First Stop's "fine-grained" approach informs Thailand's Smart Growth efforts

Submitted by: Edward "Cody" Kent
PhD Student, Urban Studies and Planning
Portland State University

The pressure put on natural resources by the increasing human population and rising standards of living is the defining challenge of the 21st century. This challenge is both local and global in scope, specific and universal in nature. The new and shifting character of these challenges means no single group has a monopoly on solutions. We are all learning from each other to solve our own local problems and the global issues. I recently became involved with First Stop Portland as a course requirement for PSU Professor Charles Heying’s "Green Economics" class. As a term project, students are required to step out of the classroom and work with a business, non-profit, or public agency to develop a solution to a sustainable development problem. I was immediately interested in working with First Stop Portland on their task of assisting with the sharing of sustainable development knowledge between Portland and other cities around the country and world.

Although I’m currently a first year PhD student in Urban Studies at Portland State University, I started as an undergraduate studying geology. As clichéed as it sounds, there are two kinds of geology programs: those that focus on field methods and those that focus on computer modeling. My program was one of those programs which focused on field methods and I spent a refreshing proportion of my undergraduate education hiking over the country side to map geologic structures. The value of feeling the texture of different sizes of mineral grains between fingers or the distance between features by how long it takes to walk from one to another cannot be overstated. This is the same kind of experiential knowledge provided by both the community-based learning project and First Stop Portland. For my project, I helped plan and lead a tour for a delegation of public officials and representatives of companies from Thailand, primarily from Koh Samui City.

The delegation included the Mayor, Deputy Mayor and Director of Public Works of Koh Samui City as well as the owner and managing director of the a major hotel on Samui Island. The delegation was organized by Dr. Tanapon Panthasen head of the Urban and Environmental Planning Division of Kasetsart University and Thapana Bunyapravitra of Smart Growth Thailand. This is the second year they have lead a visit to Portland and the trip was intended to deepen knowledge acquired from their previous visit. Specificially, Koh Samui City is completing the first comprehensive plan with Smart Growth concepts in Thailand. Koh Samui is a large island off the eastern coast of Thailand. Until recently, the island was largely isolated and self-sufficient.  Koh Samui has under gone rapid development and tourism is now the major industry. Although the population of the island is only around 60,000, 1.5 million people visit the island each year. This presents special challenges for planning and sustainability. The visitors put strain on resources and services of the island especially water, solid waste, and transportation. The tourism also threatens the cultural heritage of farming and fishing on the island.

Consequently, this trip was geared towards learning about Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and solid waste management. The first day the delegation visited the Pearl District to view streetcar development and traveled out to Orenco Station in Hillsboro to learn view a neighborhood developed around commuter transit and visit the New Seasons Market to tour the recycling and composting operations there. The second day the delegation met with representatives from the Portland Metro regional government and the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

TOD is being looked at in Koh Samui to reduce traffic congestion and pollution and to reduce sprawl into agricultural and natural areas. The sprawl into farms and forests is also a problem for water control. Forests especially protect the soil from erosion and slow runoff increasing the aquifer recharge. Concentrating housing into denser developments as the delegation saw in the Pearl District and at Orenco Station reduces the land area required and can therefore protect forests. However, denser development is also more expensive. Above a certain height, buildings need to be built from steel frames and have elevators which cost more than typical low wood frame or cinderblock construction. Additionally, density has been seen as a negative in the United States where single family housing has become the norm. The Pearl District has shown not only that some people are willing to live in denser communities many are willing to pay a premium to live in denser areas where amenities and public transportation are available. Orenco Station replicates this success in a suburban setting. Partly this density depends on dis-incentivizing sprawl which Oregon has been able to achieve with the Urban Growth Boundary. In Koh Samui, denser transit-based development also has the advantage of reducing traffic and pollution which maintains the environment tourists are coming to see and increasing access for workers and tourists.

Similarly, recycling is seen as a solution to the solid waste produced by the large numbers of tourists visiting Koh Samui. This was clearly a major interest for the delegates who took every opportunity to observe waste collection around the city. In addition to touring the recycling at New Seasons market, delegates stopped to watch the collection of refuse by a front loading truck and noted the recycling containers around the city. During the discussions with Portland Metro and the City Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, delegates were interested in the broader waste infrastructure. Portland has been steadily increasing recycling and recently introduced a single family home compost program. Food and yard waste from homes is composted into fertilizer, while food waste from businesses is composted in an anaerobic digester to produce methane for energy production. Currently in Koh Samui waste is incinerated, and the delegates were interested in implementing more sustainable alternatives.

The delegates also introduced me to the King of Thailand’s philosophy of Sufficiency Economics. Although I have studied sustainability and sustainable development, I had not heard of the philosophy before, despite its relationship to the Western transcendental movement. I think it fills an important role by considering sustainability in a personal way. Constant demand at the personal level is not compatible with national and international sustainability. To achieve a global balance, billions of personal balances need to be achieved and scaled up. Sustainability is most difficult in that it requires thinking and planning about long term goals and making short term actions to reach those goals while forgoing short term gains. That requires immense, unprecedented cooperation as well as billions of individual choices.

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