Chiang Mai, Thailand – The Soi: Balancing Planned and Unplanned Space

January 2012 – A soi is simply an alley way but it’s arguably the most important element of the Thai built environment.

Sois lay themselves upon the urban environment in the same meandering fashion as streams and rivers lay upon the natural environment. The organic expansion of the soi encourages a specifically Thai breed of unplanned urban sprawl, yet the soi’ s adaptability also serves a crucial urban function. The soi can be a social space, a community space, a vehicular space, a market space, a space for food and drink and even a sacred place.

The transformative nature of the soi provides an urban space for people to live freely and spontaneously upon their urban environment.

The famous American urbanist Jane Jacobs calls the theatrical action of urban life the “ballet of the street” but it’s the ballet of the soi in this case. Each time I pass through the soi in front of my apartment building, I smile and wave to the locals perched in the plastic chairs that line the edges of the soi. The soi is an extension of my home so I occasionally eat dinner with the women who operate the laundry shop across from my building, I laugh with the children who  run up and down the soi, the local mechanic on the soi changes my motorbike’s oil once a month and the woman who cooks fish at the edge of the soi is someone I expect to exchange a smile with each time I leave for work. A small hole along the soi is transformed into a lively drinking space where locals spend evenings over whiskey and club soda. The soft chanting of passing monks fills the space below my balcony each morning before work. The soi is indeed a sacred place as well.

Just a few weeks ago there was a community event in my soi and the whole space was blockaded by an assortment of chairs and tables with a plastic pavilion overhead. During the three day event, the soi was claimed as a permanent community space, shutting down any chance of using the soi as a through pass. Despite the annoyance of having to take the long way to work in the morning, I couldn’t help appreciate the informal way people approached life on the soi. They adapted the soi to their specific needs and used the space as they pleased. This is the beauty of unplanned, unstructured space.

Growing up in a post-industrial city like Philadelphia, old industrial spaces were essential elements of my youth. The explorative world of abandoned railways, old industrial buildings and out-dated places provided my friends and I with a natural urban playground. From our middle school days of using a video camera to film our silly adventures, to the high school era when we would use those same places as teenage hangouts, post-industrial spaces gave us the opportunity to act and live organically in spaces that had long out grown their intended use. This ability to live freely and naturally upon our urban space is lost in highly planned communities where every space is designed for a specific purpose.

However, there are indeed downsides to this free flowing form of urban space, particularly within the soi system. Without any delineation of space, the soi can become a harsh place as motorbikes and cars dominate with their sheer might. The absence of sidewalks leaves pedestrians without a safe passageway and makes the soi a particularly dangerous place for children and animals. The soi in front of my apartment building has a few sharp curves where the combination of careless drivers and a little bad timing can create some ugly situations.

I question the sustainability of this soi system as Chiang Mai continues to grow and develop. The soi does indeed allow for growth in the sense that if you want to build something, just connect a soi to it and it’s now part of the urban environment. This ‘in the moment’ development might be sufficient for now but as high rise buildings continue to populate the city, how will the city be able to handle the extra traffic?

Each new high rise invites a new flock of motorbikes and cars onto the already crowded roads. During the winter months, both seasonal arrivals from Bangkok and international tourists from cold climate countries flood the streets and push traffic beyond its threshold. Even more, Chiang Mai has no official form of public transportation other than the red, semi-public songthaew pick-up trucks.

The traffic in Chiang Mai is already beyond the limit and there aren’t any signs of alleviation in sight. This isn’t a healthy way to expand a city.

The soi is the organizational antithesis of effective urban planning but it’s also the beautiful manifestation of organic city growth. The soi serves as a functional urban element while also providing a space for us to act naturally upon our urban environment. I think the soi is an interesting reflection of Thai culture which avoids conflict and controversy in order to keep things smooth at the present time.

Inspiring city design and ingenious urban programs are improving the quality of life in cities all over the world. For example, simply zoning our urban spaces for specific uses or delineating transportation space on the road provides an efficient structure to an otherwise chaotic urban scene. However, this pursuit of fluid urban efficiency also has the potential to lead us toward unhealthy, micro-managing habits. Too much structure and too many rules can limit the organic beauty of how humans live upon the earth. In a way, rigid planning policies can be seen as the codes for constructing our very own ‘Matrix’ much like the computer simulation program in the movie.

Successful urban planners in the 21st century will need to learn how to balance designing cities with the healthy efficiency of smart urban planning policies while also creating a space where humans can live organically and creatively within their city. Both planned space and unplanned space each offer something precious to our cities and it’s our job to decide how we want to live within these urban spaces.

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