The Mae Kha canal flows through Chiang Mai’s historic centre. It has deteriorated over time and is badly polluted. But its great old trees still function as a green lung for the fast-developing city.
Several informal settlements along the canal are home to some 2,500 urban poor families. Twenty years ago, facing repeated evictions, these communities came together as a network.
They initiated savings groups, mapped their settlements, organised canal cleanings and undertook settlement and housing upgrading projects – all to improve their living conditions, bolster their right to stay and show the city that they were vital partners in looking after the Mae Kha canal.
For several years, my architectural practice, Jaibaan Studio, has worked with the Mae Kha communities to revitalise the canal and develop housing planning and settlement-improvement projects. In the process, these canal communities have won broad civic support in Chiang Mai for their active role in restoring and protecting the canal.
COVID-19: struggling to survive
In March, when COVID-19 broke out and Thailand closed its borders to tourism, we visited the Mae Kha communities to see how our friends were doing.
Those with tourism-related jobs – making handicrafts or cleaning hotel rooms – were out of work and struggling to feed their families. Food donations from local groups helped a little, but the situation was dire. Some had begun growing vegetables along the edges of the canal, even though the water is polluted.
That’s when the idea of an urban farm for the poor began to take shape. In the past few years, community networks in cities around Thailand have been finding innovative ways to grow vegetables on leftover bits of land, either inside their communities and on vacant land borrowed from neighbours or the local government.
These community gardens have improved nutrition, lowered food expenses and built greater self-sufficiency among some of the country’s most vulnerable people. Since COVID-19, community gardens have become even more of a lifeline for the poor, and have been sprouting up across the country.
The transformation begins
Our first step was finding a site for our urban farm; we didn’t have to look far. Earlier, in searching for alternative land for housing, the Mae Kha communities had identified a 4,800 m2 plot of vacant land right next to the canal. The government-owned land had been a garbage dump for years.
So Jaibaan Studio worked with the communities to draft a proposal to the municipality and began talking with other communities and civic groups to build support for the project and strengthen our negotiations to use the land.
The mayor was reluctant at first, but we found keen supporters in the governor of Chiang Mai province. Nobody promised any financial support, but the provincial governor gave us preliminary permission to use the land, and the municipality loaned some big diggers to prepare the site.
After getting the green light from the governor, we began clearing away some 5,700 tons of garbage, levelling the site and bringing in a metre’s thickness of new topsoil. On the advice of organic gardening experts, we mixed compost and Biochar (organic charcoal made by burning corncobs or rice straw) into the planting beds.
We launched a campaign to raise funds and to generate awareness about the role of urban farming in food security and in giving urban people vital new ‘green’ skills.
Donations started coming in: seeds, seedlings, gardening tools – even cow dung for fertilizer! With a small grant from the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), our office designed a bamboo structure for training and meetings, functioning also as a farmers’ market for small-scale farmers around Chiang Mai.
In June, after two months of preparing the land and fundraising, we organised our first big public event. We invited people to come and plant the trees people had given us: banana, lemon and other fruits. We got good support from the provincial governor, local NGOs, civic groups and community people.
Involving the whole community
After that, we organised regular events for people to come and work together on the new urban farm: members from the Mae Kha canal communities and other informal communities in the city, members of the Chiang Mai Homeless Network, kids and teachers from nearby schools, agriculture students from the local university and families who want to share a collective garden bed.
The focus was on enabling vulnerable communities to produce their own nourishing food, but we also wanted to extend the engagement and sense of ownership of the urban farm far and wide.
By July, all kinds of vegetables were growing on this once smelly dump and being harvested and carried home to families in great need. A friend from a local university analyses them in a lab, to make sure they are safe.
In September, we organised a workshop for all who wanted to be part of the project, to formulate a system for managing the farm together and to plan the next stage in our negotiations for the land. We showed how the farm had bolstered urban food security, built knowledge on food production and created a public space where people worked together and bonded.
We demonstrated how vacant public land can be jointly managed by people and the government for the public good.
Somsook Boonyabancha, CODI’s former director, joined us for the September workshop, and commented that: “If it’s the right process, everyone gets changed by it: the project changes you and it changes the city.”
Last month we organised a public forum with the provincial governor and the mayor. It took place in the community garden and was aired on public TV. We wanted to share what we had learned, discuss how to move this project forward and use the event to negotiate in public for long-term permission to use the land.
We were successful. The mayor gave us permission to use the land and pledged his support to move this urban farm project forward. May the growth continue!