Kotchakorn Voraakhom: An architect who helps sinking cities fight floods

Written by the author Isabelle Gerretsen, CNN

When floods ravaged Bangkok more than a decade ago, Thai landscape architect Kotchakorn Voraakhom was determined to help his sunken hometown fight this deadly climate threat.

The floods “changed my life,” said Voraakhom, who studied at Harvard University’s School of Design. “(This was) the turning point, when I started using the tools of landscape architecture (to address climate change).”

The 2011 floods killed hundreds and displaced millions. 65 of Thailand’s 76 provinces were declared flood disaster areas.

“For us, climate change is primarily a water crisis,” he said. “Our people can feel the impact in their daily lives, with worsening floods, rising sea levels and severe droughts every year.”

The city of water

Bangkok, a city of nearly 11 million people, is extremely vulnerable to flooding. It lies low in the Chao Phraya River Delta, and is only 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) above sea level. According to the World Bank, 40% of Bangkok could be under water by 2030 due to heavier rains. The city is already sinking two centimeters (0.8 inches) every year.

In many sinking cities, including Bangkok, current urban infrastructure is not fit for purpose and “is reducing our ability to adapt (to climate change),” Voraakhom said, adding that many of Bangkok’s canals and canals have been destroyed or collapsed. He stated that they are spoil it “We need to rethink the way (cities) fix and develop them,” he said.

Voraakhom has created a vibrant skyline park on a bridge spanning the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. Credit: Land process

“For us, as a city of water, the only way is to return to our amphibious culture and restore our relationship with water,” he said.

Voraakhom’s flagship projects in Bangkok include a park that can hold a million liters of water, Asia’s largest rooftop farm, an elevated walkway installed on a bridge, and a lush canal park in the heart of the city.

The architect said he integrates nature and water into his designs to create landscapes that help alleviate flooding and add greenery to densely populated cities. Until now, Thailand has tried to deal with the flooding problem by building “higher and higher dams”, he said, arguing that this was the wrong approach and a “fear-based solution”.

The main question that sinking cities like Bangkok must focus on is: “how can we live with water, without fear?” said Voraakhom. This idea of ​​”living with water” is at the core of his design approach.

Kotchakorn Voraakhom Thammasat Urban Agriculture on the Green Roof.

Kotchakorn Voraakhom Thammasat Urban Agriculture on the Green Roof. Credit: LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Long term investment

One of Voraakhom’s most innovative designs is Centenary Park, built on the campus of Chulalongkorn University in downtown Bangkok.

The park stores a large amount of rainwater and prevents the surrounding streets from flooding. Built on a slope, it diverts runoff from hillside gardens and artificial wetlands. From there, the water flows into a retention well, with a capacity of almost 480,000 liters. There is an additional water tank underground, which can hold almost 160,000 liters. The entire park can store one million liters of water.

Voraakhom also created Asia’s largest rooftop farm, Siam Green Sky, turning 22,400 square meters (241,000 square feet) into a lush paradise. The farm that recycles food waste from the restaurants in the building below and uses it as plant fertilizer also slows down, absorbs and stores large amounts of rainwater. It is then used to plant vegetables, herbs and fruits, as well as rice. Inspired by traditional Thai farming practices and rice terraces, the architect created an intricate, layered landscape that allows rainwater to flow down and into the vegetable and herb gardens.

Siam Green Sky recycles food waste from the restaurants in the building below and uses it as plant fertilizer to grow vegetables and rice. Credit: Land process

“The most important thing is to (carry on) the wisdom of the people of the past who lived with water,” he said of using traditional architectural practices.

Bangkok has more than 35.5 square meters of green space per person, compared to New York’s 248 and Singapore’s 710, according to the Siemens Green City Index. Projects that provide residents with green spaces are essential in a highly developed and populated city.

According to Diane Archer, a researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute in Bangkok, Voraakhom’s urban green spaces are an important contribution to the urban landscape, and show the valuable role that nature-based solutions can play in tackling environmental problems. “Not only are they designed to combat flooding by acting as water storage areas, but they also contribute to urban cooling, clean the air and provide vital green oases in our concrete jungle, so important for mental and physical health. Even on a small scale, these parks are beneficial to Bangkokians. , and we could do more,” he said.

Voraakhom’s designs and the lessons behind his work are spreading beyond Thailand. In April, he was appointed designer-in-residence at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is researching climate-vulnerable sites in the flood-prone city. It is also working with communities to save Malaysia’s George Town Unesco site from sinking.

Voraakhom has transformed Chong Nonsi from a stinking canal in Bangkok’s financial district to a vibrant park. Credit: Land process

Voraakhom notes that the benefits of his projects extend beyond flood management. Green spaces help reduce the urban heat island effect and provide public health benefits such as reduced air pollution. City dwellers also tend to live longer in leafy neighborhoods, according to a study by the Barcelona Global Health Institute.

“Being resilient is the ability to thrive and survive,” Voraakhom said. “As humans, we have this ability, but our urban infrastructure does not have it and does not allow us to.”

He said green spaces and climate-resilient cities are a “good long-term investment” and “the best solution for the next generation”.