Dated back decades ago, building green did mean providing our built environment with lots of trees and greenery. Major constructions in town were enforced by law to have enough open space with more reserved vegetated area. Housing projects have placed their selling points on having extra green space. Many even put themselves on pieces of land far away from the city so as to acquire cheaper lands for green area; as far away as no other construction projects or developments can reach. Clean air and quiet environment in the outskirt of Bangkok was something people who could not tolerate downtown congestion were looking for. The word ‘commuter’ was used to describe middle-class people who can afford cars and gasoline. Of course, as far as expressways can go, real estate developments would go after, and their customers would be happy to commute if cost of transportation can be traded off by clean air and more trees.
This phenomenon has happened everywhere else in the world. It is called ‘Urban Sprawl’. It is what people are trying to grasp what they think it is green for themselves, not knowing that they are destroying the ‘green-ness’ of everyone else. How many trees have been cut down to pave the way to the suburbs? How many ‘natural’ green has been destroyed and replaced with ‘artificial’ nice-looking green? Who care?, as long as the government can spend our tax money on construction of expressways; local construction workers get paid; building material suppliers sell more; farmers are happy to exchange their farmlands with cell phones and motorcycles for riding to work in factories, etc. This kind of development seems to make everyone happy, so it has been the way for the country for decades.
Today, with erratically soaring price of gasoline along with the effects of urban heat island, it is clear that only the ‘real’ green will save all of us from any consequences of global warming. So now, what is the ‘real’ green? The real green does not mean ‘Greening for Here & Now’, but actually ‘Greening for All & Forever’. This notion seems related to the term ‘sustainability’, the word that is easy to say but difficult to do. We can grow new trees within 10-20 years, but we cannot build a new ecosystem at all. The fact that new suburban residential projects are growing rapidly still does not urge authorities to put more stringent regulations on land development, such as keeping a portion of existing trees or setting the maximum distance from the nearby community services (i.e., to save fuel). In contrary, they set a rule for housing projects to have more green space–usually grass lawn for playground that is difficult to maintain. Some projects try to have trees by moving old trees from somewhere else to put on their empty lands. Trees are viewed as something to help creating green image of housing projects, which is not bad but it is just not good enough. What is really bad is that no new tree is being grown on earth, while existing ecosystems are being destroyed.
Thanks to the soaring oil price happening recently, the rise of urban sprawl is halted, even not stopped. The cost of commuting 100 kilometers a day to work and back home could cut more than half of the commuter’s household income. Suburban housings are being abandoned because the owners want to buy new homes closed to their workplaces to save gasoline. This situation gave a way to downtown development, especially in the area closed to subway stations. High-rise condominiums are growing at full speed. Many are sold out within a day of opening. For downtown residential projects with more than 79 living units, a new rule has once set that every one ton of air-conditioners used in the project, one tree must be provided. This rule is set by the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) committee based on a research showing that one fully grown tree has a cooling capacity equal to one ton of refrigeration (i.e., 12,000 Btu/h). This had caused a lot of headache among condominium developers since a 40-storey condominium would consume thousand tons of cooling, and how could they find such open space to grow thousand trees? How many trees will be moved from its birthplace to downtown in order to pass the ridiculous law based on suspicious research findings? Fortunately, this rule has been lifted off already; otherwise, we would see another law that cannot be enforced effectively. This leads to a lot more questions, for example, why don’t we limit the need for cooling in those condominiums by putting more serious building energy codes?
So, do you see how ‘green’ is misconceived by authority, developers and customers? Of course, trees are green, but it is not ‘green’ enough if we think of them only as an image of doing business, rather than looking at their fundamental existence as a life form in the ecosystem. Actually, there are a lot of things we can discuss about green or sustainable development, without mentioning about trees. Just leaving them grow as they want is ‘green’ enough.
ผู้ช่วยศาสตราจารย์ ดร. อรรจน์ เศรษฐบุตร
Asst. Prof. Atch Sreshthaputra, Ph.D.
Faculty of Architecture, Chulalongkorn University
Chairman of Green Building Board, the Association of Siamese Architects