Presenting Land and Housing

I start our discussion this morning on land and housing with the inspiration of the Ramkhamhaeng road, outside of our hotel. The street is shadowed in the canopy of one of many of Bangkok’s great highway overpasses which strains against the congestion of the city. The tempo of the street and sidewalks are widened and narrowed according to the coming and going of the night market. These two processes sit beside each other: the pressurized highway bowing under the weight of growth and capital and the night market, a display of collective intent that’s built on individual interests. Together they exemplify a complex negotiation of relationships, livelihoods and rights to land that we see mirrored all over the city of Bangkok.

To begin we look at the great pressures on land. These pressures fall broadly in three categories: those that are infrastructural, those that are part of larger systems and those that are environmental. The three overlap in complex ways in which to discuss one is to discuss them all. For example, the construction of an international airport is infrastructural, the building of which reflects the demands of the global economy (which is systemic), and finally it’s position in the city has environmental consequences.

The overlapping pressures of speculation, migration, sprawl, flooding, infrastructure to name only a few were most striking in our short research in the city. Here it became evident that those who are most vulnerable in the city have been squeezed into precarious and dangerous situations, often quite literally pushed into canals by competing pressures or compacted into little pockets dotted about the city.

While pressures are easily identified, they are not so easily understood. For example, how is it, we asked ourselves, that a single landowner in two districts of Bangkok can have two different opinions on the rights of slum dwellers on their land? Why is one plot of land not negotiable with the landowner when the neighbouring plot, of the same size, with the same landowner is fair game? These contingencies run through all the experiences of the communities we met during our visit and point to both drawbacks and opportunities.

The drawbacks are significant: First that tenure arrangements are lengthy, and that often each new community has to re-engage with the landowner on a host of different issues related to specific pressures, so progress at scale is difficult. Second, knowledge sharing is limited because what worked for one community will often not work for the other. Third, land agreements carry with them an issue of unpredictability. How can you be sure your MOU will be honored? How will you know that the owner will not want to sell the land when your thirty-year lease is up?

But each drawback is an opportunity. Contingency is reinterpreted as flexibility: where one thing is uncertain, there is the space for change. Re-engaging with the landowner may be a lengthy process but it means that tenure agreements can become increasingly innovative, that as the community becomes more and more empowered, so too will they find opportunities in the spaces between the constant pressures on their land.

It’s tempting in our research to see tenure arrangements in a hierarchy of security. Ownership is the most secure, then leasing, then having an MOU, then renting, and finally squatting. But if that was the case,why would communities opt out of a 30 year lease in exchange for renegotiation every 3 years? Why would a community rather rent from a slumlord than from the Treasury department? What foresight would they have that would endear them to that relationship? Contingency in it’s most positive sense requires reinforcement. The question is: how do you secure tenure in an environment of insecurity?

There are a number of reinforcements used to secure land beyond tenure arrangements with landowners. We’ve seen communities use the media, we’ve seen them use culture, we’ve seen them build powerful networks. But primarily, and running through all our sites were demonstrations of collective intent. This comes in the form of Concrete. Block. Little. Houses. In a. Row. Saying “we are here and we are organised together. We are a community and we get things done.” This is the vision, and this is how Baan Mankong communities have defined for themselves what security entails.

The mechanisms of design and housing construction used in Baan Mankong: drawings, plans, the systematic layout of typologies on a landscape subdivided into plots, all compile into a necessary formalisation of an existing building process. The rigour and legitimacy of those mechanisms do indeed give communities greater security against the pressures crushing against them.

But Baan Mankong projects are borne of urgency, and sparked by events, by conflict. These are evictions, fires, environmental concerns, just to name a few. In this sense, design is demonstrative. To use design in this way, as a quick response to a threat or an event, neglects its potential within time and space. As they mature into their houses, the network of Baan Mankong will begin to ask the question, where do these designs leave us 15, 20 years down the line? Without a more creative use of land and typologies Generation 2 of Baan Mankong will struggle again to adapt their homes to changing environmental conditions, growth, and the aspirations of Bangkok as a whole.

Could it be, then, that urgency to secure tenure through building in the short term comes at the price of security through design in the long term? We ask about collective input in the design process: How would the outcomes change if plans were conceived as the fair integration of disparate parts towards a collective outcome instead of the sum of individual plots which are in themselves fairly divided? We imagine this would not only have an impact on the way individual communities would come together, but how they might transcend their spatial pockets and have greater integration with the city.

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