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Udon Thani – a model for sustainable cities in a growing Asia-Pacific

As the Northern Thailand city of Udon Thani rapidly develops, booming industry, increasing traffic and waste, and a planned high speed rail link present new challenges for its residents. How can Udon go clean and green for a livable and sustainable future? 

Udon Thani's famous giant ducks. Photo: SEI.

Date published
17 September 2019
A story from
Northern Thailand

A city on the move

Udon Thani is a rapidly growing small city in northern Thailand near the border with Laos that will soon be on the high-speed train route connecting Bangkok to Nong Khai. Though the city’s official population is 130,000, the true figure may be higher, as it expands along with a modernizing Thailand. As the outskirts of Udon Thani rapidly develop, investments in infrastructure are keeping pace: there are many new projects including highway bypasses, a waste-to-energy plant, and industrial complexes.

The train station in Udon Thani. Udon is on a planned high-speed rail line that will connect it to Bangkok. Photo: SEI.

New urban challenges

Of course, swift urban development has consequences and presents challenges. As new industrial complexes go up, affecting air quality and liveability, the city is rethinking the direction of its development and has prepared Thailand’s first provincial-level charter – a  multi-stakeholder process that has involved civil society and municipal actors. The charter aims at a sustainable and inclusive future for the city, with a focus on nurturing the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) industry and being an eco-friendly and greener city.

One initiative already underway is an effort to make the city walkable. A multi-directional “pedestrian scramble” crossing, similar to the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, has been piloted at one of the city’s most heavily trafficked intersections, demonstrating a new way of using the city’s streets.

There is also an increasing amount of motor vehicle traffic on Udon’s streets. Until recently, the city’s only mass transit system consisted of taxi pickup trucks.

The Thong Yai intersection in Udon Thani is trialing a multi-directional “pedestrian scramble” crossing, similar to the Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. Photo: SEI.

Pick-up truck taxis were the city’s only mass transit option until recently. Photo: SEI.

The city’s new solution is the smart bus, which was introduced this year.  The smart bus is important not only for relieving vehicle congestion, but also because it contributes to people’s well-being: a recent study from SEI’s City Health and Wellbeing Initiative showed that traffic along main roads is a major source of stress for residents.

Udon Thani’s stress points in red, as identified in a participatory mapping exercise, centred mainly around high traffic areas. Graphic: SEI.

As part of a participatory mapping exercise, residents identified spaces used for relaxation (green dots) and for exercise (yellow dots). Graphic: SEI

Focusing on green for a healthier population

Taking advantage of the city’s green spaces, Udon’s mayor has been promoting a “healthy, sport city” campaign, which includes investing in infrastructure such as bike lanes, jogging paths and playgrounds.

Nong Prajak lake, for example, offers a three kilometre off-road loop. Nong Prajak attracts other exercisers as well, serving as a hub for joggers, group aerobics and children’s activities.

Cyclists at Nong Prajak Lake. Graphic: SEI.

An exercise group at a city park. Photo: SEI.

The city also recognizes the value of its network of canals, which offer potential as multi-use green spaces.

Klong Charoen canal is a relaxing, natural space for people to visit, row boats, and enjoy local products and is being looked at for its potential for tourism. Huay Mark Khaeng canal is currently being transformed into a more attractive and useable space. It used to carry sewage overflows, but is now being renewed to improve sanitation and the well-being of the people who live along its banks.

Klong Charoen remains a peaceful, green environment. Photo: SEI.

Huay Mark Khaeng canal is being renewed for better sanitation and health. Photo: SEI.

Tackling waste management

As in many cities in Asia, Udon is generating an increasing amount of waste. The city has invested in building a new waste management complex to separate solid waste and turn it into fuel, and an even more ambitious waste-to-energy plant is currently being built alongside it. This new plant will turn refuse-derived fuel into electricity to help satisfy the province’s energy needs while reducing its reliance on imported electricity from Laos.

The city is keenly aware of the waste challenge at the local community level as well, and has been educating communities on waste management for 20 years. SEI’s Initiative on City Health and Well-being recently worked with local communities to fill the data gaps in waste management practice. Though the study revealed that many local  communities are satisfied with their living environment, they continue to play an active part in managing and improving it, for example by collecting recyclables.

Many households collect recyclable materials to sell on to waste dealers. Photo: SEI.

Udon Thani’s growth demands positive change for the life of its citizens. The city has taken a proactive approach, identifying and harnessing its many natural assets for the well-being of residents. The challenge is to ensure that rapid urban change doesn’t result in an increase in negative effects for the city’s liveability. Udon Thani offers an example of a city administration and civil society working together to ensure that development is both green and sustainable, for now and into the future.