At this very moment, with every breath we take, major delta cities across the globe are sinking, including New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, New Orleans, and as well as my city, Bangkok. Here is the usual version of climate change. This is mine. Nothing much, just a crocodile on the street.
This is an urgent impact of climate change: over sinking cities. Here, you can see the urbanization of Bangkok, growing in every direction, shifting from porous, agricultural land—the land that can breathe and absorb water—to a concrete jungle. This is what parts of it look like after 30 minutes of rainfall. And every time it rains, I wish my car could turn into a boat. This land has no room for water. It has lost its absorbent capacity.
The reality of Bangkok's metropolitan region is a city of 15 million people living, working and commuting on top of a shifting, muddy river delta. Bangkok is sinking more than one centimeter per year, which is four times faster than the rate of predicted sea level rise. And we could be below sea level by 2030, which will be here too soon.
There is no coincidence that I am here as a landscape architect. As a child, I grew up in a row house next to the busy road always filled with traffic. In front of my house, there was a concrete parking lot, and that was my playground. The only living creature I would find, and had fun with, were these sneaky little plants trying to grow through the crack of the concrete pavement. My favorite game with friends was to dig a bigger and bigger hole through this crack to let this little plant creep out—sneak out more and more. And yes, landscape architecture gives me the opportunity to continue my cracking ambition—
to connect this concrete land back to nature.
Before, Thais—my people—we were adapted to the cycle of the wet and dry season, and you could call us amphibious.
We lived both on land and on water. We were adapted to both. And flooding was a happy event, when the water fertilized our land. But now, flooding means...disaster.
In 2011, Thailand was hit by the most damaging and the most expensive flood disaster in our history. Flooding has turned central Thailand into an enormous lake. Here, you can see the scale of the flood in the center of the image, to the scale of Bangkok, outlined in yellow. The water was overflowing from the north, making its way across several provinces. Millions of my people, including me and my family, were displaced and homeless. Some had to escape the city. Many were terrified of losing their home and their belongings, so they stayed back in the flood with no electricity and clean water.
For me, this flood reflects clearly that our modern infrastructure, and especially our notion of fighting flood with concrete, had made us so extremely vulnerable to the climate uncertainty. But in the heart of this disaster, I found my calling. I cannot just sit and wait as my city continues to sink. The city needed me, and I had the ability to fix this problem.
Six years ago, I started my project. My teams and I won the design competition for Chulalongkorn Centenary Park. This was the big, bold mission of the first university in Thailand for celebrating its hundredth anniversary by giving this piece of land as a public park to our city. Having a park sounds very normal to many other cities, but not in Bangkok, which has one of the lowest public green space per capita among megacities in Asia. Our project's become the first new public park in almost 30 years. The 11-acre park—a big green crack at the heart of Bangkok—opened just last year.
For four years, we have pushed through countless meetings to convince and never give up to convincing that this park isn't just for beautification or recreation: it must help the city deal with water, it must help the city confront climate change.
And here is how it works. Bangkok is a flat city, so we harnessed the power of gravity by inclining the whole park to collect every drop of rain. The gravity force pulls down the runoff from the highest point to the lowest point. This park has three main elements that work as one system. The first—the green roof. This is the biggest green roof in Thailand, with the rainwater tanks and museum underneath. In the dry season, the collected rain can be used to water the park for up to a month. The runoff on the green roof then falls through wetlands with the native water plants that can help filter and help clean water. And at the lower end, the retention pond collects all of the water.
At this pond, there are water bikes. People can pedal and help clean water. Their exercise becomes an active part of the park water system. When life gives you a flood, you have fun with the water.
Centenary Park gives room for people and room for water, which is exactly what we and our cities need. This is an amphibious design. This park is not about getting rid of flood. It's about creating a way to live with it. And not a single drop of rain is wasted in this park. This park can hold and collect a million gallons of water.
Every given project, for me, is an opportunity to create more green cracks through this concrete jungle by using landscape architecture as a solution, like turning this concrete roof into an urban farm, which can help absorb rain; reduce urban heat island and grow food in the middle of the city; reuse the abandoned concrete structure to become a green pedestrian bridge; and another flood-proof park at Thammasat University, which nearly completes the biggest green roof on an academic campus yet in Southeast Asia.
Severe flooding is our new normal, putting the southeast Asian region—the region with the most coastline—at extreme risk. Creating a park is just one solution. The awareness of climate change means we, in every profession we are involved, are increasingly obligated to understand the climate risk and put whatever we are working on as part of the solution. Because if our cities continue the way they are now, a similar catastrophe will happen again...and again.
Creating a solution in these sinking cities is like making the impossible possible. And for that, I would like to share one word that I always keep in mind, that is, "tangjai." The literal translation for "tang" is "to firmly stand," and "jai" means "heart." Firmly stand your heart at your goal. In Thai language, when you commit to do something, you put tangjai in front of your word, so your heart will be in your action. No matter how rough the path, how big the crack, you push through to your goal, because that's where your heart is.
And yes, Thailand is home. This land is my only home, and that's where I firmly stand my heart. Where do you stand yours?
Kòp kun ka.