If the notion of urban Thailand evokes images of Bangkok – and Bangkok only – that is no accident. Aside from impacts of tourism branding, Thailand, like many other countries in the region, has a high level of urban primacy. The capital city dominates others in terms of population density and various functionalities, partly due to historic reasons such as a national emphasis on export oriented industrialization and the maximizing of returns on productive and social investments. However, as is the case in most other countries, the majority of Thai people live in small to medium sized cities and will continue to do so, despite the fact that megacities dominate the attentions of policymakers and urban scholars as well as claim the bulk of national resources.
In particular, “secondary cities” have been rising in prominence as industrial centers, regional growth centers for rural products and urban services, and administrative headquarters for district or sub-district administrations. Secondary cities are often destinations for migrants from rural areas, even smaller cities, and neighboring countries. While confronting critical urban housing, health and sanitation, environmental, and transport-related challenges among others, they additionally struggle with diversion of revenue streams by centralized fiscal structures and competition with other cities for political recognition, public resources, and private investment.
Last Friday in Bangkok, a group of 30 people – including mayors, policymakers, planning and development practitioners, academics, and representatives of civil society and the private sector from Southeast Asia – convened at the Asia Development Dialogue to discuss critical urban governance challenges facing rapidly expanding “secondary cities” in the region with a particular focus on Thailand.
Among those in attendance, Mayor Buranupakorn of Chiangmai, Thailand, spoke on the unprecedented influx of tourists in his city stemming from the release of the Chinese box office hit “Lost in Thailand.” His city’s infrastructure is under more pressure than it can handle. Having long suffered the absence of a public transportation system, Chiangmai is increasingly congested with a growing number of tourists and residents. Attempts to formalize the informal transport sector have so far been unsuccessful. On the other hand, Deputy Mayor Angkawanijwong of Rayong, Thailand, referred to the precarious balance between heavy industries, agriculture, and tourism as local economic sectors while inquiring of policy templates for sustainable trash disposal. As for Deputy Mayor Suvanjinda of Songkhla, Thailand — he described the predicament of secondary cities endowed with advantageous conditions for tourism promotion such as scenic coastlines and close proximity to international borders, but simultaneously constrained by insurgent violence and limited public resources for needed infrastructure development. Finally, Mayor Chongsutamanee of Chiang Rai, Thailand, a fast growing northern border town nearby Myanmar and Laos, highlighted the importance of planning for urban climate resilience to effectively respond to natural disasters. He also talked about ensuring inclusive economic development.
As event participants broke into smaller discussion groups for roundtable discussions, caravan activities, and peer-to-peer coaching, a number of themes surfaced. Many speakers referred to the tension between the bureaucratic administrative authority of the nation state (i.e. taxation, regional redistribution) vs. the role of cities in driving economic development (i.e. agglomeration economies and inter-city linkages in terms of capital, labor, and product flows).
One thought current asserted the importance of thinking beyond national-level cooperation and free trade to instead highlight the potential for coordination among secondary cities in the region to spur inter-regional trade that offsets reliance on traditional export markets and pursues a strategy of import replacement that substitutes imports from outside the region with those from within.
The mayors and deputy mayors in attendance appeared eager to cultivate relations of production, trade, and tourism with cities and regions outside of the country as well as gain new ideas and inspiration from those facing common urban governance challenges. However, shifting from a dominant paradigm of global competition to one centering on intra-regional, inter-city cooperation towards creation of shared economic value and good urban governance is a tall order. To the extent it requires attention to ideology, culture, relationships of trust, political will, and access to power and resources as well as technical know-how, we can perhaps understand the Asia Development Dialogue’s commitment to bringing together various elected officials, policymakers, planning practitioners, academics, and civil society and private sector representatives for discussion, debate, cross-city learning, and network building.
Post and photos by Lily K. Song.