Building communities is supposed to be the foundation of any wellfunctioning, livable city. Studying in Denmark gave me a deeper and broader understanding of housing development beyond the designing, construction and financial aspects.
one-year professional training course on housing and urbanisation at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts’ School of Architecture in Copenhagen in 1979 offered Somsook Boonyabancha a much-needed break from her hectic work at the National Housing Authority in Bangkok. It also opened up a whole world of new ideas. Among other things, Danish social housing, cooperative housing movement and egalitarianism stood out as the kind of concepts that resonated with her youthful idealism. Thirty-five years on, these Danish ways of thinking continue to influence her immensely important job as head of an international advocacy group for urban poor’s housing rights. “The Danish social and cooperative housing, a people-driven movement supported by local governments, was the spark that got me interested in what possible solutions were available to deal with housing problems in a wealthy, egalitarian and pragmatic society like Denmark,” Somsook said. As a conscientious foreign scholarship student, Somsook’s first reaction when encountering any good idea afforded by the opportunity to study abroad was how she might adapt them to address the complex socio-economic problems associated with housing issues in Thailand. The stark contrast between beautiful, wellplanned cities and towns of Denmark and urban
©Danida Fellowship Centre
sprawls in developing countries, like Thailand, was not lost on Somsook.
What government planners forget “The problem with Thai government planners in social housing back then was they kept constructing buildings without giving much thought to human factors, socio-economic elements. Little has changed,” she said. “Building communities is supposed to be the foundation of any well-functioning, livable city. Studying in Denmark gave me a deeper and broader understanding of housing development beyond the designing, construction and financial aspects.” “In Thailand, we make it all about pricing. People buy whatever is on offer at the price they can afford. And then the urban poor are left out.”
ACHR a platform of professionals Today, Somsook’s organization, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR), is helping poor people in over 100 cities in Thailand and 18 other countries around Asia to achieve decent housing not only as physical structures for shelter. Human elements, such as access to employment and government services, must also be taken into consideration, she said. ACHR is a platform of professionals, communities and regional organisations working together on housing issues in Asia. “Urban poor are at the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder in most societies,” Somsook said. “There are a lot of urban poor in Asia. Utter failure by governments to provide adequate housing for urban poor is commonplace. Then you have squatters and slums.” Somsook said most Asian countries continue to offer no systematic approach to provide social housing that enable people to live with dignity and a certain measure of equality.
Activistic route to social justice But building a just and egalitarian society takes time. In the mean time, Somsook has taken more or less activistic route to improve social justice. “These urban poor are part of essential labour force but their income is not enough to buy their own place to live in. Not many Asian countries do well like Singapore, Japan. Taiwan, Hong Kong.”
Faced with apparently insurmountable housing problems and budgetary constraints, Somsook said she continued to draw inspirations from her time in Denmark. “We try to help urban poor to solve their own problems through participatory process. People-driven approach. What is remarkable about Somsook’s many achievements is cost effectiveness of Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. One of her major achievements was the Baan Munkong [Secure Home] Project 2003-2005 with at a budget of only US$10 million to upgrade communities in 300 towns and cities around Thailand. “Our emphasis is not so much on physical structures but more about strengthening of communities by giving security (rights to live where they do), livelihood (being close to their jobs), access to childcare. It’s about self-help, self-determination and a self-managed solution.” We take proactive approach – not just protesting. We are open to option either to stay put or move elsewhere, depending on people’s decision and circumstances. The egalitarian society of Denmark made a lasting impression. “Denmark is one of the wealthiest countries in the world but the Danes are not extravagant. Homes and apartments are not big. People are politically active who believe in social justice and look out for one another.”
Pay more attention to community Somsook said thanks to scholarship from the government of Denmark that enabled her to acquire knowledge that she could use to advance her career working for the betterment of people in Thailand and other Asian countries. “It was an extraordinary experience. Denmark and other Scandinavian countries could do a lot more in this regard, providing training courses to students and professionals from Third World countries. “What I learned and what policymakers and architects from developing countries in Asia should have the opportunity to learn from Denmark and Scandinavian countries is we should pay more attention to community aspects of housing.” “That housing policies and housing projects should bring people together, and then we should also build a system that people share. Denmark offers this vision.” “Denmark should not be too humble in spreading good designs, good thinkings in housing and urbanization,” Somsook said. “Denmark and its international development agency, Danida, should play a more active role in creating intellectual learning space.” “People from countries around the world can learn from the Danish society. I changed significantly. My world view changed, I began to look at my profession as an architect differently and I realized that I can change the society for the better. That I learned in Denmark.” Somsook (left), three former fellows studying architecture who met in Denmark 1978-80 recently reunite with one of their teachers in Copenhagen. April 2014 • ScandAsia.Singapore 13
April 2014 edition of ScandAsia Singapore for Scandinavian residents from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland living in Singapore.