This city comes alive at dawn. On an early morning run this week, I headed to Lumphini Park, a downtown oasis twice the size of Loose Park.
By 6 a.m., street vendors were open for business. Whiffs of rich Thai food enveloped me.
Groups of people practiced tai chi or aerobics. Runners, walkers and strollers jammed park paths. Old men chatted at long tables. A three-story, open-air school waited for students.
Bangkok felt like a First Friday festival at breakfast. Bangkok and Kansas City exist half a world apart, yet as I rode from the Bangkok airport, I could have easily been driving home from Kansas City International Airport.
Once downtown, walking the streets immersed me in a starkly different world. People filled every sidewalk, cars jammed roads, and I barely squeezed into the Sky Train — the newest transit system.
Modern city design is among our greatest and most tragic exports. When Asian cities adopted cars as their main transportation, they also gained congestion, sprawl and pollution.
This area of the world houses half of the people on Earth in some of the most vulnerable regions to extreme climate change. I was here to speak at a U.S. Agency for International Development and United Nations Development Program conference on climate change and Asian cities. Bangkok is listed among the top 20 at-risk cities. Yet the very technologies that warmed the oceans power the economy of Bangkok. They simply followed our lead.
Four decades back, when the Bangkok region began a growth spurt from 5 million to 15 million people, officials didn’t realize the consequences of that urban model or know any good options. They now have more than 150 skyscrapers in five polycentric downtowns covering a land area greater than Los Angeles.
Today we know of more livable, sustainable urban models. With a green infrastructure, walking, biking and transit, plus renewable energy, Bangkok could be a net energy producer instead of consumer by 2050.
So could Kansas City. If we worked together, we could implement policies and actions that would make it America’s greenest, most livable city.
Cities can change their future. Bangkok eradicated 13 percent of poverty in 10 years. Agencies and businesses attacked the problems of income, expenses and opportunities. Now everyone works and earns a living wage.
Both unemployment and poverty rates are now under 1 percent. You’ve never seen a more active city.
In contrast, Kansas City has an unemployment rate of 6 percent and 14 percent poverty rate. Yet in the past, Americans perfected a do-it-yourself frugality and a bootstraps work ethic. What happened?
By returning to more sharing and cooperation along with comprehensive government and business strategies, we can effectively eliminate poverty and unemployment. Bangkok has managed to grow modern without losing its intrinsic passions.
On street corners, you commonly find outdoor shrines with worshipers. At the same time, four multistory shopping centers were within a mile and a half of my hotel.
I learned from Bangkok that we can never be too gracious or have too many street vendors, and the special feel of the place is its most valuable asset. Back in Kansas City on my afternoon run, the town’s autumn canopies and barbecue aromas felt like home.
To reach Cindy Frewen Wuellner of Leawood, an architect and urban futurist, send email to email@example.com.