Reimagining Public Space in Crowded Hanoi
October 26, 2016
On the evening of Sep. 1, 2016, the normal onslaught of motorcycles circling around Hoan Kiem Lake in Central Hanoi had disappeared. In crowded inner city Hanoi, many homes are small, lack light and air, and are desperately hot. A motorcycle ride around the city, especially around Hoan Kiem Lake, gives many a bit of a breeze in a green space, albeit one filled by the exhaust of others seeking the same relief.
On this evening, however, the streets were quiet as Hanoi mayor, Nguyen Duc Chung, officially declared the streets around the lake an open pedestrian mall, intended to provide a space for “healthy entertainment for the people of the capital and international tourists.”
In fact, the story behind the creation of Hoan Kiem lake pedestrian mall began nearly a decade ago. In 2007, a consortium that included Vingroup, now one of Vietnam’s largest real estate developers, proposed construction of an underground shopping mall and amusement park within Thong Nhat Park, Hanoi’s largest city park. Thong Nhat Park was constructed in the late 1950s by the city’s youth under the direction of President Ho Chi Minh. The small group of architects and urban planners who formed a coalition to oppose the project quickly discovered that the public was overwhelmingly opposed to the conversion of the park for commercial purposes, and quite willing to comment publicly. In a country where the economy has been elevated as the primary, and sometimes sole source of public concern and motivation, these protests represented a rare demonstration of shared public outrage. Among those most vocal were the elderly, who helped construct the park in their youth and now rely on it as a place to meet friends, exercise, and find some quiet in this bustling city. The opposition grew so fierce that Vingroup backed off, claiming the project was “just an idea.” Other attempts to commercialize the public space followed, and each in turn faced unrelenting public protest and ultimately, cancellation.
In late 2014, The Asia Foundation’s Hanoi office began a study of the uses of public playgrounds and gardens in Hanoi. The survey, conducted with Healthbridge Canada, found that within Hanoi’s central districts, parks, playgrounds, and flower gardens account for less than 1.2 percent of total land area, equal to about one square meter per person. We also found that many city parks and playgrounds counted in this figure were degraded, and some had been converted to other uses such as parking lots. Since most of these smaller parks and playgrounds were managed by the ward-level People’s Committee, there was no clear means of public oversight at the central city level.
Realizing this disparity, The Asia Foundation began working with the Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association to increase oversight and public participation in decisions regarding public green spaces in the city. Through in-depth discussions with members of Hanoi’s Fatherland Front, the umbrella for all mass organizations in the city, the issue was brought to the city council which followed up with a request for the Hanoi Urban Planning Institute to conduct an official study of all parks and playgrounds in the city.
Creating new parks within a rapidly growing and transforming city is no easy task. Two decades ago, there were no high rise buildings in Hanoi, now, there are too many to even count. In this booming real estate market, all available land is highly valued and subject to competing uses, including land held by state agencies and enterprises. Thus, to meet the growing need for places freed from the hustle of city life, other solutions needed to be found.
One solution is an ancient one: the city square. Long a part of city planning in Europe, the public square is a multifunctional space whose uses change over the course of a day: in the morning it might serve as a produce market, in the evening, it might become a place for exercising. Taking this concept and adjusting to the Hanoi context means that streets and whole neighborhoods can be transformed for some part of the day into markets, playgrounds, and pedestrian malls.
As The Foundation’s study was underway, a former vice director of the Hanoi Department of Architecture and Planning was elected as chair of Hoan Kiem district. Well aware of the prior controversies, the Foundation’s research, and the need for additional public spaces, he set about creating a pedestrian zone—Hanoi’s version of a public square—covering three large blocks within the city’s old quarter. Rather than permanently block streets, he proposed closing the streets to traffic from Friday evening through Sunday evening every weekend. Shop owners in this historically significant tourist area were terrified that lack of vehicle access would destroy their weekend business. But the crowds came. Since the closures began, revenues for shops within these three blocks increased by 14 percent.
The Hoan Kiem Lake pedestrian mall is an extension of these projects. Based only on the number of users of the free Wi-Fi service, the Hanoi Tourism Company estimates that 72,000 people visited the pedestrian mall over the first three-day weekend. The city now plans to connect the two pedestrian areas within Hoan Kiem District through the addition of nine more pedestrian streets. This would create a large temporary public square in the heart of the city, providing safe places for children to play and quiet places for young people and adults to gather for conversation and entertainment—much better alternatives to circling the lake on a motorbike.
Michael DiGregorio is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Vietnam. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.
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