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Is Chiang Mai a sustainable city?

By Carole Beauclerk

Last month, I conducted an interview with Duongchan Apavatjrut Charoenmuang, Ph.D., whose answers to the questions that I posed were already known to me in many cases, since I was the editor of her book, Sustainable Cities in Chiang Mai: A Case of a City in a Valley”. But I wished to share some of her views and her subject, Urban Sustainability from a multi-disciplinary approach, is so compelling and relevant today.

1. Tell us a little about your work at the Social Research Institute (SRI) or/and Heinrich Boell Foundation (HBF).

I am a researcher, a specialist in city planning, at the Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University. All my research is related to urban studies: development concepts, the roots of cities, local beliefs related to human settlement, and people’s role in shaping their cities. I was very fortunate to receive long term funding from the HBF to conduct the Sustainable Cities Project in which I investigated the sustainable city concept from Western, the Asian, and the Thai context and then, concentrated on Chiang Mai province. Finally, I focused on the Wat Gate area, which is a prominent historic neighborhood in Chiang Mai.

2. What led you to write this book ?

This book was originally the fourth of my sustainable city series. First of all, I wanted to find the answer myself as to what were the main causes that made my beloved home town change so drastically in the past two decades. When I investigated the literature on Chiang Mai, there was no single book that covered the history of this city to the present day. The book I wrote included every aspect, from history, local beliefs and wisdom, geographical contexts, socio-economic concerns, administration and public’s views and the chronology of peoples’ movement to save and shape this city. The book also covered the sustainable and livable concepts of different agencies and local residents who declared the Chiang Mai Sustainable City Resolution. I thought that my research could be inspiring for people in other places to conduct a similar project in their own cities. The English version is the translation of the Thai one with additional explanation to the points that foreign readers might not understand.

3. What was the hardest data to research for this book ?

It was difficult to find long-term statistics even for simple items like population because responsible agencies always change methods of collecting and disseminating information. You’ll find a sharp drop of some figure without any explanation from the agency involved. It was also difficult to find information for recent projects like the Mega Projects some of which were strongly opposed by local residents.

4. What was the most enjoyable part of writing this book ?

The local beliefs and wisdom which enable me to comprehend the thoughts and cleverness of my ancestors who knew how to set the social norms by presenting them through the law of “Kud”. When I saw old photos of Chiang Mai, it reminded me of the life I had here when I was a child.

5. You mention the law of Kud (คั")" Could you explain it and give some example of how it has or hasn’t been followed in the history/ development of CM ?

The Law of “Kud” was a part of our local beliefs that was used as an unwritten law to control people’s behaviors and to consume natural resources properly. In the past, people followed this law strictly, for example, it was forbidden to “Tomsamut” meaning not to fill up water sources " rivers, ponds, wet land areas. Because this law was not followed, the rivers have been encroached upon and have caused serious flooding problems.

6. How do some of the more negative aspects (e.g. Mega Projects) of the book make you feel ?

I was upset that government officials broke the law to please politicians and exploited our natural resources which belong to the citizens. People do not realize that destruction of forest areas on the southwestern part of the city will raise the city’s temperature because we used to get a southwest wind that brought moisture from the Indian Ocean. When the wind flowed through this rich forest area, it brought cool breezes to the city. Now that the area is deforested and replaced by concrete, I guarantee that the city temperatures will be higher. I feel sorry for younger generations that will be living in an unsustainable environment.

7. Finally, where can we purchase the book ?

At the Social Research Institute, Chiang Mai University. The books have also been donated to the Urban Development Institute Foundation, so you can get it from there as well as Suriwong Book Center, Duangkamol (DK), Caf้ Pandau, and Miss Chocolate. In Bangkok, you can get it from Chulalongkorn Book Center.

I might add that, while a scholarly work, it is eminently readable and explore such topics as the origins and history of Chiang Mai and Lanna, Buddhist and animist principles and values as applies to the city’s current challenges of social, cultural, and environmental preservation. I hope that our readers will pick up a copy of this crusading work. A large portion of the purchase price (1,000 baht) will be contributed to the Social Research Institute and the Urban Development Institute Foundation (Chiang Mai), whose aim is to make our city, Chiang Mai, a sustainable one.

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