Universal Design and Urban Resilience: Bangkok, Thailand

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Source: DPU Blog

“A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are ageing, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.”

A very interesting piece from a friend of mine working in OpenSpace Thailand. I wrote about one of their projects recently in A space to dance: “the community of Stars”, Bangkok, ThailandRead the full blog about Universal Design here.

Happy reading!

What is city?

City

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Actually, I had been waiting for the Daily Post to chose the topic of ‘City‘ for a long time too as I am continuously searching to better understand how people around the world relate to, understand and experience this, universal but very complex, notion. Cities bring so many different human and non-human elements together in a tightly packed space, forcing them to encounter each other, creating multiple connections. So when the Daily Post posted City, I seized the opportunity to get some insight into others’ experiences.

From the outcomes of the Daily Post, the notion of city was understood in so many interesting and curious ways. For Crushed by the City, it is a space of alienation; for City if is a place that is ‘like a disease’ that those who live within it cannot recognise; for City Burden it is a place that you need to get away from; for I still Found me in the Midst of the City it can be a meditative experience; but it is also a camouflaged evil for others Urban Evil.

Coincidently, around this time, a friend – Lou lou – also wrote to me about her experiences in different cities on her trip around the world, which you can follow in her blog, inward-outward.

“I am in California right now and to be frank LA and San Diego were not my thing. San Francisco is better but I need to explore some more to have a better idea. It occurred to me yesterday why I am not liking the cities in Cali so much…. They just feel quite individualistic and materialistic.

People talk about cool neighbourhoods that have nice cafes, shops and restaurants and I cannot help but think to myself: what if I do not want to eat/ drink and do not want to buy anything (traveller’s budget and not space in my backpack)? Is there anything more to it?

I have the strong suspicion that the life here (and in other places in the world) revolves largely around consumption and I am thinking that other places I have visited gave off a stronger sense of community due to their parks, communal spaces where people could interact and exchange. Also here people rely largely on cars to commute much more than they do on public transport.

So my questions I guess are: have you come across these phenomena during your studies? Do you think the atmosphere of a place and mentality of its people is shaped by how the city is mapped out? What can be done in terms of urbanism to create a stronger sense of community and connection between the people?

I just feel that in cities people can become so disconnected and since I have started my trip I feel this strong desire to connect and exchange, a feeling that a lot of travellers feel. But I do not see why this desire should be limited to travelling…

Anyhow as you can see I have been thinking quite a bit and just wondering about those things especially as I have visited quite a few cities now and gotten curious about how they function.” – lou lou

These are such important questions and I do not have an answer to them, in fact they are amongst the questions I seek to explore through this blog too. However, I think a part of the answer has everything to do with how cities are formed and constructed, and by ‘construction’ I don’t just mean laying bricks, I also mean how people like you and I contribute to shaping the city in our daily lives.

Our city

Small changes in the city can have a big impact and reach many people by altering their experiences as they walk through a city. One of my favourite examples it the Urban Knitting Graffiti or ‘Grandma Graffiti‘ movement. What better way to make the concrete jungle a more colourful experience?

You can also see some of my favourite examples in Bogotá visiting this post ¨The memory is on the walls¨. Bogotá is to me, out of the cities I have visited, one where I have seen the most inspiring examples of how people intervene in shaping their urban experience on a day to day basis. The memory is on the walls shows you some examples of urban graffiti that touch on the social and historical complexities of the city and of Colombia. Other, bigger changes, carried out by people that want to shape their cities can be through movements or political campaigns, for example Long Live Southbank. Have you ever been to London Southbank? It’s an area along the river Thames where you get a mixture of second hand book stalls, a wonderfully adapted skate park full of crazy colourful tags and many cafés and food stalls. However, slowly, gentrification is creeping up on it. Long Live Southbank (llsb), the movement, hopes to preserve the history, culture and dynamics of the area, protecting it from the effects of the increasingly rich and growing metropolis.

I think the more people that walk the streets, use the public spaces and dwell in the chaos of a city, are involved shaping it; the more they will engage with the ‘product’ and make it unique to their personal, cultural and societal needs rather than the standardised model of a ‘city’ that meets only the needs of the market like that which llsb is fighting.

Our spaces in the city

Public spaces are an example of what shaped lou lou’s experience and I was sad to hear, but also understood why she found that in cities, people disconnect. From TED, Amanda Burden tells us that a city and its public space is like a “fabulous party” in her talk on “how public spaces make cities work” . Open spaces in cities are opportunities, (1) for commercial investment, which is sadly often the leading principle of city developers. But the second is (2) for the common good of the city. These two things are often not in line with each other, Amanda argues, and therein lies the conflict. So as Lou lou points out, some spaces give off a stronger sense of community, as they have been formed following certain principles or unintentionally, by the common good of the city. These spaces have more things to do than to consume, because they are made for everyone. Something I have also felt is that these spaces, ‘communal’ spaces, are simply more inviting to the outsider, the explorer.

“A successful design always depends on that very individual experience” – Amanda Burden

I guess the parallel I am trying to build here is the link between how you and I, as individuals or collectively, shape the spaces around us in the city, and how Amanda the urban planner, argues that urban open spaces should be designed.

Having said that, there is something else that a different friend of mine keeps mentioning, which is the notion of ‘user-experience’. It’s something that not all those involved in the design of cities seem to be very aware of. At least, not those who designed spaces that are un-organic, supervised by security guards that shout at you when you walk on the grass, and surrounded by pristine grey walls that make them look like hospitals making you feel like a sickness in the city; yes, that is how I feel about some public spaces.

Or perhaps they are aware of it but they can’t be everyone, be everywhere and think of everything at the same time. I guess nobody is perfect. But the best part is, designers, architects and engineers don’t have to do it all alone, they have thousands of citizens that are interested in making their cities better; more people-, pedestrian- and child-friendly for example. I have explored some examples of this in Bogotá, ColombiaBristol, UK and Bangkok, Thailand where people have taken the re-shaping of urban spaces in to their own hands.

The most recent – and most basic yet most human – example that I have explored is in a small informal settlement on the edges of Valenzuela City, Manila. Here people make a public space theirs and in doing so make it obvious what they need and want from the space too. I was bemused by how many different uses for the same space, were found by the community living there.

I walked in to a market in desperate need for a towel to wipe the drips of heat off my face and was greeted by someone who pointed out to me exactly where I could find one. Looking around, the kids where running through and amongst the stalls, the young and old men and women were all involved in organising the stands and unloading the merchandise. On the other side of the market was the community hall, which was where I was going at the time. Within the hour I was back outside, walking in the same place where the market had been, but this time it was a basketball court. Through, I went, trying to dodge the young and adult men playing ball.

In my three or four visits later that day, the same space had been transformed to a school playground for the nursery, to a car park, to a garbage collection point and back to a playground. What in other places in the city takes up vast quantities of space and resources, here the same space, with the contribution of the local community was meeting the needs of many different people, of all shapes and sizes.

“Everything you desire in 30 by 15 sq. meters…”

‘City’ to me

Open spaces in cities are highly contested, which is why they are so complex and very difficult to design. Yet in this case the space is shared by many living in the surrounding, and very dense, urban slum and there is hardly any need for ‘design’ seeing as people have taken design in to their own hands in a highly organised way. But as the above examples show, open spaces and the city as a whole is an opportunity; An opportunity to shape individual and collective experiences.

Perhaps I have a romanticised vision of cities, however the fact that they are shaped by people and that people are shaped by cities creates an interdependent relationship that gives us the power to have a greater say in how our cities are made. That is, if we take the opportunity. This is why to me, ‘city’ is a magical phenomenon, a powerful but also dangerous energy and an incredible opportunity. But it is up to us to make it so.

To be a Bristolian, or not to be a Bristolian…

One of the great and most difficult things about being a third-culture-kid is that when people ask you ‘where is home for you?’, you rarely know (1) how to answer, and if you’re lucky enough to have an answer, (2) where to start.

What this means is that you are born in one place, your mother is from another place and your father is from yet another. You’ve also, probably, moved around the world a lot. Finally, more often than not, your friends are scattered all over the world, keeping in touch with them depends on your possession of a smartphone, and you could probably never really settle in any place knowing your childhood friends will be there because they will probably have moved by the time you’ve bought the plane ticket and moved out to where they are. Going ‘back home’ is an unfamiliar concept to you.

Everyone will say ‘you’re so lucky! you’re like a true citizen of the world!’ and you will answer, out of politeness ‘yeah, I’ve been very lucky!’. But deep down, you might think to yourself, ‘I’ve been lucky, but I still wish I felt that I had a home’.

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Do you know that saying, ‘home is where the heart is’? Well, good news, recently in my own third-culture-kid life, when I was visiting Mexico, I read something wonderful “Mi casa tiene alas” (my home has wings). Thank you Edward James.

Mi Casa Tiene Alas – Edward James, Xilitla, Mexico

Although what the artist may have meant is very much, open to interpretation. Coming across this thought was in a way, very liberating for me, as I had been struggling for several years to come to terms with my identity and the idea that I may never settle because wherever I am, I am a foreigner. So this phrase spoke to me almost instantly. It marked the moment that I realised I was free from my past and could chose to settle anywhere, any day. Realising this is easier said than done, people tell you all the time, but it takes a lot to pack up your things, leave your past behind you and start afresh.

So now I now wander with a greater sense of freedom than I had before, or at least I’d like to think I do… perhaps that is why I am writing this.

I brought myself to Bristol at the end of last year (not so long ago) and have instantly fallen for it.

I’d like to tell you that I don’t mind the incredibly strong gusts of wind that have almost blown me over on my bike several times… or the fact that I was walking down the street on Sunday and literally experienced about three different weather conditions in the space of about 20 minutes; shining sun, pouring rain and hail. Anyways, I guess that’s English weather for you, in all it’s glory.

On the other hand, one of the first things I came across on my arrival here is the Bristol Cable, a newspaper that is “created and owned by the people in the city”. A media co-operative that you can join and support for £1 a month.

On the back of the paper the Cable explains:

This isn’t a charity appeal. This isn’t a one off campaign. You’re investing your money and getting a return: community ownership, quality journalism and free education. No other city’s media is owned by it’s residents. 

Within the pages of the 6th issue (my first read) you can find reports, discussions, opinions and visuals covering all sorts of topics relevant to defining the quality of life of Bristolians. From questions about sexism and the council, addiction, the city’s historical composition, taxing, the changing role of the media in the city and more. These are topics focused on issues within the city that real people can relate to in their day-to-day experiences.

If you think about it, this is quite refreshing considering the alternative, which are issues on either confusingly irrelevant or overwhelmingly depressing events, both of which you can do little about, except perhaps engage in intense discussions that leads to the even more generally deceptive conclusion that: “Our world is a little more depressing every day… “

As I scanned the pages, smiling at the mere idea of a ‘people’s paper’, I came across an article that made me smile even more, Desde Barcelona a Bristol; Una historia de la migración de España ¿Qué se busca – y que se encuentra- en esta ciudad? (From Barcelona to Bristol: A story of migration from Spain to Bristol: what do people look for here, and what do they find?). Yes, it was written in both Spanish and English.

The article’s title is pretty self explanatory, but in a way its presence in both Spanish and English mirrors a small reality of the city, which is that of a comfortable habitation with diversity.

My initial impression is that the city thrives on its diversity. The people’s paper is for everyone. Much like the city of Bristol, anyone is welcome, can contribute to and be a part of it.

And so I return to my original question…

To be or not to be…

Urban Dictionary tells us…

A Bristolian is someone from the city Bristol in England.  As some people may think that all Bristolians are chavs, they are in fact not ALL chavs. Often known to bring a warm presence into a room unintentionally.

As a constant foreigner, I know the feeling of being foreign. Yet here, in Bristol, that feeling is not so obvious. So I would add to the above definition, a Bristolian is someone who is from or lives in, but also contributes to the city; as the city seems to welcome anyone who will contribute to its thriving culture and energy. It probably takes time and perhaps some practice to be a Bristolian, but it seems like that’s a decision that you get to make as an individual, irrespective of where you were born, who your parents are or what language you speak; which to a third-culture-kid is quite a welcoming feeling.