Uneven Development in Bangkok

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Uneven development, as described by Neil Smith, takes a dynamic form in Bangkok. Thailand's capital is a mix of affluent complexes connected by an ultra-modern Sky Train and informal settlements connected by a network of polluted canals. The streets evoke "Blade Runner" cityscapes, as vendors, informal shops and tuk-tuk taxis make the most of every square meter under modern skyscrapers. Street life brings together both ends of the city's spectrum.

Informal settlements along the canals near the busy Thanon Phetchaburi, less than one kilometer from the luxurious Siam Paragon Shopping Center.

Windmill Park, a high-end housing complex on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Bangkok slums, as in many other cities around the world, contrast with high-income areas mostly in terms of population density and landscape. Some of the most affluent residents, who can afford to own cars and use the Sky Train, seek open green areas outside the city. Lower-income people cannot afford to live far from their jobs, both in terms of time and money. Other wealthy citizens separate themselves from poverty vertically, rather than horizontally, in skyscrapers.

Khlong Toei, one of the best-known informal settlements in Bangkok, has existed since the 1960s on land owned by the Port Authority of Thailand.

The area between Lumphini Park and the Royal Bangkok Sports Club, not far from Khlong Toei, concentrates some of the most exclusive apartment and office buildings in the city.

For many years, the city government dealt with slums with evictions. They justified displacement by saying settlements looked unpleasant and could harm tourism and national pride. In the 21st century, policies evolved to become friendlier to poor communities, with new government services such as the Community Organization Development Institute (CODI).

Informal settlement in the Pracha Chu area.

New middle class real-estate development in the Ramkhamhaeng area.

Despite the importance of this evolution, the accumulated problems that millions of low-income citizens face each day far outweigh government efforts. In the face of such limitations, as well as persistant aggression against informal settlers, some communities have taken the lead. The Bang Bua Canal Community took an exemplary path to solving their housing problems with support from the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. Their success offers a promising example for cities around the world.

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

+ share


  1. This post begs the question: which came first? Was it the “affluent complexes” or the “informal settlements” (which seems to me to be a euphemism for slum or ghetto, words that should not be avoided in the study of urbanism.) Khlong Toei, it is pointed out, has existed since the 1960s—this is surely before the age of skyscrapers. The rich must have moved in, pushing the slums out—immoral, no? Neil Smith, cited above, argues in “Toward a Theory of Gentrification” that gentrification is run by production with the goal of maximizing capital, and when the rich take over an urban space, it is only because they see a potential for profitable redevelopment. It is not vindictive millionaires crushing slum-dwellers; it is capitalism forcing accumulation of surplus. This seems to me to be an argument for government policing of spatial restructuring by class—yet, as shown above, the government isn’t doing enough to protect the poor.

    Thailand’s economy is necessarily diverse. Recent years have seen an upswing in finance and technology in the country, but it must be realized that this is only possible by the support of a flourishing agricultural sector. This transition to an industrial economy rests on agriculture and older industries in Thailand—developers must not forget this historical debt. The ideal solution would be to have the lower class take advantage of this engorged industrial sector by capitalizing on all of the employment opportunities that industry provides. Instead, they are forced into “informal settlements,” which are falsely separated and dichotomized with developed and affluent areas, making it difficult for the very poor to access jobs or infrastructure intended for the wealthy. This may be the fault of the moneyed. As the author notes, “wealthy citizens separate themselves from poverty;” this is achieved through white flight, gentrification, urban renewal, and all of the other processes that laud rich over poor. By recognizing that all classes are necessary in a newly industrializing nation—viewing the United States as an example—lines between rich and poor need not be drawn so starkly, both psychologically and spatially.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.