Kotchakorn Voraakhom, LANDPROCESS: Designing cities for water

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Kotchakorn Voraakhom, LANDPROCESS: Designing cities for water
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Kotchakorn Voraakhom, LANDPROCESS: Designing cities for water

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Kotchakorn Voraakhom, LANDPROCESS: Designing cities for water
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Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, is sinking fast, like many other cities around the world. How can urbanists turn this congested megacity, threatened by flood and saltwater intrusion, into a resilient amphibious metropolis?

Kotchakorn Voraakhom, Ecogradia’s guest on this fifth episode of season 2, is a Thai landscape architect who has built a remarkable career out of modelling answers that combat Bangkok’s sinking. Her firm, LANDPROCESS, seeks to return her hometown of over 10 million people to a more traditional water-centric lifestyle.

Kotch — as she likes to be called — sculpts land to channel water. This contouring approach is borrowed from regional agricultural practices, and tailored to city buildings that mimic topographical forms such as mountains and terraces.

Episode outline

00:08:43 Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park
00:09:00 “If you want to handle the water, we have to create a ‘landform’, right? You have to understand that some parts need to be flooded […] You [need] some of kind of dish-and-dyke typology.”
00:12:41 “…when it comes to the end of the whole watershed like [in] a delta city like Bangkok — many other cit[ies]… New Orleans — we have to be porous enough to also hold the water and then release the water. It’s a quality that I think is very unique when it comes to delta cit[ies].”
00:19:36 Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm
00:20:50 “In the mountainous area, people are very smart to play with the runoff […] to create food. But I’m wondering why can’t that happen in the city like Bangkok? […] We have so much rain and we don’t want a lot of runoff on the streets […] Rice terraces […] can actually slow the runoff and create us organic food […] It’s not only just like [terraced] building is for humans, but it [can] actually create our food […] and [in the process] slow the runoff.”
00:29:21 Bangkok
00:35:22 “Right now, the city is [built to the] maximum. The city planning [allows a certain] FAR: you just build it without having community participation […] Everyone just take[s] it for granted that we have to [build to] the maximum. I think this is such a wrong mindset of how we build our city.”
00:37:55 “But the problem is [the] bureaucracy system: it’s so hard to change, right? […] When you wanna shift one word, it takes like five years. Not even just in Thailand, but I went to COP 26, 27 […] and we’re [leaving] such [an] important issue like climate change to these people and [they] only use one tool: public policy. It’s not enough.”
00:41:02 “And it’s not [that] we don’t buy into [these 2030 UN goals]. We want this to happen […] The same question you[‘re] asking [of] the Thai people […] I’m asking you back — and asking the world back […] Are we going to achieve this?”
00:46:24 “We [have] fought so hard [to blur the boundary between] an architect, landscape architect, urban designer […] OK, stop! In reality, everything is actually on the land. We need to incorporate more ecologists and many other [professionals].”
00:47:01 Becoming Kotch
00:51:00 “Contextualise […] what you want to achieve… [Ask what is] needed in the context […] and I think you react accordingly.”
00:54:35 “We need to practice more compassion, no? Not just only passion […] Passion […] is great to have, but [we often] forget [the] ‘com’ — like ‘com’ [in] community, come together… com-passion; like passion as a group, as a whole. Because we cannot […] tackle many other problem[s] without, we, working together… without compassion… with each other, between profession[s], between nations.”

Summary

Long before roads and jams became a norm, Bangkok was a city of canals and boats. Water was intrinsic to Thailand’s everyday life where floods were celebrated as renewal, replenishing the soil with sediment.

One could assume then that embracing water again should come easy to Bangkokians. It’s no longer the case: that bond has been dwindling over the years and shaken to its core after the 2011 floods that killed hundreds and displaced thousands across the nation.

And complicating matters, density is an ever-growing strain. Kotch urges planners to restore Bangkok’s water network — especially the many canals that have been covered or degraded over the years — as architects find ways to integrate roof gardens and urban farms to slow stormwater flows, produce food and reduce cooling loads.

The Chulalongkorn Centenary Park lies at the heart of the city of Bangkok (Thailand), creating a much-needed public space and amenity that also serves as a flood mitigation measure.
© VARP Studio

Two scales of action — architectural and urban — often coalesce in the parks LANDPROCESS has designed. For instance, several new buildings with rooftop greenery channel water by gravity from one fringe of the Chulalongkorn University (CU) Centenary Park, all the way to the detention ponds at the other end.

The park has a detention activity lawn that holds water, keeping it from entering the drainage system of the area during storm events.
© LANDPROCESS

Nested within these grounds is a rectilinear green lawn, sloped to act as a flood plain. During storm events, the space fills up, holding water long enough to significantly reduce the load on nearby drains. As the land empties and dries up, it naturally returns to its function as a public space.

The main lawn is another water detention plain that doubles up as a public space and an open-air amphitheatre during dry periods.
© LANDPROCESS

Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm (TURF) is another ground-breaking experiment. At the centre of these university premises sits a mound-shaped building with vegetated terraces running down its sides that produce food for the campus year-round. These layered facades can also slow down stormwater and send it to ponds at the base of the building for collection.

Asia’s largest organic rooftop farm, the Thammasat University Rooftop Farm in Bangkok (Thailand) is essentially a building designed as a mound with rice terraces that sits astride water detention ponds.
© LANDPROCESS

As the Thammasat Park shows, designing to perform multiple roles at once is key when hatching up resilient hydrological systems for built-up cities like Bangkok: it is a building, public space, farm, and water detention system, all set into one. Kotch argues that this approach is critical where land use is constrained and landforms must be altered to create new flows.

The terraces are farms that slow down the flow of stormwater and can be accessed as public space.
© Panoramic Studio, LANDPROCESS

Kotchakorn Voraakhom pushes the envelope beyond individual projects. She is a critical voice at home, shaping policy and planning in her native city and country, and an esteemed contributor to several climate initiatives around the globe. She is an engaging speaker who shares her experience and insight with candour.

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Episode Notes

Keep reading if you want to deep dive into this interview’s content and get more out of it. You can also find out more about this episode’s guest/s and sponsor/s, and the team that put it all together.

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

This episode is brought to you by:

The Holcim Foundation for Sustainable Construction

The Holcim Foundation helps drive systemic change towards a more sustainable built environment. It was founded in 2003 to define and promote the key principles of sustainability for the construction sector and is committed to accelerating the sector’s transformation so that people and the planet can thrive.

The Foundation has investigated various aspects of sustainable construction via a series of roundtables and conferences with international experts. It has also recognised excellent contributions to this field with the Holcim Awards which are considered the world’s most significant competition for sustainable design.

Committed to a holistic approach that recognises the equal importance and interdependence of four key goals, the Foundation combines the collective knowledge, ideas, and solutions of our global community of experts with our recognised platform of international competitions to democratise thought leadership for the entire sector.

Today, the Holcim Foundation is proud to accompany Ecogradia’s new podcast and its host, Nirmal Kishnani, with whom we share a common goal: contribute to a just, equitable, and sustainable future via sustainable construction and design.

W  |  holcimfoundation.org

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  LinkedIn  |  YouTube  |  Instagram

As mentioned in this episode

If you heard it in this episode, we likely have a link for it right here. Click on any topics, people, buildings, places, products and/or technologies listed below to learn more about each of them.

00:05:11 “…But then there was the 2011 flood, which was quite devastating, right?…”
Impact of the 2011 Floods, and Flood Management in Thailand” | Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA)
00:12:24 “…and this is a sponge city…”
What are ‘sponge cities’ and how can they prevent floods?” | Climate Champions
00:12:31 “…And you cannot use sponge city in the delta city…”
Climate Adaptation of Coastal Delta Cities Around the World” | Climate Adaptation Platform (CAP)
00:14:04 “…the concept of the ‘monkey cheek‘…”
What Are ‘Monkey Cheeks’ and Can They Solve Flooding in Bangkok?” | The Beat Asia: Bangkok
00:24:38 “…So by plugging in[to] urban farming [we’re] actually complet[ing] the circular economy…””
What is a circular economy?” | Ellen MacArthur Foundation
00:29:41 “…So it sink[s] yearly [by] one centimeters or more…”
Bangkok is Sinking, but so are other Southeast Asian megacities…” | Global Geneva
00:35:29 “…and this is FAR: you just build it…”
Real estate basics floor area ratio” | TimesProperty.com
00:38:09 “…but I went to COP26, 27…”
COP27 (27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC)
00:39:25 “…a policy initiative called Bangkok 250…”
Bangkok 250” | LANDPROCESS
00:40:51 “…Are we going to achieve UN goals – the 17 goals – in 2030?…”
THE 17 GOALS” | United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA)/Division for Sustainable Development Goals (DSDG)
00:02:54 “…So I did my undergrad at Chulalongkorn University…”
Chulalongkorn University (Chula)
00:03:08 “…And you went on to Harvard GSD after that…”
Harvard University Graduate School of Design
00:07:19 “…that led you to set up LANDPROCESS and Porous City Network…”
LANDPROCESS
00:07:19 “…that led you to set up LANDPROCESS and Porous City Network…”
Porous City Network (PCN)
00:14:29 “…this is a concept [that] come[s] from our previous beloved King who passed away …””
Bhumibol Adulyadej” | Britannica
00:19:43 “…coincidentally is also a university: the Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm…”
Thammasat University
00:02:40 “I’m actually… was born and raised in Bangkok…”
Bangkok” (Thailand) | Britannica
00:07:44 “…there was a competition about this Centenary Park — Chulalongkorn Centenary Park…”
When Bangkok floods (and it floods a lot), this park does something amazing” | IDEAS.TED.COM
00:12:48 “…many other cit[ies] — New Orleans…”
New Orleans” (Louisiana, United States) | Britannica
00:19:43 “…is also a university: the Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm…”
Thammasat University Urban Rooftop Farm” | Architizer
00:19:55 “…Their Rangsit Campus is 42 kilometres north of Bangkok…”
Thammasat University Rangsit Campus” | Thammasat University
00:40:22 “…and design some of the project[s], including Chao Phraya Sky Park…”
Chao Praya Sky Park – Rethink Wasted Infrastructure for Urban Adaptability” | Archello
00:21:45 “…from the retention ponds around the building…”
Retention Ponds” | Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM)

There are no products and technologies mentioned in this episode.

Host
Nirmal Kishnani

Producer
Maxime Flores

Editorial assistant
Abhishek Srivastava

Sound technician and editor
Kelvin Brown  |  Phlogiston

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