Urban Edginess

Where the City Meets its Future.

The Problem with Electric and Self-driving Automobiles:


I support the movement toward electric vehicles and self-driving automobiles. They are a necessary component of any comprehensive assault on the looming crisis of human-induced climate change. There is, however, an emerging problem that should be examined and solutions proposed and implemented— the sooner the better.

The automotive system in the United States, as it is in most countries, can be described as predominately individually owned vehicles operated on collectively owned and maintained public rights of way. In the US, this system of right of ways is funded, not from the government’s General Fund, but chiefly by a type of user tax based upon levies on gasoline and other petroleum products used to power the vehicles.

Since about the turn of the Century, miles driven per person have fallen consistently year after year. Increased mileage rates per gallon of gasoline have risen putting additional stress on the various Highway Trust Funds. Major replacement of aging bridges and tunnels must now use the government’s general funds if they are to be repaired at all.

What will happen to the nation’s roads and highways during the 2020s when electric cars and trucks are expected to make up significant portions of the vehicles using the nation’s roadways? They are now given a free ride. That cannot continue. Solutions should not wait for the crisis to occur that may leave the highway fund in a hole that it may never be able to fill.

Although there appear to be several credible ways to resolve this emerging problem, we are talking about changing a nation’s entire system for funding its most significant transportation network upon which its economy is based. It will take time to work out the politics, procedures, and technologies of any system we settle on.

We should be doing this now before not after the crisis hits us.


Musings on the Recent Coup at the California Coastal Commission.


Those who know me know that many years ago I played a role in the fight to protect coastal resources. As chief counsel to the initiative created California Coastal Commission, I managed the development permit process and wrote most of the Governmental Powers and Funding element of California Plan from which the California Coastal Program emerged from the legislature in 1976.

That program consisted of three parts. The first part was to reconstitute the California Coastal Commission with significantly expanded jurisdiction and very specific rules and standards with which to regulate new development.

The second part created a new entity, the California Coastal Conservancy because some resources were too valuable to be left to the vagaries of a regulatory process and their preservation often inconsistent with the mandates and programmatic requirements of the state’s park and wildlife acquisition agencies and finally to restore those resources where pre-existing development damaged or degraded them.

The third element was a bond act to fund the Conservancy and the other land acquisition agencies.

Following completion of the Plan, I joined the legislature as a staff consultant to a Special Senate Committee on Land Use. When the original bill we had drafted reflecting the plan faltered I served as staff for then-Senator Jerry Smith and worked to successfully shepherd all three elements of the plan the program through the legislative process.

Later, I became the first Executive Officer of the Coastal Conservancy and when I left and went into private practice, I sometimes represented, as an attorney, those to whom the markedly increased value we had created for those who obtain a coastal development permit was irresistible.

I write the foregoing as background and evidence that I have some experience in coastal matters that enables me to comment and analyze the importance of the political coup that has recently occurred reflected by the removal of the Commission’s Executive director Dr. Charles Lester who I do not know and about whose competency I have no opinion.

Some have said the coup benefits the development community at the expense of coastal resources. That is undeniably true, but its import more sinister.

The Coastal Commission has been remarkably effective in carrying out its mandate to assure that new development does not irreparably damage irreplaceable environmental and recreational resources along the coast. It is, however, also notable and often missed that, among governmental agencies, its process up until now has been remarkably open to all and free of secret influence and collusion.

Since its creation, the Commission has adopted ever increasingly strict regulations on disclosure and the behavior of all the participants in the process including the staff and the commission itself. Decision making has been brought out into the public arena.

True, I and others have at times criticized the Commission for notable failures to protect a specific resource or the staff for callous behavior and its tendency to avoid preserving or restoring a resource where it could in favor of simply denying development, but on the whole, the process seems to work and has grown over the years to be relatively free of corruption and political influence despite the public fishbowl in which it is forced to operate and the financial strength and political power of many of the interests involved .

Those seeking permits had to rely on those knowledgeable about the Commission’s procedures and provide generally technically competent information to the Commission. The Commission Staff, in turn, had to develop the ability to analyze the information and present their conclusions in public. Communications from those trying to influence Commissioners were disclosed. The public had access to the information and reasonable confidence in the independence and competency of the process.

Now, at least for the largest of development interests, I fear this action to remove the Executive Director has pulled the real decision making back to Sacramento where accountability is often hidden; where money talks and not technical analysis; where laws can be ignored in return for favors.

The Governor, Jerry Brown, cannot continue to deny complicity in this. He has simply chosen bad old government corruption and secrecy over open government.

Is this the end of the Coastal Commission as an effective guardian of the Coast? Certainly it opens the way for the largest and most destructive of developers to have their way with those coastal resources remaining in private hands.

As for the Coastal Program as a whole, it is in generally good shape. For the past 40 years, vast amounts of critical resource lands have been removed from the vagaries of the regulatory process where David Brower once told me, “All our victories are temporary and all out defeats permanent.” Local communities, land trusts, and state agencies have begun the process of restoring those resources on public lands damaged by pre-existing development.

Once during the battle for passage of the various pieces of Coastal Legislation a legislator asked me, “I fly all over California and when I look down I see lots and lots of wild natural lands why do you want to stop development on this little bit?”

“That’s just the point,” I responded. “With all that land, much of it not particularly sensitive, why do you want to build on this irreplaceable resource?”

The real reason why local governments often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt:

I usually hate it when a post begins with something like, “I was going to write about___ but___.” So I won’t. What I was going to write and did is included at the end of this Diary. It is basically a discussion of some studies regarding growth, development, and physical planning that appear in a blog called, “Strong Towns,” that I found interesting.

What I did decide to do, however, is meander a bit and speculate about some things that the blog suggested to me.

Having a career arc extending from running one of the more active at the time civil rights groups existing during the dark ages of the movement, writing much of the plan and legislation for what still remains one of the nation’s most significant land use control programs, California’s Coastal Program, and administering major portions of it, chairing California’s High Speed Rail Authority, interspersed with attempts to save the world within the counter culture, reforming a state’s mental health laws, a religion’s liturgy, a city’s approach to homelessness and so on as well as succeeding and failing at various professional, personal and financial endeavors more times than I care to admit, I have developed the arrogance to believe wholeheartedly that experience breeds wisdom and I know what I am talking about. I also have never found a run-on sentence I have written that I have not fallen in love with. (Note, for the literalists reading this, actually I do not believe that experience equals knowledge and success implies competence. There is too much anecdotal and scientific evidence floating around that supports that they do not to think otherwise.)

Because of my interest in physical planning and development and its interplay with economic, social and political thought and action, I found the studies described in “Strong Towns” worth noting for the simplicity with which they identify the problems they examine. The authors of the blog write from the perspective of consultants arguing for adaptive reuse of existing urban areas. Despite the potential self-promotion, their analysis appears spot on. They do however, it seems to me, fail to recognize that the syndrome they criticize in the suburbs eventually may repeat themselves even in the “walkable cities” they envision.

About 80% of the posts I have written, here and in other venues like Daily Kos, attempt to address, sometimes well and other times not so well, a simple contention that there may be a ghost in the machine we call humanity. That unless we consider the possibility that humanity rather than the apex of evolution may be little more than a doomed branch of the evolutionary tree and compare the implications of each assumption, we may be limiting our ability to understand what is happening and what needs to be done to assure our own happiness and survival.

For example, Malthus’ analysis of the relationship between population and resources may be only the tip of the iceberg. Consider the following from the ever perceptive Brad DeLong:

“To put it another way: In 1870 the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would have bought him (not her: women were paid less) about 5,000 calories worth of bread–5,000 wheat calories, about 2½ times what you need to live (if you are willing to have your teeth fall out and your nutritionist glower at you). In 1800 the daily wages would have bought him about 3,500 calories, and in 1600 2,500 calories. Karl Marx in 1850 was dumbfounded at the pace of the economic transition he saw around him. That was the transition that carried wages from 3500 calories per day-equivalent in 1800 to 5000 in 1870. Continue that for another two seventy-year periods, and we would today be at 10,000 calories per unskilled worker in the North Atlantic today per day.
Today the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would buy him or her 2,400,000 wheat calories.
Not 10,000. 2,400,000.”

Even were we to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy will we as a species also be able to restrain our seeming insatiable desire to consume ever more resources in order to secure better lives? I am not so sure, but at least, if we do eliminate fossil fuels, we will have a little more time to see if we can figure things out.

So let’s look at what “Strong Towns” had to say:

The Real Cost of Infrastructure Development

A report, a few years ago, from “Strong Towns” a development think tank argues that the first generation of suburbia was built on and maintained by savings and investment, but the second was built and maintained by borrowing tons of money. We are now entering the third generation. We are out of savings and investment and easy money, now what do we do?

They also point out that in every case they studied, the useful life of an infrastructure investment paid for by borrowing from the private market was less than the time it took to pay back the loans. What this means is that almost every community that invested in infrastructure by borrowing will likely face the need to substantially raise taxes or file for bankruptcy should growth slow or stop.

Finally, the report found that, in almost every case where a developer paid for or otherwise donated infrastructure improvements as part of its development in return for the community assuming responsibility for operation and maintenance of the improvements, eventually the community required a tax increase to pay for their continued maintenance and replacement.

It used to be that in embarking on an infrastructure project, the costs for future operation and maintenance were budgeted for and automatically carried over to subsequent budgets or, as another way to handle it, operation and maintenance funds were established and funded as part of the original budget. One of the centerpieces of the Reagan Revolution was abolishing this practice so that his administration could appear to have cut spending in the budget while also permitting them to raid the sequestered maintenance funds to use on other programs. I know this because I was high-level bureaucrat during his administration as Governor of California and saw it first hand. Not only did this practice push-off the burden onto to future generations (like ours today) but by masking the true long-term costs, it encouraged the orgy of borrowing that marks current governmental policy worldwide. This was neither traditional liberal nor conservative orthodoxy, but a cynical ploy to obtain and hold power by pandering to the economic elite.

If it comes either to pandering to the rich or pandering to the average person, I know which side of the street I would prefer my elected politicians to set up their cribs.

At this same time, Wall Street and the banking industry were just getting geared up to promote new products to fund government by financing a host of long-term investments that would in fact rarely be paid off. Their representatives prowled the offices of both Governor Jerry Brown and Ronald Reagan as well as the State Legislature arguing that the State’s capital investments were under leveraged. They argued that trough the magic of leveraging existing capital projects money could be freed up to allow the leveraging of future good and needed projects without ever needing to raise taxes. It seemed like magic, money for nothing.

Jerry Brown, as was his predilection, was more than dubious but many of those surrounding him bought into it urging him to consider the parks and natural areas that could be preserved and the jobs created from the projects funded. Brown ultimately gave in, but to his credit, the projects he did agree to were smaller and fewer than those urged on him by his advisors.

The Reagan administration on the other hand, bought into it because many of its senior officials came out of the financial industry (The Democrats had not yet peopled their administrations with ex-financial industry personnel) and it appeared to be a good way to transfer tax revenue and spread profits around to the administration’s supporters while appearing to benefit the economy without raising taxes.

As a result, there followed an orgy of borrowing by all levels of government to fund and pay for capital expenditures. It was seen as a good way to obtain infrastructure without raising taxes. The products themselves were structured by the lenders. The resulting financial structures were often more complex than they had been previously. The legions of bankers, economists and financial advisors that descended on government pushing the loans clearly outmatched the ability of public bureaucrats, whose job it was to protect the public purse, to adequately analyze the fiscal implications of the deals. They were also cowed by the politicians who had bought into the program hook line and sinker and clamored for the projects. They also were pressured to approve the deals by their bosses, many of whom came from the industry and hoped to return there when their stint in government was over.

As a result, questionable loans were made. Things that had not been regularly financed before began to be so. At times, in the case of financing infrastructure projects, exaggerated estimates of the life of what was being financed and things like increased maintenance costs as the infrastructure aged were forgotten.

This system did not collapse like a punctured bubble as it often does in the private market because as my grandfather an owner of a construction company advised (and Paul Krugman confirms), one should contract with the government whenever they can because the government always pays their bills, no matter the state of the economy. The profits may be smaller and the money worth less because of inflation, but you had your money. (Alas, as the financial industry crept further and further into the operation of government, they demanded their profits match those they could receive in private deals. They then began to insist that government guarantee that their profits not be discounted through inflation even though the inflation may have been caused to a great extent by their own activities. As far as I know, not a single investigator has studied how and why this happened.)

Eventually, both Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor climbed aboard the bandwagon. They were followed by a host of political appointees from the industry who given their experience with these things joined government as advisors and executives. Whether they were liberal or conservative they could see nothing amiss. Republicans were happy taxes were not being raised during their watch while the private market got the contracts for the work. Democrats were thrilled for the jobs.

The real reason why local governments often have to raise taxes or revenue or go bankrupt (Hint, it is not from spending on social programs, education or public security):

According to “Strong Towns” as described above, we are now in the third cycle of suburban development in the United States.

Although “Strong Towns” analysis reflects US suburb growth patterns, it most likely also applies to larger areas and their infrastructure development including countries. What we build and pay for with debt [whether public or private] generally has not included accounting for replacement costs or operation and maintenance beyond the infrastructure’s estimated life cycle, which as a rule is less than the payback period on the bonds used to build it in the first place. This would be like borrowing for your weeks food agreeing to pay it back in installments over two weeks, then borrowing the following weeks food on the same terms hoping that somehow the nourishment can be converted into increased earnings. The syndrome compulsive gamblers suffer resemble this.

Case study: “Free roads’ are a myth”:

A group of high-value lake properties petitions the city to take over their road. They agree to pay the entire cost to build the road — a little more than $25,000 per lot — in exchange for the city agreeing to assume the maintenance. As one city official said, “A free road!”

Question: How much is the repair cost estimated to be after one life cycle and how does that compare to the amount of revenue from these properties over that same period?

Answer: It will cost an estimated $154,000 to fix the road in 25 years, but the city will only collect $79,000 over that period for road repair. To make the numbers balance, an immediate 25% tax increase is necessary along with annual increases of 3% with all of the added revenue going for road maintenance.
(See Strong Towns for more examples)

The author introduces their studies with the following:

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.

Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.

Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability. The engineering profession will argue, as ASCE does, that we’re simply not making the investments necessary to maintain this infrastructure. This is nonsense. We’ve simply built in a way that is not financially productive.

We’ve done this because, as with any Ponzi scheme, new growth provides the illusion of prosperity. In the near term, revenue grows, while the corresponding maintenance obligations — which are not counted on the public balance sheet — are a generation away.



Today’s Quote:

“Sicarius… celebrated the feast of the Nativity… with Austrighiselus and the other neighbors…. The priest… sent a boy to invite some of the men to come to his house for a drink. When the boy got there, one of the men he invited drew his sword and did not refrain from striking him. He fell down and was dead…. Sicarius… took his arms and went to the church to wait for Austrighiselus. The latter heard about this and armed himself…. [B]oth parties suffered harm…. Sicarius got away unnoticed… made for his homestead… leaving behind… his silver, his clothes, and four of his servants who had been wounded. After he had fled, Austrighiselus broke into the building, killed the servants, and took away with him the gold, the silver, and the other things. When they appeared later before the people’s court, the sentence was that Austrighiselus was to pay the legal penalty for manslaughter…. Sicarius, forgetting about these arrangements… broke the peace… invaded the home, killed father, brother, and son, and having done away with the servants took all their belongings and their cattle. When we heard this, we grew greatly perturbed…”
Gregory, Bishop of Tours.

“Perturbed?” Freaked out is more likely I would think.

The Destruction of Urban Life in the Syrian Saddle Through Misuse of a Common Resourse

While there may be several claimants for responsibility for the current crisis in the Middle East, I believe the following article describes the most likely culprit. Although Climate Change may have exacerbated the situation, as the article demonstrates, not all contributing factors are direct causes. It is simply the Tragedy of the Commons played out on a larger scale.

How Russia and Western Style Capitalism Set the Stage for the Horror that is Syria Today — and no it is not about oil.

Over-exploitation of an ecosystem

The Syrian steppe covers 55% of the country’s territory. This vast steppe land, together with portions from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, has been grazed sustainably by nomadic indigenous pastoralists (Bedouins) for centuries (if not more). Each tribe and clan was linked to certain seasonal pastures and this ensured the sustainability of the grazing — a practice finely calibrated on the need of plant regeneration.

These pastoralists of Arabia are known to have been pioneers in establishing ‘protected areas’ (hema): certain pastures were relieved from grazing, permanently or temporary, in order to allow keeping the whole ecosystem healthy and functional.

The beginning of the ecological degradation and destruction came with the modern state, so keen to uncritically import ideas of maximization of agricultural yields from the Soviet Union: in particular the central government decided to nationalize the steppe in 1958, establishing de facto an open access system — a well known recipe for ecological disaster.

Through this arrangement the customary link between the natural resource and its user was interrupted — abruptly disowning the traditional ecological knowledge of this ancient people. The pastures, not managed and protected anymore by the tribes, started to be over-grazed by free-ranging pastoralists.

A major role in this unfolding disaster was played by affluent urban investors who threw thousands of livestock into the steppe turning the grazing into a large-scale, totally unsustainable, industrial practice.

A similar sort of story of gross mismanagement took place in the eastern part of the Syria’s steppe land, the territory east to the Euphrates, allocated to intensive agriculture via irrigation through underground water.

Water has been pumped from limited underground reserves without much control for decades — so that wells had to be dug every year deeper and deeper with increasing consumption of fuel.

Year by year, desertification sets in.

The alternation of wet and dry periods (sometimes lasting up to 5-7 years) is a key structural and natural feature of this kind of environment. The relentless ecological degradation of this semi-arid fragile ecosystem produced a gradual and steady decrease of its resilience in the face of cycles of droughts made increasingly more severe and frequent by a long-term regional drying pattern linked to the greenhouse effects.

Note that increasing the resilience of ecosystems is actually one of the key natural solutions as adaptation to climate change, as it is currently referred to within the circles of climate change international aid work.

While in the past the steppe was able to recover even following intense periods of droughts, during the past decade pastoralists and farmers have started to complain about a sharp and ineluctable reduction in soil fertility and an increase of frequency of fierce dust storms due to erosion.

An evident desertification process has been on display across the steppe land for quite some time. Recommendations to reduce the ecological pressure on this fragile environment — from myself and others — went unheard.

Ecological crisis fans the flames of rebellion.

Following a recent cycle of intense drought during 2006-2010, the agriculture system eventually collapsed in eastern Syria greatly facilitated by an abrupt halt of government subsidies and consequent soaring prices of fuel for wells.

At the same time, the ecological impoverishment of the rangelands reached unheard-of levels. “The drought only brought to light a man-made disaster,” said a local journalist from eastern Syria to the International Crisis Group in 2009.

This combined ecological crisis of croplands and rangelands created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the rural areas of the country, followed by massive internal displacements, that the government clearly failed to tackle and manage.

For the first time ever Syria, known to be proudly autonomous in terms of food production (and actually even exporting food), had to rely on a massive international emergency food aid in 2008.

It is therefore not a coincidence that the uprising in 2011 started in provincial towns rather than in the major urban centres of Damascus and Aleppo, Francesca De Chatel argues, aptly defining the rebellion as a “rural Intifada” — one in which Bedouin tribes of steppe origin played a key role.

The same sort of conclusions were reached in analyzing the triggers of the Darfur war that that took place from 2003 to 2010 not far from Syria. Darfur suffered from precisely the same sort of over-exploited semi-arid ecosystem, while one again rural and indigenous people were the victims, including nomadic pastoralists.

Gianlucca Serra, UN — FAO.

A comment on City Planning:

“Recent developments in the global system of cities present a curious paradox. With the cost of communications declining almost to zero and substantial, though less dramatic reductions in transport costs, there is now little technical requirement for most kinds of production to be undertaken in any particular location, or for elements of production chains to be located close to each other. This fact has had dramatic consequences for the organization of manufacturing industry. Simple production chains involving the import of raw materials, usually from developing countries, for processing in a specialized centre, have been replaced by far more complex structures.

Yet, in important respects, the dominance of a small number of ‘global cities’ has never been greater. In this paper, it is argued that the dominance of global cities reflects a desire for clustering on the part of finance sector professionals and corporate executives. It seems likely that such clustering provides private benefits by enhancing the value of personal contacts, but reduces the efficiency and profitability of the corporate sector.”
John Quiggin. Abstract to Cities, Connections and Cronyism. 2006.

More Thoughts about the California Coastal Commission

A few years ago I spent two days with Stevie and Norbert Dall. Norbert is busy trying to write the definitive history or California’s coastal protection legislation. The amount of research he has done amazed me as did his memory of people, places and events during those times( over 30 years ago). I believe that Norbert and Stevie are probably along with Peter Douglass and perhaps Bill Geyer and Ruth Galanter the people with the longest continuous involvement with the coastal protection movement in California. In Ruth and Bill’s cases, however, for the past decade or so they have become much less involved.

As for Peter Douglass, but for the last 20 years or so controversial years as Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission, his impact on the course of things coastal has been mostly in his own mind. Peter was, by far, the earliest of all of those who have spent at least portions of their careers in coastal protection. He worked as an aid to Senator Siroty during the failed attempts in the late 60’s and early 70’s to push coastal protection legislation through the legislature. He later attempted to take un-justified credit for drafting the initiative, known as Proposition 20 that was successfully passed by the California voters in 1972 and set up an agency to plan the future land use of the coast and regulate development so as not to impede implementation of the plan. During the period of Proposition 20, while I served as Chief Counsel for the Commission, as far as I could tell Peter’s involvement in either the planning or the ongoing regulation was almost nonexistent.

Following completion of the Coastal Plan in 1975 and the submittal of the proposed implementation legislation to the legislature, most of us active at that time were determined to keep Peter as far away from any decision-making and participation as possible. Nearly all of us believed that not only was he incapable of understanding the complexities of the Plan, the legislation and the political strategy that was developed, but he had shown a distressing tendency to urge weakening of the protections whenever opposition presented itself. I had assigned on of the Commission’s staff members to sit with him every day and make sure he did nothing more that edit the legislation.

After the passage of the entire Coastal Program, Peter again disappeared from any involvement and for a while busied himself in an unsuccessful attempt to find work in the private sector. Ultimately he took a job as a not so respected member of the reconstituted Coastal Commission staff. Finding himself ignored, he resumed his search for other work when a series of unfortunate events, including resignation of the existing executive director, he, to the dismay of many in the environmental community, was chosen to succeed the departing director.

Over several years of ineffective management, his removal many on all sides of the development process urged his removal. Fortunately for Peter, the development community, through the inept handling of the move to remove him by the then Republican Governor, pushed the most radical members of the environmental community to rally around him and defeat the putsch, and Peter the Wishy-Washy seeing which side of his bread was buttered was reborn as an anti-development crusader.

Innovations in work: Leapfrogging the digital divide How Technology was used to bring back a traditional craft and restore the livelihood of members of the Pradit Torakarn community in Bangkok.

Absence of necessary and appropriate technology could be an apt definition of poverty. Deficiencies in technology whether in sanitation, health care, safety or communication impoverishes people and their community. The greater the lack, the more extreme the poverty.

Over the past few years, access to modern communication technology for the poor has changed from an aspiration to a necessity.

The Telecenter Movement as adapted in Thailand shows some promise to bringing that technology within the reach of the urban poor to better their lives and their job prospects. The Telecenter Movement an international movement, initiated to establish telecenters in less developed countries to provide ICT skills and knowledge primarily to poor and marginalized communities.

In Thailand, beginning in 2007 Ministry of Information and Communication Technology took the lead in developing the country’s Telecenters. Then, the Ministry promulgated the Knowledge Based Society strategy that focused on developing ICT skill and knowledge. Besides the ministry’s involvement, the Research Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management (CCDKM) assists in the development of websites supporting the ICT Telecenters. Two of which thaitelecentremall.org or e-Shop and aseanhomeworkers.org promote community products and assist the poor, especially women at home, with training for the workplace.

One of these Telecenters, the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre, is located in Bangkok near Kasetsart University. The Pradit Torakarn neighborhood is a migrant community of people from other parts of Thailand whose livelihood depended on the fabrication and sale of kitchen utensils and flatware. The members of the community had migrated to this neighborhood over the past few decades to continue to practice their craft in a location where they hoped that they could earn a better living than in the communities they left behind and by so doing pull their families out of poverty. They moved into a neighborhood in the shadow of the great Chatuchuck Market, Bangkok’s largest and most successful crafts market, in hopes of attracting to their stalls nearby some of the legions of Thais and tourists who thronged through the market.

Recently they found themselves in deepening financial straits. With the recent political and economic difficulties experienced by the country and the closing of the Market because of disputes over ownership of the land and operation of the Market, their livelihood disappeared. Many stopped producing their products and had to find other ways of making a living. Presently, there are only 10 households producing bronze craft.

To expand the business opportunity for this traditional handicraft, ICT training was provided to the community. The training consisted of instruction on how individuals can use the technology and facilities of the Telecenter. Along with the bronze craft people other home workers from the neighborhood also brought their products, such as textile bag, crystal accessories and plastic woven baskets and learned how use the technology to market their products also. Following the training the Pradit Torakarn Telecentre provided the community marketing assistance and access to their sites so that the community could promote their products through e-commerce.

Director of CCDKM, Dr. Kamolrat Intaratat described different types of Telecenters in Thailand;

Accessible Telecenters: enhances ICT accessibility of all people; especially those living in rural and remote areas.

Multifunctional Telecenters: provides ICT facilities, (e.g., internet, computer and other peripherals) to develop individual and community capability in e-learning, e-shop and e-commerce, e-governance and e-service and so on. Potential

Development Telecenter: develops sustainable ICT potential of the community. More than 1000 Telecenters have been set up throughout Thailand.

Over the past few years the concept of a telecenter have evolved to include a broad mix of activities. While the centers are still places where people can learn how to use computer technology and provide the equipment for individuals and organizations to use, like a community internet café. Some of these centers have begun to be used as gathering places for the community as well, a sort of a high-tech community center.


Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok

Klong-Toey Market, Bangkok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among the many community organizations providing services to the poor and the residents of informal communities in Bangkok, I am especially fond of the HDF Mercy Center. Begun in 1973 with the opening the first Mercy School in the Slaughterhouse neighborhood within the dismal Klong Toey slum in Bangkok,


HDF Mercy Center began in the Slaughterhouse area of Klong Toey, Bangkok’s most notorious slum. It was the brainchild of Father Joseph Maier and Sister Maria Chantavarodom. Fr. Joe, as he is affectionately called, was the parish priest for the Catholics that butchered the pigs in the district. Sister Maria began teaching the children of the Slaughterhouse at a school she set up in a seldom used holding pen for the pigs. According to Fr. Joe,

“In its early days, almost fifty years ago, the Slaughterhouse [in 70 Rai] actually was a safe and fairly healthy place to live. … Seven years ago, it all began to unravel. Authorities decided that the old method of butchering pigs, the way we had been doing it for generations, was not hygienic, and that it was time to move the Slaughterhouse. No work meant no cash for food. … The Slaughterhouse residents were told they would soon have to leave, that they were being evicted from the homes and shacks that their families had homesteaded for over fifty years — that they had no rights. … Authorities tore down the pigpens and cemented them over as a massive parking area for the trucks that carry products to and from the adjacent Klong Toey Port. … With the trucks came their drivers seeking drugs, alcohol and temporary female companionship. … The authorities would provide housing in new suburban slums outside of the city, miles and hours away from where they could earn a livelihood…. “ Maier, Fr. Joe. (2005). “Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums.” Singapore: Periplus

The HDF Mercy Center website describes these early days best:

Klong Toey slum railway

Klong Toey slum railway (Photo credit: trevorsoh)

“Sr. Maria and Fr. Joe turned a slum shack into a one-baht-per-day preschool for every child in the Slaughter House, children of all religions. No child was turned away. Thus (without saying so or calling itself anything) began The Human Development Foundation. Now, today in 2012, there are twenty-two Mercy Kindergartens with over 2,500 slum children going to school. Alumni of the first Slaughter House kindergarten are teachers, executive secretaries, nurses, taxi drivers, and butchers. Many are now married with their own children attending proper schools. Dead-end, throw-away slaughter house kids no longer.”


Today, the Human Development Foundation and Mercy Centre charity is responsible for thirty-two preschools that have taught more than twenty thousand children how to read and write. it also operates six shelters for abandoned, abused and orphaned children. In addition, it sponsors over 500 of the poorest neighborhood children to attend primary and secondary school as well as 12 children to attend colleges and universities abroad.

The charity provides home-care for the poor for over 500 patients living with

Klong Toey Porter

Klong Toey Porter (Photo credit: Mark Fischer)

AIDS in Bangkok helping them maintain their strength and remain productive members of their family and community. It also provides counseling and free access to medicine to over 10,000 high risk individuals/year

HDF has repaired, renovated, and constructed over 10,000 homes for elderly and indigent and slum communities devastated by fires in Bangkok slums and fostered small business start-ups, emergency low-interest loans and aided the physically disabled to secure employment, and legal benefits.

For those who may want to learn more about HDF Mercy Center or are interested in assisting it in its work I encourage you to go to their website at:http://www.mercycentre.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1&lang=en

Further Reading about Klong Toey and Fr. Joe

For anyone looking to dig deeper into the world of Bangkok’s slums, in addition to Father Joe’s book mentioned above, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions and Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok” by Greg Barrett, with a forward by The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu Archbishop Emeritus is a good place to begin. According to Publisher’s Weekly:

“Barrett, a veteran journalist, records the inspiring work of Catholic priest Joe Maier in Bangkok’s slums. Drawn to service in Thailand on a whim, the misfit American seminary student found a calling among the Thai downtrodden, even living in the slums himself. . . . many of the stories are memorable, from the tragic (street toddlers, happily schooled at Mercy, later dying there of HIV/AIDS, to the triumphant (Mercy graduates who attend college abroad and are able to climb out of poverty.”

Public Space in Informal Settlements in Bangkok: Bottom up Planning.

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey L...

English: Wat Arun Bangkok View Photo D Ramey Logan ” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bangkok a city of contrasts.

Bangkok Thailand is a city of gleaming skyscrapers, elegant shopping centers, spectacular temples and picturesque neighborhoods surrounded by vast areas teeming with those who have left somewhere else in hope of somehow securing a better life. Many of these migrants huddle in informal settlements of often self-built shelters, mired in poverty at times as great as that they have left behind. But, they have two things going for them. One as old as ever in the hearts of most immigrants, hope. The other just as old but requiring renewal wherever the poor and destitute gather, the urge to build a new sense of community where they now choose to live. Few things focus a community’s sense of itself better than its public spaces. In Bangkok today several communities of poverty-stricken migrants, aided by governmental and private organizations, have begun to coalesce around improvements to their public spaces.

Bangkok is a riverine city located on at the center of a vast floodplain. It became Thailand’s capital 300 years ago because its rivers and streams, marshes and wetlands appeared to afford superior defensive capability and better trade and commerce opportunities than the nations prior capital located a few hundred kilometers to the north destroyed by the Burmese, traditional enemies of the Thais.

The internal combustion economy prompted the filling in of many of the canals, wetlands and minor streams to accommodate the motor cars and the industries dependent upon them. Except for the extensive industrial port complexes and a few luxury hotels the city turned its back on its rivers and few remaining canals leaving them as little more than refuse strewn sewers.

Migrants and Informal Communities proliferate.

As Bangkok grew into one of the worlds great megalopolis of over 13 million people crowding into the flood plain along the banks of the Chao Phraya river, a new type of invasion inundated the city. At first people from the rural areas of the country, then the poor of Burma, Laos and Cambodia flooded into the city looking to better their lives and to bask in the excitement and bright lights of the metropolis.

Many of these migrants pressed themselves into large informal settlements along the now mostly forgotten riversides and canals, living in often makeshift housing in extensive slums with poetic sounding names like Klong Toei, Bang Bua Klong, Managkasila and Soi Sengki. In 1997, when the Bangkok Metropolitan Area was smaller than it is today, an estimated over 300 informal settlements existed, housing more than one and a quarter million people (Pacific Consultants International Suuri-Keikaku Co.Ltd., 1997).

With the emergence of the middle class and the exponential growth of international tourism during the past few decades, attention focussed again on these forgotten waterways as underperforming resources. Slum clearance along their banks commenced as both public and private interests sought to realize their long forgotten benefits. Some of these informal communities resisted and with the assistance of both public and non-profit organizations such as Community Organization Development Institute (CODI), Baan Mankong, The Durang Prateep Foundation, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights and many others began to fight back.

Closed environments of the dispossessed.

In Bangkok, like in many other cities, there were primary issues of fundamental importance to the poor communities, such as land tenure, adequate housing, health care and public space. (not jobs so much, the migrants were there because the job opportunities were better here than where they came from. The job issue in Bangkok is one of quality not quantity).

Why is public space, about which this post focusses so important? Because public space is not just parks and open space but includes streets, sidewalks and many other means by which residents interact with each other and the outside world. It affects community and individual health as well as their prosperity. One of the hallmarks of the traditional slums is that they are so often the closed environments of the dispossessed.

Bang Bua Throng: grasping for identity and pride.

The citizens of Bang Bua Throng, a mostly migrant community, located on the northern fringes of the Bangkok metropolitan area recognized that restoring access to and along the waterfront for the entire community could increase distribution of economic benefits to community members. It also would help to focus community identity and pride.

The Bang Bua Throng neighborhood contains about 3.400 families crowded up against the Bang Bua canal. The community, mostly on its own, formed an informal network called ‘Klong Bang-bua Environmental Improvement Network’ in 1999 that organized activities supporting the improvement of the canal and environment. They began earning money by selling recycled wastes collected from within the community. They then pooled the money to embark of community enhancement programs like, fire training for the locals. The Network also negotiated with the land owner (Treasury Department) and related agencies in support of their efforts to securing land tenure for the residents. This activism had its effect. Others took notice.

After addressing the endemic land tenure and housing issues, the community through bottom up planning and with the CODI and the Baan Mankong program’s assistance contributed to the design of a walk-way along the length of the canal. Unlike many waterfront designs, this was not simply an aesthetic venture providing a venue from which to contemplate the beauties of the adjacent canal, but a working access-way. Designed with the needs of the community in mind, it was wide enough for the movement of necessity vehicles but narrow enough to discourage it from being used as a substitute for the adjacent street. It was open for those in the community to use and enjoy as well as the residents of the city at large. It became a focal point of community pride.

Following the implementation or these programs in the community, Kuhn Prapaat a community leader remarked:

“We were a real slum before! There were drugs for sale, and lots of outside organizations did their drugs trading here. There were kids sniffing glue and paint thinner.” “ Back then, a lot of the houses were built on stilts right over the canal, and when one of these houses would collapse – which happened a lot – we would say, that is your problem, not mine!” (Slum Regeneration Bang Bua Bangkok. Veruan Blake)

Some criticism has been leveled that these initiatives like the new walk-way could encourage gentrification, as though preservation of what previously existed had some overarching merit. Gentrification is negative generally only when the existing residents fail to participate in its benefits or if it occurs with such rapidity residents cannot prepare and adapt to it.

Thonglor: ingenuity rewarded.

Other informal communities in the city also recognize the importance of public space to their revitalization. Adjacent to the Thonglor Police Station there are 43 households squatting on a piece of unclaimed land between two property walls only a few meters wide. Cleverly designed homes lean on existing infrastructure and achieve extremely high densities while also providing adequate ventilation for the residents. Narrow walkways outside of the homes have become extensions of interior space and facilitate commercial activity throughout the community. The residents exhibited additional signs of ingenuity by collectively making improvements to the public spaces with salvaged construction material. Again, their efforts have been noticed.

Plans are being made in conjunction with the International Program in Architecture and Design (INDA) of Chulalongkorn University to expand the community’s public space to create a flexible gathering space for the community to use throughout the day and provide a clear entry point to this otherwise obscured community. This space could also accommodate after-school activities for children as well seating for community meetings to further enhance their lives.

A community’s pride in its public spaces equates to its pride in itself.

Providing public spaces are not often seen by the members or a community or even outside observers as important to the improvement in the lives of low-income residents. They are sometimes looked upon as extravagances. What these two examples demonstrate is that a communities pride in its public spaces often equates to its pride in itself. Without that pride the alienation generated by poverty is not relieved. Those most successful lacking any attachment will then often leave the community and further impoverish it.

To enhance that sense of pride and identity design of public spaces should begin by building into the design the needs and wishes of the nearby community. Investment in public space should benefit the existing community directly. Public spaces should be designed to be open to all, the surrounding neighborhood as well as the larger urban area.

Security and informal settlements: Bangkok.

Thai people

Thai people (Photo credit: Cak-cak)

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand among the more crime ridden countries in the world (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok, it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city. The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicates that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they may have had in the neighborhoods they left behind.

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements.

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave behind the slums with their endemic crime and poverty. Others believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Still others believe providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of the whole solution. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of the poor and migrants will remain breeding grounds for crime. Security of any kind for residents of informal and poverty-stricken communities begins with the recognition by the residents themselves that they are in fact a community and that they can do something about what happens to it.

While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self-assured populace.


Although Thailand lacks institutions or organizations focused on public safety and crime suppression outside of the national police system, some programs and organizations in Bangkok build into their operations mechanisms that encourage informal settlements assume control of their destinies and by so doing address their unique security needs. One of the most successful and vibrant initiatives of this type is the BAAN MANKONG PROGRAM.

The Thai government set up BAAN MANKONG in 2003. According to the organization’s spokespeople, the program channels government funds (infrastructure subsidies and housing and land loans) directly to urban poor community organizations. The program allows urban poor communities to be key actors in the housing and other upgrades to their community.

The members of the community control the funding, manage the projects and carry out the improvements. They also undertake most of the building activities themselves, which means most of the funds would remain within the community and work as seed capital for additional investments in housing and community.

Bangkok’s 1,200 urban poor settlements house almost a third of Thailand’s urban poor spread across 50 khets (districts). BAAN MANKONG regards each district as a city. every district does its own survey, forms a joint committee with all key actors and develops a 3 year upgrading program.

The BAAN MANKONG program promotes more than physical upgrading. The communities design and manage their own physical improvements. This helps stimulate deeper but less tangible changes in social structures, managerial systems and confidence within the poor communities affected.

The BAAN MANKONG differs from more traditional approaches to community building in that:

1. The community through their own local organizations controls the funding and the management as well as undertakes most of the building. Government agencies are no longer the planners, implementors and construction manager delivering for beneficiaries. The community now assumes those roles.

2. The community’s needs as defined by the community shapes the nature and amount of funding.

3 Secure land tenure for the residents is negotiated locally in each case through a variety of means such as cooperative land buy, long-term lease contracts, land swaps or user rights..

4. It stimulates changes in the community’s social structure in many areas including crime suppression.

An example of the effect of a BAAN MANKONG project on Bangkok’s informal settlements took place in the Ramkhamhaeng area in Bangkok. Two initial pilot projects sparked off a larger development process involving seven other communities.

The first was Ruam Samakkee, a squatter community of 124 families occupying 0.8 hectares of Crown Property Bureau land. After forming a cooperative and developing a new layout plan for two-story homes with architects, the community negotiated a 30 year lease.

The second was at Kao Pattana where 34 families lived on a marshy 0.8 hectare site also belonging to the Crown Property Bureau. The residents planned to build their own homes on this site but found the landfill cost too high. Seven other communities joined them to prepare a redevelopment plan providing for over 1000 households on 40 hectares in the area. Working with the landowner, the project created new residential areas linked to markets and parks. Although the plan involves reblocking in some areas and relocation nearby in others, everyone will remain in the area with long-term leases through community cooperatives.

Unfortunately for Baan Mankong, the new government suspended funding while it reviewed priorities. About 3 billion baht (Approximately $100 million) remain from the original 6 billion baht authorization.

Recently, about 100 members of the Four Regions Slum Network (FRSN) gathered at the Department of Social Development and Welfare, pressing the government to fund the Baan Mankong instead or another program that focuses on middle-income housing. Nevertheless, a representative for the government indicated that it intends to accelerate spending for the program.

Who is safe? What does in mean to be safe?

One question that can always be asked when analyzing the nature and extent of security available to the poor and the destitute living in the slums of most large cities is, from whom are they to be secure; other residents, outsiders or those ostensibly entrusted with providing that security? Perhaps even more fundamental is the issue of security from what; violence, hopelessness, sickness, fear or something else? In many, if not all cases, these questions are answered best, not by which physical security system the community adopts but rather its ability to grasp control of the means to secure its own protection.

Crime in Thailand and in Bangkok:

Several sources rank Thailand  among the more crime ridden countries in the world, right up there with South Africa, the USA and Columbia (The Eighth United Nations survey on Crime Trends and the Criminal Justice System (2002), Amnesty International and others). According to some reports, Thailand is the #1 producer of opium and heroin in the world. A major transit  point for those drugs is the capital Bangkok. Last year Bangkok had reported, 20,000 assaults, 13,500 burglaries, and 5,000 murders.

As in many urban areas, this high level of violence, drugs and crime falls heavily upon the poor. In Bangkok it falls especially hard on the almost 1 million people living the informal settlements that dot the city like acne on the face of a teenager. The overcrowding and social dislocation experienced in these informal communities are a catalyst for some of their most common difficulties. Problems, such as poor housing and infrastructure, improper waste removal and drainage systems, lack of clean water supply and abundant diseases, contribute to the plight of the residents, exacerbate hopelessness felt by the them and contribute greatly to those communities susceptibility to the plague of crime and violence.

The United Nations Seventh Congress on Criminal Justice in a Changing World indicated that there is a statistical relationship between crime rates and migration of the poor into informal settlements in urban areas where the exigencies of survival in their current environment shreds whatever sense of community they belonged to in the past

Proposed solutions to the lack of security experienced by members of informal settlements:

Most programs to address crime focus on helping individuals gain the resources to enable them to leave the slums with their endemic crime and poverty behind. For example, the Urban Neighbors of Hope (UNOH) primarily provides support to assist children in the hopes that through education some of them can rise above the despair and poverty, leave it behind and take their place in the wider world.

Some believe that amelioration of the crime problem in these informal communities is a matter of more and better policing. Usually the government and the existing police rely most heavily on this approach.

Others promote providing and enhancing infrastructure and health programs to the community. They believe that these programs could turn the tide of despair and violence.

No doubt each approach needs to be part of whole. Nevertheless, without community building, it seems clear that these informal settlements of migrants and of the poor will remain breeding grounds for crime. While there are a number of community building organizations at work in these neighborhoods of Bangkok, none seems to have crime suppression as a major or primary goal. Perhaps this is a function of the ubiquitous nature of the national police system in the country. On the other hand, it also may be the endemic lack of the basic elements of a sense of community that stunts the growth of this essential indication of a vigorous self assured populace.

Some of these elements are well known. They include, for example, defensible land tenure for the residents and community managed and designed public spaces.

As programs like BAAN MANKONG bring revitalization and control over their environment to the informal settlements, we can hope that they will cease to be someplace to escape from, but a home to which one will be proud to return to.

%d bloggers like this: