11 July 2024

Unveiled as a grand facelift for Thailand’s best-known river, the Chao Phraya Promenade project has made zero progress since its opponents secured an injunction from the Central Administrative Court early last year.

Another nail was hammered in the project’s coffin last month, when the Supreme Administrative Court dismissed the appeal against the injunction. The ruling left the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) with an even smaller chance of realising its vision to rival the grand riverside promenades of Shanghai, Paris or London.

However, that chance has not completely evaporated yet, with the project only suspended pending the court’s review.

What is the Chao Phraya Promenade?

Part of the “Chao Phraya for All” scheme, the promenade would run for just over six kilometres along both banks of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, extending from Rama VII Bridge to Pinklao Bridge. The development will cost about Bt8 billion.

The promenade scheme evolved out of the BMA’s plan for riverside bike lanes, which first emerged around 2015. The bike lane idea, however, quickly expanded to encompass not just the Chao Phraya Promenade but also Chao Phraya for All.

Screengrab from the Chao Phraya River Development video presentation published in 2020.

What is Chao Phraya for All?

The ambitious scheme aims to upgrade the Chao Phraya riverfront with 12 work plans, including the Chao Phraya Promenade. The others are: enhancing the embankment landscape, improving piers, developing riverside pavilions, constructing public service areas, creating routes for better access, revamping historical canals, developing communities, improving religious sites, developing riverside landmarks, and constructing a concrete walkway along the Chao Phraya.

The BMA promises the scheme will offer all Bangkok residents equal access to the riverfront and its new public spaces. For example, it will feature bike lanes that connect to public transport systems, and a pedestrian walkway that would open up the majestic river to all city dwellers and visitors.

The BMA also expects the scheme to prevent encroachment by unregistered construction that has plagued the riverbank for decades.

Controversy goes on

However, the unveiling of Chao Phraya for All quickly sparked concerns among both experts and members of the public. Critics feared that without careful study of its impacts, the mega-project would do more harm than good.

In 2016, a civic network called the River Assembly demanded a careful review of the project’s impact on communities, the environment, and cultural heritage in the area. That same year, the design for the new Bangkok Museum – a Chao Phraya for All landmark – whipped up a storm of criticism for its resemblance to the Crystal Island project in Moscow. Though the architect insisted it had not been plagiarised, the design was discarded anyway.

Opposition to the scheme has grown over time, fuelled by accusations that authorities have blocked public participation and failed to disclose information. Critics add that City Hall rushed implementation of the scheme.

So, when the BMA tried to launch bidding to construct the Chao Phraya Promenade, it met with stiff protest.

Screengrab from the Chao Phraya River Development video presentation published in 2020.

Reactions from opponents

More than 30 organisations have joined the fight against the Chao Phraya Promenade since 2018, as the BMA pushed ahead with backing from the government. The network of opponents lodged a complaint with the Central Administrative Court on November 21, 2018. The court asked for more documents before deciding to accept the complaint in June 2019.

On February 5, 2020, the Central Administrative Court issued an injunction barring authorities from going ahead with the Chao Phraya Promenade until a ruling on the case is delivered.

On March 30, 2021, the Supreme Administrative Court upheld the lower court’s decision.

Reasons for the opposition

Assoc Prof Panit Pujinda, who teaches town planning at Chulalongkorn University, insists the promenade will destroy riverside communities and the privacy of their residents. Meanwhile, at night, the promenade could become a haven for illegal activity that turns the area into a danger zone, the professor said. The promenade would also deface the landscape and identity of the Chao Phraya River, he added.

Panit believes giving the public access to the riverfront is a good idea, but he said the BMA should do this at certain spots of the riverbank, not an entire stretch. Crucially, the Chao Phraya Promenade is not part of a city masterplan and thus not compatible with Bangkok’s key infrastructure, he said.

Critics also point out that construction of the promenade will encroach into the river, impacting local ecology while also potentially blocking drainage from riverside communities.

Screengrab from the Chao Phraya River Development video presentation published in 2020.

Future of Chao Phraya Promenade

The BMA suspended the project in February 2020 following the court injunction. It also pointed out the promenade was born of an Interior Ministry policy to revamp areas of the Chao Phraya that had become degraded.

The Cabinet agreed with the idea, prompting the BMA to begin work with various agencies and committees on drawing up the Chao Phraya for All scheme.

At this point, however, it remains in doubt whether the Chao Phraya Promenade construction will ever start. Supporters argue that riverside promenades have revived the fortunes of many cities around the world. For example, China’s Changsha has benefited from the Changsha Xiang River West Bank Commercial and Tourism Landscape zone. In the United States, Chicago has been given new public space with construction of the Chicago Riverwalk Expansion.

Yet, the project in Changsha covers just 2.45km of the riverbank while the one in Chicago covers only 1.2km.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk