27 Jul Heritage preservation, threats and opportunities for Bangkok
This is the first blog of a series of four blogs addressing the topic of gentrification and the condition, challenges and opportunities for heritage preservation in Bangkok.
Cities are probably the largest human projects on Earth. As someone running an organization that takes you deeper into the urban layers of Bangkok, I have a strong connection, love and fascination for city. You might be overwhelmed by the energy and mesmerized by the temples but what you experience is humanity’s urbanization in full swing. My job is to give you a more complete picture or selected insights into the dynamics of Bangkok’s evolution. When I talk about history, I don’t only talk about the past. For me, history is the study of change and my goal is to influence change to benefit the greater good.
One aspect of change in our rapidly changing urban environment is the disappearance of the city’s cultural heritage, vibrant life and other aspects that make the city so unique. And these things are often interlinked with heritage. At least in my view but we can debate that later. People might think of heritage as something elitist, like the grand UNESCO approved architecture of our attractions but in fact heritage is part of the city’s day to day culture tangible and intangible. It has survived for generations and is not necessarily part of what archaeologists and academics would cover in panel discussions. It’s more like the story of you and I, just our forebears version. I believe that their memory should evolve alongside modern society and not being bulldozed and relegated to text books and museum artifacts for as long as there are people who care.
Side note: This is by no means a complete, in-depth article. I’m just starting out and further articles will link and enhance this one in the future. Insights and synopsis will also be posted on BV and my social media channels on Facebook and Instagram.
Even though Thailand has an official day dedicated to the preservation of its cultural heritage, heritage preservation in Thailand is having a tough starting position given the fast-paced changes and other challenges that I’m going to outline in my blog. The official Thai Heritage Conservation Day is on April 2. How it’s observed, I don’t know. I didn’t even know it exists and neither did many others. Reason enough to get the idea of the BANGKOK HERITAGE WEEK and HYPERLOCAL rolling to examine the issues of gentrification, how it impacts the Thailand’s cultural heritage and what we as a community of entrepreneurs, citizens and travelers can do to protect it and alleviate negative impacts.
Protecting the country’s collective memory is not just for the sake of nostalgia but it is an opportunity for the inclusive and sustainable economic development and innovation. However, I feel this sense of urgency, supporting the preservation of Bangkok’s diverse heritage has never been more urgent due to persistent inequality, pressure from developers and my experiences on the ground as a guide and urban explorer. However, I’m also hopeful. Mapping and supporting heritage and its people and wisdom can accelerate Thailand’s shift from an industrial economy to are creative and knowledge economy and help us achieve the sustainable development goals on several frontiers. But we can’t be passive. If we don’t act, we are not only losing a large part of our heritage but also a tremendous opportunity for sustainable development and a long-term advantage in tourism.
We are starting a four-pronged approach to tackle the cause of heritage preservation. 1. (articles on bangkokvanguards) they connect to > 2. Human stories (on Hyperlocal) they connect to > 3. Projects (on Bangkok Heritage Week) and they all connect to > 4. Vanguards Experiences. I sincerely hope that through this angle we can not only raise awareness but also mobilize resources and sustain our team.
What is gentrification?
The word gentrification is a highly emotionally charged word. It has more than doubled as a search term on Google and mentioning of it in media has increased significantly over the past ten years as it affects cities and people all over the world. People talk a lot about it but mean different things. The idea that old neighborhoods becoming new or improved is over-simplified as gentrification is quite complex. Some people think of hipsterfication or we think of adapting run-down structures for new use, construction of highrise buildings, spread of boutiques, cafes and wine bars or the restoration of old architecture, these are all symptoms of gentrification but for many it goes deeper than that.
Dictionary definition: Gentrification a processes of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.
The blog series is not aimed at protesting against change or development but to explore the nature, threats and opportunities of gentrification as it affects our cultural heritage, well-being and the tourism industry. We do advocate for the preservation of Bangkok’s historic and cultural heritage and want search for ways in which bangkokvanguards can be part of the solution.
Stanford sociologist Frederic Stout sees what happens in cities as a struggle between the government elite, the free-market, and communities influenced by demographic shifts in age and structural changes in the economy. Aging members of the industrial economy live in many of the older neighborhoods of the city while young people are also migrating away from old-town and rural communities to live either closer to the new business centers or in new suburban real estates. In many communities, mostly the elderly and toddlers are left behind, and through changes in the economic structures, their businesses, crafts and industries are loosing their significance.
On the other hand, we see an influx of a new, young and creative class that is opening cafes, bars, galleries and hostels. Some people see these “gentrifiers” as the new employees or employers of a new economy. Even bangkokvanguards discovered an abandoned property that once belonged to an artist in the sixties. It sits in the middle of an old community, right in the heart of Bangkok’s old town. After discussing the potential of the place, the new owners were inspired to restore the property. We set up our office there and helped establish a guesthouse called “Innspire Bangkok”. We employed people from the local community and enjoy good relations with them since then. We always fall in love when we see beautiful old architecture and start dreaming of renting it as a work and/or community space. As we are outsiders with higher disposable income, settling in an old, sometimes deinvested community and bringing in new ideas makes us likewise guilty of gentrification. Are we an asset or a threat to Bangkok’s old neighborhoods?
The power and influence of real estate
The emergence of small hostels and cafes or offices of startups are comparatively innocent in light of the changes happening in Chinatown where the opening of the new MRT (subway) is drawing in Thailand’s richest who have enough capital to buy up entire neighborhoods such as Woeng Nakhon Kasem.
The power and influence of real estate developers is one of the biggest threats for Bangkok’s cultural heritage. Real estate controls the majority of the world’s assets with an estimate net-worth of 217 trillion dollars which is 36 times the value of all the gold ever mined according the book Capital City, gentrification and the real estate state. Real estate and especially housing is a huge part of the global capital growth strategy and Thailand’s richest families are investing their fortunes into more shopping malls, more condos and hotels. This growing concentration of capital in real estate impacts urban planning as the land price becomes the central economic determinant and the dominant political issue. We witness the state where real estate capital has inordinate influence over the shape and future of our cities, the perimeter of our politics and the lives we lead. City planners therefore sit uncomfortably between inflating real estate values while safeguarding residents best interest. Organized money can thus thwart the best laid urban plans and the best efforts to preserve a city’s cultural heritage.
We see red
What we see happening now is an adjustment in the laws regulating property development in a 500 meter radius around new mass-transit stations. The red color code means that large scale property development can happen as in the modern parts of the city. The old town had been white until the new zoning regulations came out and turned the old parts of the city red! This means future subway station in the old parts of Bangkok may improve accessibility but also pose a a substantial threat to old, historic neighborhoods.
What are we loosing?
Hemmingways, Pom Mahakan and Woeng Nakhon Kasem. Names that sound alien to foreigners but are synonymous for the loss of cultural heritage in Thailand. These are only three places in a long list of historical evidence, communal life and architectural heritage that disappeared from Bangkok’s cultural landscape. The first (Hemmingways) being a European influenced, golden teak-wood gingerbread mansion from the 1910’s which was the home of the Regent of Siam in the early twentieth century. Pom Mahakan was a two century old settlement behind Bangkok’s old city wall. It was among the oldest living communities in Bangkok. Woeng Nakhon being an entire block in Bangkok’s Chinese district that was a successful trading community, also known as the Thieves Market. Read more here in Somchai’s story. In a city like Bangkok where traffic congestion, floods and pollution is getting all the attention, the destruction of our cultural resources doesn’t seem to rank high on people’s list of urban issues. The areas of significant cultural and architectural heritage are finite and powerful business interest combined with public and government inertia could lead to the whole-sale demolition of much of Bangkok’s history and character outside the domain of temples and palaces. Massive investments in mass transit systems, usher in the next wave of rapid urban development and we can’t take the city’s diverse heritage and authentic character for granted anymore. READ A NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARTICLE HERE
Effects of gentrification
Development however goes beyond the demolition of buildings or neighborhoods. As investors redevelop entire neighborhoods, public space and sidewalks are being cleared of street vendors in a campaign of taking back public sidewalks. This may upgrade property value but downgrades the quality of life for thousands of people who depend on access of street food as a means of income as well as for consumption. We are dedicating an entire blog on this topic here. (coming soon)
The most adverse affect of gentrification is not just the loss of our historic memory and diverse culture but the displacement of people.
When your rent suddenly goes up 50% you have no other choice but to move to suburban or exurban areas. Far away from the businesses and work places which means more time spent commuting, less time spend at home as well as increased isolation, depression and stress levels. Even long-time residents who can manage to stay in gentrifying areas may develop a sense of isolation and reduced sense of belonging when their friends and family have been displaced and the character and makeup of the neighborhood has drastically changed. While some people see it as “progress”, somebody else described it as the spacial expression of economic inequality and it constitutes a threat to the city’s vernacular heritage and many of its residents. Thus gentrification is for many also a social justice issue.
The way forward
How can we contribute to make sure gentrification occurs in the best possible way? How can government, private sector and local communities create neighborhoods that are integrated, diverse and economically thriving while affordable? While there is no one right answer, there are movements and initiatives that give us a glimpse of community mobilization and the potential of preserving the city’s heritage and character. Preservation doesn’t have to be a lost cause. As Frederic Stouts suggests, communities can take a more active role and should see themselves as social entrepreneurs, possessing cultural assets which they can use to negotiate with the government and the market. As tourism professionals we should help build capacities and help promote local heritage and communities to elevate their status in the eyes of the public and government. This is where I see my resources shifting in toward experience design, capacity building and connecting to a market and that’s where I hope to see you the traveler. Engaging and enjoying the heart of Thailand and its people while also enjoying the nature and amenities that this country offers.
But also in tourism we need to see a more radical mind-shift. As of now it seems that there is an obsession with driving up arrival numbers by focusing on mass tourism from emerging markets like China and many travelers already bemoan the disneyfication and symptoms over-tourism in many parts of Thailand. This kind of tourism may benefit a few players with short-term profit maximization but it contributes to over-tourism, environmental degradation and a commodified and disneyfied version of Thai culture. Such goals will hurt Thailand in the long run as more and more tourists will opt for alternative destinations and word of mouth and social media will accelerate the process.
But there are also positive signs. The Tourism Authority is taking aim at supporting innovative and responsible travel companies. We have been selected among 24 travel startup to design and offer products to highly conscious travelers from the nordic market. The government shows signs that it wants to drive innovation and strengthen the sustainable tourism sector. If the government would start to communicate across different ministries to takes a broader look at heritage in order to recognize, support and promote vernacular heritage this could be first step in the right direction. The private and public sector in collaboration with local communities can create the innovations necessary to create sustainable economic growth that improves the livelihood at the grassroots level, the well-being of our environment and preserve the very asset which is our diverse and beautiful heritage. For that however we need to discuss, define and recognize heritage in its full scope.
How do you view preservation and development? Leave your comment below.