Walking to Understand Urban Flooding
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
I’ve been wanting to test out the idea of walking as a form of ethnographic research even before arriving in Chiang Mai, as I’d like to apply this notion to my doctoral research. I finally saw the opportunity during our field visit to Nong Hoi in first half of June, where we assisted the Foundation for Older Persons’ Development (FOPDEV) in conducting participatory mapping and disaster preparedness planning workshops for older persons in the community. Nong Hoi was is a district located Southeast of the Ping River. The area’s proximity to the river made it particularly vulnerable to flooding.
Image 1. Walking as a way of knowing and thinking.
Frustrated by the language barrier due to my lack of familiarity with Thai, I was looking for visual and sensorial ways to learn about life in Nong Hoi to complement the real time translations (generously provided by local FOPDEV staff and fellow Field Lab participants who are fluent in Thai) of our group’s conversations with older persons from the neighborhood. I hoped that the sensorial experience of walking would provide those of us who don’t speak Thai with a more holistic understanding of the local context of flood risk, as opposed to only relying on translation. The first day of our week-long stay in Nong Hoi provided us with the opportunity to walk around the neighbourhood with Uncle Somchit, an older resident from the area, and occasional traffic enforcer.
Walking as ‘Embodied Ethnography’
I was specifically inspired by Cheng Yi En’s (2014) article on walking, as an ‘embodied mode of ethnography’ that unfolds through hearing, seeing. and feeling. Walking is therefore a means to understand the materialities and rhythms that organise everyday life in the city: ‘the most simple act of wandering, strolling or leisurely walking enables us to collect details about urban life’ (p.213). Conversely, thinking and feeling is a way of walking: walking is ‘thinking in movement’ (Ingold and Vergunst, 2008). The meandering quality of our walk reflected our sense of uncertainty and confusion about our topic, our sense of not even being sure of what to pay attention to. The character of this initial walk through the neighborhood was the opposite of our walk back to catch at our base, which was, in contrast, hurried and direct. Still further, viewing walking as a way of doing ethnography implies that walking is also a mode of socialising. To those of us who were visitors to Nong Hoi, this socialisation was different from the earlier activity of introducing formally introducing ourselves to older persons in the community by standing up to a large group and saying a few words about our background and interest in Chiang Mai. Walking while socialising was far more unstructured and emergent, as the diversity of inhabitants (people, trees, walls) we encountered along the way all presented opportunities to gain insight into the everyday lives of our community guides.
Image 2. This intersection is accident-prone and is also where the flash flood rushed into the neighbourhood, from the right. Complementing Walking with Digital Photography
I complemented walking with photography, which is an even more specific mode of thinking, feeling, and relating. Walking while taking pictures is something I do regularly in Manila (where I’m from) and Melbourne (where I’m currently based). I walk with my phone in hand, ready to use the camera the moment I find something interesting. Walking around a city for me has always been instinctive, improvisational, and anticipatory. I use my senses to identify possible directions to walk towards: a grove of trees, a splash of paint, a strange odor, or the distant sounds of music might draw me towards a particular path. Meanwhile, a camera phone in my hand is a reminder to be alert, as opportunities to capture scenes that are interesting or beautiful or related to my research abound. I have modest DSLR but I purposely left this behind in Melbourne. I assumed that while taking photographs in Nong Hoi, I would be pre-occupied with many other things , such as interviewing, taking notes, and overcoming the language barrier. A DSLR would be unwieldy in this situation. Secondly, I wanted to diminish the cultural distance between myself and the inhabitants of Chiang Mai. Language, age, religion and other cultural barriers were already obvious. Having audio-video recording equipment that is more sophisticated than a cellphone would, at least in my view, only further exoticise myself to the residents, and vice versa. I wanted a device that’s familiar to the residents, and that would maintain some sense of continuity across my walking and documentation habits in Manila, Melbourne, and Chiang Mai.
Beginning the Walk
Our group of five started assembled outside the community center to begin our walk. This took a bit of time, as there was some initial confusion about team and area assignments. It was very hot and humid, and I was preoccupied with wearing my hat, adjusting the camera settings in my phone, and strategically placing my notebook, pen, and water bottle in my bag for these to be easily accessible. I lagged behind a bit and I hurriedly caught up with my teammates, who, in turn, were doing their best to catch up with Uncle Somchit as well as Plai, our FOPDEV contact. We ambled along one of the main roads in the neighbourhood and arrived at a small intersection. Uncle Somchit said that this was the road where the flood entered the neighbourhood. He pointed to a sign that he helped make to emphasise road safety as he also sometimes serves as a traffic enforcer in the community. True enough, we were always negotiating our space on the road with all sorts of vehicles passing by, given that it was narrow and there was no sidewalk. The dead gecko in the middle of the road, obviously road kill, was a reminder to be cautious.
Shortly after the intersection, I noticed a stench coming from the drains. Upon observing more closely, I saw that some of the drains were held in place and covered by concrete slabs. This observation led to my participation in a drain mapping project the following day. The various materials around the drains provided additional context about flooding in Chiang Mai.
A Patch of Greenery, a Glimpse of the Past
As we continued to walk along the road, an empty lot filled with trees and vines prompted a discussion of what the neighbourhood looked like before rapid urbanisation. We were also told that there used to be a pond in the neighbourhood. This was very interesting to the group.
Image 3. The greenery of this vacant lot reminded our guide of what the neighbourhood looked like before rapid urbanisation.
Flood Marks on the Wall: A Turning Point
A mark on the wall of the ruins of a former wood factory prompted a discussion about the height of the flood during 2011. This, to me, was a turning point for the group, as everyone became alert when Uncle Somchit pointed to the flood mark. The mark sparked immediate interest, and no translation was needed to confirm that the flood mark was a concern shared by the entire group.
Image 4. Po Somchit and the rest of the team gesturing towards the flood mark.
The Flyover: Evacuation During Flash Floods
We arrived at the corner of the road and the main highway. In a driveway by this corner, two more older persons from the community were waiting next to a tuktuk. We followed their tuktuk across the highway, where our attention was directed to some sculptures under the flyover. Tents were reportedly set up under the flyover for evacuees after the flash flood. Watching, hearing, and inhaling the exhaust fumes emitted by the multitude of cars, trucks, and motorcycles passing by sparked concern and conversation about the safety issues of having evacuation site under the flyover.
Image 5. Residents escaping the flash flood reportedly sought refuse under this flyover.
Uncle Cha, who uses a cane, stepped off the tuktuk and led us to his bungalow, which was much lower than the road. He said that the flood in 2011 rose very quickly in the area and he and his family needed to evacuate to the flyover. Uncle Somchit showed us more flood markings from different floods on the exterior walls of Uncle Cha’s house.
Image 6. Dogs and belongings in Uncle Cha’s home were conversation starters about his family’s experience of the 2011 flood. Uncle Cha and his family monitored the rising flood level through news on the radio, but the flash flood still caught them completely off guard. The dogs followed the family to the evacuation site without any prodding, although the family was too alarmed to specifically think of the safety of their pets. The flood marks on Po Cha’s house, his belongings, and numerous dogs, all sparked further conversation about the family’s experience of the flood.
Home Visits: After Disaster
Our attention was directed to a house with a second floor behind Uncle Cha’s bungalow. This was built after the 2011 flood by Uncle Cha’s brother as an evacuation contingency for the whole family.
Image 7. Dogs and belongings in Uncle Cha’s home were conversation starters about his family’s experience of the 2011 flood
Image 8. Uncle Somchit raised the plinth of his home to make it more flood resilient.
Uncle Somchit then led us through the gate of the compound in which his home is located. He gestured towards his house, then to his sister’s house across the alley. His sister’s house has a second floor, and this is where his family took refuge during the flood. The water in the area took 7-10 days to subside. Luckily, Uncle Somchit and family prepared some food supplies to tide them over as soon as they heard about the rising flood levels on the radio. The family also fortunately had enough savings to make their house more disaster-resilient. Learning from that experience, Uncle Somchit raised the plinth of his house after the typhoon.
Walking allowed us to experience the urban environment (including the built environment) in ways that complemented verbal information with sensorial information. The various constituents of the environment -walls, flood marks, vegetation, cars, pets- were able to ‘fix’ our collective attention and ground the flow of discussions on what was immediately relevant to the everyday lives of Uncle Somchit and Uncle Cha. Sometimes the connection of these elements (such as Po Cha’s dogs) to the flood were not immediately obvious, but the conversations they sparked often led to more narratives about the flood. As our guides came upon various elements within the environment, we were being instructed in what to pay attention to in relation to flooding in the city. Gestures like pointing and tapping elements with the environment became additional communication tools: they allowed both visitors and newcomers to clarify the topic of discussion, which could not be achieved as effectively by translation alone. Walking was also a way to expand my perception of what matters, as I was drawn to scenes that captured the attention of other group members, but which I overlooked at first. The explicit act of taking photos was, in a way, an invitation to share curiosity as well as an opportunity to experience the environment from other perspectives.
As Cheng (2014) suggested, this walk was a process of orientation and disorientation. We were mostly following Uncle Somchit, who seemed to have planned for us walk towards his home near the highway, so he could take us to his home, as well as Uncle Cha. But we did not walk towards his house in a straight line; there were many diversions along the way as various things captured our attention and made us wonder about how these were connected to flooding in Chiang Mai. After dwelling on these diversions, we would return to our original path and this in itself became a temporary disorientation. All in all, doing ethnographic research through walking became key to my understanding of flood risk within Chiang Mai. I adopted this multi-sensorial and open-ended approach to gain a broader understanding of the city, which, in turn, led to more personal and professional projects during my stay in Chiang Mai.
This article was published as part of a research residency of the Understand Risk Field Lab on Urban Flooding in Chiang Mai, June 2019.
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