to countries such as the United States, we still have some distance to go. Therefore, we could, if we wished, learn from their mistakes rather than imitate them. To do so, though, we must consider how the best principles of urbanism can be applied to what we build, while emphasis is placed on drawing a clear boundary around what should be left alone.

Landscape design could play an essential role in achieving this – but only if we redefine our understanding of what it involves. In Thailand, landscape architects often seem to be regarded as glorified gardeners. This is not the case elsewhere. In Singapore, for example, there is real commitment to creating a ‘garden city’ within its dense urban setting. There, the local ecology is always treated as a central concern – not a mere side salad to the hardware of housing, roads, and infrastructure. This has been achieved by allowing landscape architects a leading role in the planning process.

Though the value of smarter urban planning in central Bangkok is routinely acknowledged – if not always practiced – there appears to be less awareness of the need to apply a similar approach to its rural hinterland, where conventional city planning will likely prove inadequate. Alongside projected population growth and growing housing demand, then, other factors must also be considered: environmental instability, the vital agricultural traditions of the local communities, and the essential role that much of the landscape has played as a conduit for floodwater. In conclusion, urban planners and landscape architects can play an essential role by combining their understanding of cities and society with their appreciation for the value of the environment.

Ultimately, what is also needed is a long-term perspective. As every Bangkok resident knows, a landscape can change forever overnight and today’s farmland can become tomorrow’s city sprawl. This is not to say that any plan should be immortal; landscapes after all are dynamic and in a state of constant flux. But ensuring that this change occurs for the better, not for the worse, requires regular assessments of the local environment.

It also calls for sustained engagement with communities with the view of allowing them to participate substantively in the process of change. We must move beyond the fractured and privatized approach that currently characterizes development and focus on reengaging ourselves with a broader social understanding of what the landscape entails. Within a landscape, in fact, private actions may have very public consequences. A business park’s flood protection measures, for instance, may make surrounding areas even more vulnerable if poorly designed.

Recognizing the immediate and long-term needs of these complex environments demands having a real vision and understanding of the occasionally conflicting needs of these areas. That being said, through a process of continuous consultation with local communities, we came up with a range of proposals that protected local natural resources (for example, green belts, walkways, agricultural parks, and a natural floodwater basin) while allowing for future urbanization (such as satellite developments that would utilize currently isolated land pockets and provide residents with a local urban center in the suburbs).

However, in the current context, it does not seem likely that these ideas have much hope of leaving the drawing board. To do so, there must first be a shift in political and financial will in favor of multidimensional urban and landscape planning, with an emphasis on local communities and the natural habitat of the area – in a word, the tangible and intangible qualities of ‘place’ that make anywhere somewhere and that is overlooked by careless top-down planning all too often.

We already have ample evidence of what happens when the acceleration of urbanization is poorly managed. But well-considered urban and landscape planning, involving local residents, planners, other stakeholders as well as landscape architects, offers an alternative where environmental disaster risk can be reduced rather than simply accept it. Ultimately, whether or not we decide to do so is a different question.