Chiang Mai, Thailand – Human Settlements I: Housing Developments and Sprawl

July 2012 – One of my favorite aspects of the Thai neighborhood is its unplanned, organic nature. The way old and new designs, modern and traditional  lifestyles all seem to instinctively unravel upon the urban landscape. Both the built environment and life within appear to follow a sort of informal rhythm that gives the neighborhoods a welcoming and lively feel. The mosaic of the Thai neighborhood is casually assembled over time through the collection of urban parts that somehow find a way to come together.

Unhealthy modern housing developments in Chiang Mai are threatening to formalize traditional Thai neighborhoods and spoil the organic beauty that they posses.

Housing developments and planned living communities have the imaginative potential to bring us interesting urban design, exciting urban culture and efficient systems of organization. The possibilities for inspiring urban development is seemingly endless when we embedded sustainable design and healthy habits within our human settlements.

The majority of modern living developments in the world fall well short of this incredible potential. Most of the well designed developments are only available to the world’s wealthiest global citizens and the majority of developments are built upon a foundation of unhealthy values. Values that promote consumerism, segregation, egoism and the unsustainable use of global resources.

The blind idealization of the isolated suburban community has had a long time to sink deeply into the depths of American culture to the point where the suburban lifestyle appears to be the popular preference among Americans. Post-World War II development of the American suburban landscape created an unsustainable system of human settlement. With the automobile and individual consumption at the heart of the suburban lifestyle, the unhealthy epidemic of suburban development spread across the North American continent. Over the last 60 years, the U.S has witnessed the unhealthy growth of habits cultivated by suburban sprawl and now the nation feels the crunch of an unsustainable system in a world strapped for resources.

The American Dream, once a beautiful message that promoted the possibility for opportunity to anyone who arrived on American shores,  has been repackaged as a satire-like image of the suburban lifestyle. This same package is now being sold in Thailand but with a 21st century facelift. Suburbanization is young and fresh in Thailand. Wealth and modernity are arriving so quickly that the image of the housing development is presented like a fashionable show of socio-economic status rather than a healthy alternative to more traditional ways of living.

Gaudy billboards of glitzy homes and sports cars paint the urban landscape and the pages of local publications. Excessive advertising displays bombard shoppers as they first enter into the popular shopping malls in Chiang Mai. Attractive women wearing tight fitting company outfits are eager to show you around the model displays of homes and condominiums while fancy T.V monitors give you an inside look into Chiang Mai’s hottest new housing development. Are we talking about Chiang Mai’s latest night club or a neighborhood where people can raise a family?

Thailand was mostly rural and undeveloped just a few decades ago but strong economic growth, global influence and modernity are rapidly transforming  the country. Such sudden growth within a traditional culture that resists change has created some interesting combinations both within Thai society and also upon the built environment.

A brand new housing development with an extravagant entranceway may be-side-by side with a traditional Thai neighborhood. Homogeneous, secluded and separate, the housing development is in complete contrast with a typical Thai neighborhood which is organically formulated from a mixture of old and new, rich and poor, public and private, order and disorder.

Anyone spending a long time in Chiang Mai will notice how the traditional Thai built environment is quickly disappearing only to be replaced by stylish cement structures which are built for fashion rather than duration. There is very little public discourse about healthy city expansion or historical preservation, primarily because public engagement and personal expression aren’t encouraged in Thai culture. This lack of dialogue only accelerates the disappearance of the traditional Thai built environment which is quickly being replaced by trendy and inefficient modernity.

Is there a way to modernize Thai development in a sustainable way while also preserving historical heritage and local identity?

This question isn’t limited to Thailand. In fact, I think it’s important for cities and communities around the world to engage with this conversation so that modernity arrives in a healthy, efficient and culturally conscious way.

I recently read an article about the rapid extinction of languages around the world and how a great deal of human wisdom and ingenuity is lost when a language disappears. I think the same can be said for our human built environments. The built environment holds wisdom of its own – it has stories to tell, truths to share and lessons to teach us. If we replace the traditions of our older human settlements for the newest trend in development, then we sacrifice a piece of our human history and a piece of our human memory.

After decades of suburbanization that has drained the energy out of many North American cities, an incredible urban revitalization has taken place across the continent over the last ten to twenty years. In partnership with this movement back to the city, there’s been a push for historic preservation and rejuvenation of city heritage. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the two North American cities where I’ve most recently lived, both seem to have invested lots of energy into strengthening the cities’ historical districts, accentuating the tale of each city’s historical legacy and preparing the city for historically conscious development in the future.

As we expand our current cities and plan for new ones, it’s important that we have an awareness of the habits we are cultivating within our human settlements.

One tragic flaw of many modern housing developments is their tendency to be isolated ecosystems. They segregate populations and create divisions among communities. They build inefficient systems of organization that promote bad habits in humans. In fact, this isolating system allows the people who hold power in the world to divide and conquer us, keeping us locked within their economic systems of exploitation. As a species, we need to start healing our wounds, closing our divisions, and fostering a more unifying human experience.

For all living things on earth, the environments we live within and the systems we create effect the evolution of the species as a whole. For instance, ants have sophisticated societies because they’ve established harmonious systems to live within and now they’re one of the most prosperous creatures on earth. The city is the most influential and widespread system of human settlement we have created thus far which means that our species will evolve as our cities evolve. As a result, the health of our human settlements is probably the most important issue comforting humans today.

As the world continues to urbanize through the 21st century, I believe the habits of our cities will become the habits of our human species and vise versa – the city as a reflection of ourselves and ourselves as a reflection of the city. Our cities and newly developed human settlements turn into short sighted, hedonistic sprawl when our cities are built upon a foundation of unhealthy urban habits. If we begin cultivating healthy habits within our cities, then our human species will evolve with these same positive habits . In this way, our human settlements can become one of our strongest assets rather than our biggest burdens.

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