BANGKOK: THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF A HYPERURBANIZED PRIMATE CITY Gerald W. Fry "The rapid expansion of a deteriorated environment and high social costs are the most obvious and immediate results of this overconcentration process. Eventually, the public investment on the expansion of urban infrastructure will reach a point of diminishing returns. Urban problems can bring national development to the edge of failure. This would be an appalling situation indeed!" Vimolsiddhi Horayangkura1 "Hyperurbanization signifies a prolonged condition of superheated urban growth." John Friedmann2 Bangkok, perhaps more than any other major world metropolis, represents a primate city. It is forty times larger than Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city, and dominates Thai political, economic, and intellectual life. Bangkok is simultaneously Thailand's castle, market, and temple.3 Once known as the "Venice of the East," Bangkok has changed dramatically from the tranquil pre-modern days of Joseph Conrad and W. Somerset Maugham. Lynch has emphasized the importance of a city's image.4 Bangkok has diverse images. The Thais refer to it as Krungthep ... meaning City of Angels. In fact, modern Bangkok with its sprawling laissez faire urban development does indeed resemble its American namesake, Los Angeles. Some Thais have called modern Bangkok a concrete jungle.5 Foreign visitors to Bangkok in the 1940s and 1950s would hardly recognize the thriving metropolis of the 1980s with a population of over six million. Prior to 1960, Bangkok had almost no buildings over five stories. Today numerous skyscrapers house the offices of transnational corporations and international agencies.
Gerald W. Fry is Assistant Director of the International Studies Program at the University of Oregon.
Despite Bangkok's modernization, it also retains traditional images. Sternstein in conducting research on Bangkok's image, found that Wat Phra Keo was the most common image among Thais interviewed.6 This is Thailand's most sacred Buddhist temple, which houses the Emerald Buddha, the holiest image in the country. While Bangkok is both symbolic of Thailand's dynamic economic expansion during the past several decades and its rich cultural history, its role as a classic primate city also presents crucial policy problems. Unfortunately, many urbanization studies are merely descriptive, ignoring an analytical discussion of important policy issues.7 In this article, empirical evidence is presented to show the extent and nature of Bangkok's dominance as a hyperurbanized primate city. Then key policy issues and future directions are considered from a political economy perspective. The Concept of the Primate City
As background, it may be useful to discuss briefly the evolution of the concept of the primate city and previous related research.8 The concept of urban centrality has attracted the attention of many prominent world scholars. In the early 1800s, German writers were already directing attention to the organization of space by society.9 Then in the 1900s, German geographers introduced the concept of central place theory, which has influenced much subsequent research related to urbanization.10 In more recent years, major contemporary thinkers such as Arnold Toynbee and Barbara Ward have also directed their attention to urbanization. 11 Toynbee, in discussing "cities on the move", worries about mechanized cities which he feels are noisy, dirty, and soulless.12 Ward describes "monster cities" defiled by environmental deterioration and technological hammers.13 In fact, many intellectuals have revolted against the city and its "corrupt cultural influences."14 Radical thinkers such as Harvey and Lefebvre see the modem city as reflecting exploitative parasitic relationships typical of the larger society.15 Harvey also makes the important distinction between the city as a built form and urbanism as a way of life. Harvey's distinction is particularly important in...
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