Seeing Green

Seeing Green

by Tisha Alvarez

A landscape architect, Kotch Voraakhom seeks to turn her hometown of Bangkok, Thailand into a resilient city that can combat the effects of climate change.

When people envision a city of the future, they most likely picture flying cars zooming past skyscrapers, an endless landscape of concrete and glass. But for Kotch Voraakhom, a city of the future means a place that remains connected to nature, with pockets of green inserted in a vast urban sprawl.

Voraakhom is the founder and CEO of Porous City Network, a landscape architecture firm whose mission is to make more resilient cities by addressing ecological concerns through innovative design. As she narrates in a TED Talk, Voraakhom grew up with the concrete jungle as her playground, delighting in the little plants that she could see growing through the cracks in the cement. She later channeled this love for green things and her innate creativity into a landscape architecture course, eventually obtaining a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Voraakhom didn’t see herself using her skills to design resorts or golf courses and instead took an interest in public spaces. But after a few years abroad working on projects she wasn’t passionate about, she decided to move back to Bangkok. However, she says, “in Thailand, we didn’t have the job that I was looking for.” So, she founded her own design firm with a staff of three.

Serendipitously, a design competition was launched to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok’s oldest university. The school called on designers and architects to submit proposals for the Chulalongkorn University Centenary Park, the first major park project in Bangkok in 30 years. A veritable who’s who of the Bangkok design world joined the competition. Voraakhom’s groundbreaking design was chosen as the winner.

The Centenary Park

The First of Its Kind

When conceptualizing the design of the park, Voraakhom thought about one of Bangkok’s main problems: It’s a sinking city that is constantly flooded. The urban sprawl was built on wetlands, with infrastructure covering up old canals and waterways. As a result, rainwater has nowhere to go, inundating the city even after just 15 minutes of rain. This was what led her to design a park that is able to retain and recycle rainwater.

While Voraakhom acknowledges that other competition entries may have had more beautiful forms or addressed even deeper ecological issues, she believes that her firm’s winning design directly addressed a real concern in Bangkok and put the university at the forefront of resilience design. “We inclined the whole park to collect rain and [built] the biggest green roof in Thailand. And then all the rainfall goes to the wetland first and then the reservoir,” she explains.

The gently sloping park can collect up to a million gallons of rainwater, which travels from the highest point (the green roof) to the lowest point (the retention pond). It attracts many visitors with its other features: an amphitheater where events like music festivals are held (with the green roof serving as a makeshift stage), jogging trails where moms push strollers along, wetlands where kids can play, and outdoor seating areas where students can gather. Stationary bikes were placed by the pond to help visitors get some exercise Simwhile simultaneously circulating water in the pond. All these are set against a lush backdrop of plants and trees that have attracted new wildlife to the area. Roads surrounding the park were expanded, not to accommodate more cars, but to make way for tree-lined walkways and bike lanes.

Kotchakorn Voraakhom speaks at TEDWomen 2018: Showing Up, November 28-30, 2018, Palm Springs, California. Photo: Marla Aufmuth / TED

The award-winning park is now an oasis in the middle of Bangkok, with its highest point providing a unique, sweeping view of the flat city. But completing the project was not without its challenges: Some stakeholders doubted Voraakhom’s abilities as she was fairly new in the industry in Bangkok and this was her first park.

“Many people told me to give up because I was very stressed,” she recalls. “[But] I felt like this was such a lifetime opportunity and it might not come again… And this is my passion. Sometimes, some clients don’t want you, want to kick you out, hire someone better, a more experienced designer who they trust. [But] I had to just really stick around. If you feel hopeless, you go to sleep, and then wake up the next day, and do it again.”

She took inspiration from her hardworking parents and reminded herself that the real failure is in giving up. And she was spurred on by her best quality: “I think I’m very crazy,” she says with a laugh. “When people say you are crazy, I feel that is such a compliment! Because craziness pushes you to the edge with courage in a way that normal circumstances [won’t]. Craziness gives you the courage to do it anyway. I [did] it with three people! My staff is really tired now,” she quips. (She now has over a dozen people working in her firm.)

Amplifying Her Mission

Her ingenious park design earned her a spot in a number of prestigious fellowships: the Asia Foundation Fellowship, the Echoing Green Fellowship, the TED Fellowship, the Equity Initiative (EI), and the Atlantic Fellows. Each experience refined her ideas, built up her confidence, and exposed her to like-minded individuals, both in Asia and beyond.

The TED Fellowship is somewhat different from other fellowships as it favors those who have already taken an idea and run with it, as opposed to those who were just shaping their ideas. Voraakhom’s Centenary Park fit the criteria quite nicely. “I think it’s not only the idea itself but people are looking for a solution for climate change,” she says. “We have been talking about it for several years. Policy doesn’t move much, right? So, I think [people] are longing for real implementation… I think this park became a tangible [example of what] people can do.”

While the TED Talk that came with the fellowship gave her plenty of exposure and amplified her message, the EI fellowship added another dimension to her work in quieter, deeper way. Prior to joining EI, Voraakhom’s main concern was addressing climate change, but the fellowship helped her see the bigger picture: Improving public spaces doesn’t just mitigate floods and lessen air pollution but is also beneficial to public health.

Voraakhom has come to realize that the Centenary Park, for example, can help people feel relaxed, give them a space to decompress, and ultimately help keep diseases at bay. EI has thus strengthened her advocacy of building a greener city. After all, she says, “If you don’t have a healthy city, how can people be healthy?”

Branching Out

Much like the raintree—one of her inspirations behind the design of the Centenary Park—Voraakhom’s work has the potential to grow far-reaching roots and branches, giving new life to a city that is sinking under the weight of rapid development. Voraakhom is intent on introducing more ways to address her hometown’s problems and believes it doesn’t have to be on the same scale as the Centenary Park. After all, it’s difficult to find space in an already crowded city. “It’s not necessary to have a [really big] space but there has to be a concern with how you deal with water. [A] building can have a rainwater tank or have enough green space,” she says. “There’s always a way. There’s always a way, [no matter] how dense you are.”

The legacy she wishes to leave behind has less to do with recognition and more to do with people’s enjoyment of the spaces she created, even after she’s long gone. “I want to create more of this space and when [people] come, they just feel like, ‘Oh, this is such a good park!’ They feel good,” she says. “I think that’s enough because the trees will grow for a hundred years or more.”

Postscript

Since the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, Kotch has actively supported Thailand’s response to the virus, assisting the public health system’s recalibration of its hospital spaces as well as the preparation of Thailand’s public parks for post-pandemic resilience.