Unequal and unjust: The political ecology of Bangkok’s increasing urban heat island

Unequal and unjust: The political ecology of Bangkok’s increasing urban heat island

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Written by:

Danny Marks

First Published:

09 Jan 2023, 12:15 pm

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Unequal and unjust: The political ecology of Bangkok’s increasing urban heat island

I developed the idea for this paper after reading a Bangkok Post article that Bangkok has the least amount of green space of all major Asian cities—only three square metres per person.  In addition, I was suffering from the city’s sweltering, unrelenting heat which certainly felt more oppressive than in Lopuri, a provincial town two hours north of Bangkok, where I had often visited my Thai grandmother. I therefore wanted to learn why Bangkok was hotter than the surrounding areas – not only in terms of the physical science but also in terms of the social science, particularly the political-economic processes which have co-produced this heat and the related lack of green space.

In this article, John Connell and I use a political ecology framework to examine the drivers of Bangkok’s urban heat island (UHI) which during the dry season can cause the city to be as high as 6-7°C hotter than surrounding areas, and to learn whether the city’s UHI affected certain groups morae than others. We conducted a literature review as well as a number of interviews with key actors, including government officials, architects, academics, and civil society leaders.

We found that Bangkok’s UHI derives from three major sources: (1) growing vehicle emissions, (2) high levels of energy usage, and (3) limited green space. We also discovered that the urban poor contributed the least to the city’s UHI but suffered the most from it due to their living with limited greenspace while commuting in vehicles and working in places that lack air-conditioning. In contrast, the wealthy, such as real estate developers, shopping mall owners, and automobile corporation owners, suffer less because they usually have better access to public parks or private green space such as in private residential housing estates and condominiums while they contribute the most to the city’s UHI.  

We also identified how local governmental weaknesses, administrative fragmentation, prioritisation of economic growth, and limited buy-in from the private sector have intensified Bangkok’s UHI, and imposed numerous barriers to policies that would reduce heat such as establishing green space, restructuring urban transport, or creating and following an effective urban plan. Ideas mooted to remedy these problems have yet to come to fruition, largely because of bureaucratic inertia and fragmentation and divisions within the relevant lead organisations. While pocket parks, and improved leadership and organisation, may eventually play a small part in overcoming this government inertia, the political ecology that has shaped urbanisation in Bangkok, has imposed a growing UHI that over time has proved increasingly difficult to reverse or remedy. Our paper suggests that urban thermal environments do not only exist in the present and can be easily ‘resolved’ through planning and engineering measures, but rather are products of social and political processes spanning decades.

 

Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.