Sustainable Architecture — the practice of designing eco-friendly buildings that minimize the human use of resources, has led to novel approaches in the design of buildings and homes. In spite of this, many architects still do not consider sustainability to be an important element of contemporary architecture. In this spotlight interview, UNSSC’s Simona Costanzo Sow speaks to Kotchakorn Voraakhom, an award-winning female landscape architect who is taking part in UNSSC’s Executive Leadership Programme for Sustainable Development. Voraakhom shares her insights on her career journey, and her work in implementing sustainable architecture practices in Thailand. Kotchakorn Voraakhom is a landscape architect from Thailand who works on building productive green public spaces that tackle climate change in urban dense areas and vulnerable communities. She created the first critical green infrastructure for Bangkok, the Chulalongkorn Centenary Park. Her complete design works also include, Thammasat Urban Farm Rooftop, a 36-acre urban farm rooftop featuring the biggest urban farming green roof in Asia, and the first bridge park across the river in any world capital, Chao Phraya Sky Park. Kotchakorn was awarded the 2020 UN Global Climate Action Awards, Women for Results, from UN Climate Change. She was featured in the 2019 “TIME 100 Next” list, one of 15 leading women fighting against climate change from TIME Magazine, BBC 100 Women 2020, the “Green 30 for 2020” by Bloomberg, and the New York Times 2022, 10 women leaving their mark on the world.
Simona: Tell us a little a bit more about yourself and the work that you do.
Kotchakorn: I am an individual who believes that humans are the key to change. I therefore strive to encourage human interaction, engagement and education in every facet of the design work that I do as a landscape architect. I am currently based in Bangkok, Thailand, where I am working on initiatives that are geared towards saving my city from sinking, flooding, and water related challenges. My work also involves vulnerable communities who are faced with dense urbanization along canal, coast line and floodplains. In this role I work to mitigate the climate crisis, and improve environmental degradation.
Bangkok is home to me, and it has had a tremendous influence on the work that I do. I am still learning, and I am fascinated by the history of the city and Thai culture – specifically traditional agriculture, and how we used to live with water.
Historically, Bangkok is amphibious. Problems arose when we introduced hard and grey infrastructure to the flow of water here. We are now making a conscious effort to adopt traditional Thai cultural landscape and agricultural methods. These are being combined with innovative technology to form sustainable design solutions that contribute to a better, healthier future for all.
Simona: You founded Landprocess in 2011, could you tell us more about your motivation, the organization, and how your work is contributing to achieving the SDGs.
Kotchakorn: In 2011, I returned to Thailand to establish my practice, Landprocess. At the time, Bangkok was rapidly urbanizing, and the process was eating away at the city’s canals, waterways and existing natural infrastructure. Despite the environmental obstacles that Bangkok was facing, the people living there didn’t adequately acknowledge the existence of climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have not yet been adopted. As a landscape architect, I felt the client-based approach to sustainable design wasn’t enough – we needed to advocate for, and educate the city’s residents about climate change. I founded Porous City Network, and partnered with vulnerable communities to raise awareness about climate challenges, and create site-specific design responses. We used education, and capacity-building initiatives to increase urban resilience and adaptability. As designers, we have a responsibility to lead. Porous City Network and Landprocess work hand-in-hand with communities to build sustainable climate solutions, and to serve communities of the future.
The SDGs are built on the philosophy of sustainability, and the fundamental connection between people and planet. As an architect, I strongly believe that landscape architecture and all related built environment professions can help the world reach the SDGs faster. One just needs to look around their city, the material we use, the infrastructure of the city and carbon footprint, emissions, and urbanization. The opportunities for sustainability are massive!
With the work that we do at Landproces, I believe my landscape architecture practice can strongly contribute to SDGs 13 and 14 which have a focus on climate action and life on land. We could also contribute to SDG 11, which is about making human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Overall, I believe that the construction process can contribute to new social and cultural approaches, that foster innovation, an improved economy and decent work within a city. This can have an impact on our efforts to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur green economic growth while we tackle climate change through local and global partnerships. Landscape architecture should always be taken into account as it has a crucial role to play in our pledge to leave no one behind.
Simona: What challenges have you faced as a woman leader in this space, and how have you overcome them?
Kotchakorn : In many developing countries, women are required to work harder before they gain the recognition they deserve, something that comes more easily to their male counterparts. In my field of work, discrimination on the basis of age, gender and capability is still ongoing. There are biases against women, and many professionals are skeptical about their ability to handle big infrastructure projects. Fortunately, I have been able to deal with these biases without allowing myself to feel discriminated against. As women, we are sometimes treated differently because of our gender, and we seldom realize that this does not have to be the case. We all need to come to terms with the fact that our work can speak for itself, there is no need to let the opinions of others, and our gender to be an obstacle in our professional lives. Personally, I do not allow gender biases to pull me down from the goals I want to achieve as a person, a female designer, and as a global citizen.
Simona: What is your most memorable lesson from the UNELPforSD?
Kotchakorn: Definitely all the sessions where we learn from each other and strengthen the network among us like the UNSSC led peer exchange sessions and the leadership inner circle with Agnes Cserhati. Hearing all the insights and experience from leaders who come from different fields has been amazing. In what has been a challenging climate, I have learned techniques that have helped me to become more adaptive. Also, by sharing experiences with the other participants, who are all inspirational leaders, working on frontier issues, we have been able to make more sense of the lessons from the lectures and put them into context. We are able to explore a particular concept, and view it from different perspectives. In these conversations, it is not only the intellectual conversations that matter, it is the supportive meaningful circle that is built spontaneously.
As leaders we each have individual leadership styles being able to have open and meaningful discussions has helped me make sense of our approaches to leadership. One’s personal and professional journeys are deeply connected. I am inspired by the hopes and possibilities that we explored, as well as my ongoing leadership journey which no longer feels lonely. Overall, I think the combination of academic lectures from Hertie professors and professors of the National University of Singapore, along with the opportunities for deep sharing and connection are really meaningful. Honestly, I didn’t think initially that all of this can be done through an online programme. I cannot wait to meet my fellow cohort members in person in Berlin at the Hertie School in a few weeks.
Simona: The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in us having to deal with a new set of challenges and opportunities. What have you learned during this time, and how would you lead differently given the benefit of hindsight?
Kotchakorn : One thing that the pandemic has brought to light for me is that, to address the health and wellbeing of a community, you must also address the health of the world and our environment. And it is not just the COVID-19 pandemic, several pandemics from the last decade remind us that we are at a point where we need to either adapt or die. Human development in the Anthropocene has led to a great extinction of plants and animals. Invasive urban development is affecting sacred forests and wild animal habitats. This is leading to zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans, Covid and other coronavirus infections are good examples of this phenomenon.
My observations are closely linked to the concept of “One Health” which was also discussed during the programme as an example of a holistic approach to development issues. The concept requires us to rethink animal health, human health and environmental health as One, instead of artificially separating them.
This is applicable to the built environment profession where we work on a project-basis, realizing one project at a time. If you have one chance, and you want to address several problems, I don’t think one design can serve just one client. It needs to serve the whole city, the whole population, and the whole ecosystem. Over the past couple of months, I have also learned that design now has unexpected clients — the birds and the bees. They don’t have a voice, but we have a responsibility to look after their needs, not only because we depend on them, but because we have a responsibility toward them. We are now serving ‘clients’ well beyond the ones that pay us and we have to be very conscious of that and implement the concept of “One”.
Further to this, I think the global disruption has shed light on various systemic inequalities that are deeply embedded in our world. As prominent as they are in our line of work, these obstacles also reinforce our power and potential as landscape architects. We can use our influence to contribute to creative, proactive nature-based solutions to tackle this health crisis. This is also the case with climate change and all other uncertainties that are in our midst. Now is our only opportunity for action.
Simona: Are there any important bites of wisdom that you would like to share with fellow women leaders who are leading the charge for sustainable development?
Kotchakorn: Many may lead with a toolbox of techniques and rigid methods; however, I believe that we as women should also lead with compassion. Today a lot of people talk about leading with passion. However, I think compassion is more important than passion. I do things not only to benefit myself, but also to help others. So as female leaders, it is important to raise our voices so that we can be the voice of our communities. I am always thankful for my supportive female community; I owe them so much.