If you build it, they will run
Updated : 07/09/2012 10:24 GMT + 7
They say you never see your first mugging in the big city coming, and I surely didn’t. I was doing my best imitation of a serious runner and slogging away the kilometers when a motorbike abruptly cut me off. The passenger reached over and grabbed the strap of my tank top, trying to get his other hand on the music player that was tucked inside my shirt.
Confused, one hand automatically flew up to my chest to hold my shirt down, while the other went to the collar of his shirt. A tug of war ensued, which I’m sure lasted no longer than ten seconds but felt like ten minutes. When it was all said and done, he had my headphones but I, amazingly, still had my music. I also had a lot of anger. I was mad the stranger had tried to rob me. I was mad at myself for not better concealing my expensive electronic. But mostly I was mad because I knew I needed to find a new running route. I was now a moving target on this one.
Finding somewhere to run in Saigon is never easy and it had taken me months to perfect my path. This one had everything. It was on a paved road that was never very busy. There was shade from the palm trees that lined it. The people who lived and worked there were incredibly friendly - once a man on his bike pulled up and, thinking I was running because I was in a hurry to get somewhere, offered me a ride. It was, as we sometimes say, a unicorn; a thing so rare that you have to see it to believe it. (Or run it, in my case.)
There’s a serious shortage of running and walking trails here for a city the size of Saigon. Sure there are parks where hundreds congregate as soon as the sun goes down, but most are there for hanging out, not working out. They parallel some of the busiest, most exhaust-filled roads in the city. The long, low metal bars across the sidewalks that are designed to keep adventurous motorbike drivers out are a dangerous obstacle for athletes. Compare that with Central Park in New York City, which has extensive walking tracks and jogging paths, or the rolling hills of green at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, and Saigon is the clear loser.
The concept of green space is also an issue in this rapidly developing city. In late 2009, the Park and Greenery Office under the HCMC Department of Transport published a report stating the city’s green space had been cut in half over an 11 year period. The loss was attributed to housing developers who ignored the requirements on green space development, as well as parks that were converted for other purposes. The news was upsetting enough that the Department of Transport began drafting a plan for green coverage to increase from 0.7 square meters per person to four or five square meters by 2025. So far there has been an effort to build new parks in developing areas and expand a few existing ones, but there’s still a way to go. Encouragingly, new housing projects in several districts seem to grasp the importance of outdoor space by advertising things like walking trails, tennis courts, and a general sense of calm amidst the urban chaos.
Whether you exercise or not, science has proven that you will benefit from living near green space. The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health published statistics showing that rates of mental illness, including anxiety disorders and depression, dropped among those living near parks. According to researchers at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, men who live in the greenest areas are less likely to die from heart or lung problems. And while you probably didn’t need a scientific study to figure out that kids who live near green space are more active and healthier in general, several have come to that conclusion.
Saigon is poised for a population boom, with millions of new residents expected in the coming years. They’ll need homes and apartments, parking, schools, and places to shop and eat. But developers and city planners should also pay careful attention to outdoor spaces as the city landscape changes. I know I will be. I have yet to find another route equal to that of the music player mugging. In fact sometimes I sneak back over there for a couple not-so-quick kilometers. What can I say, I like to run dangerously. At least until Saigon offers me another option.