SOCIETY

HCMC’s sidewalk use should be model for urban communities: US professor

Thoai Tran - Binh Minh

Updated : 01/14/2014 09:00 GMT + 7

Annette Kim, Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaks with Tuoi Tre News about her recent study in Ho Chi Minh. She believes that the sidewalk of HCMC, with its communities that coexist and thrive on sharing urban space, should be a model for city planners worldwide.

Why does your study focus on sidewalks, and why did you choose HCMC for your study?

The sidewalk is an overlooked space, but one of the most important spaces. There are many studies on other things like monuments or buildings, but I wanted to look where we forgot to look, a public place that most people use every day.

The reason I chose HCMC for my sidewalk study is because it is a viable key for the world and many other Asian countries, and most of the viability of the city takes place on the sidewalk.

Urban planners and policy makers in cities around the world are confused with the planning and management of public space in today’s world, when there is a growing number of immigrants and most urban areas are becoming more and more crowded. So far, most planners have focused on grandiose public spaces, such as squares. However, I think the humble sidewalk is more important as a public space where most city dwellers meet and interact with each other every day.

Sidewalks are also spaces that enable many people to make a living, and are thus beneficial to society. From a planning perspective, I wonder if sidewalks should only be set aside for pedestrians. The multifunctional sidewalk, just like the concept of mixed land use, is a key factor in creating a vibrant and sustainable urban area, as it is an important public place where a lot of community activities are organized. Sidewalks in the city also teach planners about the time dimension in the planning of public space, which allows flexibility and shared space, especially in crowded cities like HCMC.

What are the unique things you learned from HCMC’s sidewalks?

Sidewalk life is among the things that impress foreign tourists the most when they visit HCMC. I have asked international visitors from four different language groups to share what they saw during their time in the city, and they all said 40 percent of their travel stories are about the sidewalks in HCMC. They love the food and the coffee there, and how they can chat and interact with the locals so easily. Just sitting on plastic chairs on the sidewalk offers them a chance to observe city life and their surroundings for hours.

The vibrant sidewalk environment of HCMC causes many foreign tourists, especially those from other Asian countries like Korea and Japan, to reminisce about the past, as the vibrant sidewalk environment has disappeared from their homelands. For those from the Western world, observing the sidewalks of HCMC is a revelatory lesson in how people can live in harmony with each other and share many things within only square-meter wide areas.

Many researchers have also pointed out that money generated from the sidewalk economy plays an important part in maintaining social security. Some estimate that the sidewalk economy provides up to 30% of employment and food for the city.

An interesting thing that I found is about the way people cooperate and share mutual trust when working on the street. Most of the vendors say that the shops they work in front of often give them free water and electricity, and even allow them to store their equipment in the shop overnight. This is because shop sellers want to support vendors and help them earn money, or because of the mutual benefit to both parties as some restaurants sell food while the street vendors in front of them sell beverages.

For instance, three street vendors – who sell noodles, beverages, and candy – pooled their money to buy plastic chairs and share the same space in which to do business. Businesses only account for 10-40 percent of the sidewalk. Most of the empty spaces are reserved for pedestrians and motorcycle parking.

In HCMC, there are different kinds of activities that occur on the sidewalk throughout the day. At 5 am, it is a place for people to exercise. After that, vendors appear, selling breakfast and beverages. The sidewalk is often crowded at midday and in the afternoon as people have lunch and rest on the sidewalk.

How about your plan on the HCMC Pedestrian Path? How well it is going and when will it be realized?

The project will be located in District 1 and 5, and will link the most famous landmarks of the city. But it is stalled, among many other pedestrian proposals, and I don’t know why.

But the city planners have shown many positive reactions to my proposal. They seem to appreciate the wonderful parts of the city they hadn’t noticed before.  

How about the students joining the project?

The project is so wonderful for my American students, and they say it is one of the best experiences of their lives.

Vietnamese students say that participating in the project is opening their eyes and helping them to appreciate the city more. Although they see the city every day, they don’t always see things around them and appreciate them because they are so normal. With the project, they see the city with new maps, new photos, and a new way of observing their surroundings.

Most of the students were introduced to me by my Vietnamese friends living in HCMC, and they were really helpful. Nine of us have conducted interviews with 300 people in the area thoroughout the course of our study. 

Every time I come back to HCMC, I think it is amazing. People are so open and I can network with them for my job almost right away. I just came to HCMC for one week, and now all of the preparations for my photo exhibition have been completed within just one week.

During her recent weeklong visit to HCMC, Annette Kim hosted a photography exhibition, “Celebrating Ho Chi Minh City's Outdoor Activity Culture,” which run through Monday at the HCMC Photography Association's gallery on 122 Suong Nguyet Anh, District 1.

The 17 outstanding photos that are exhibited are only a small fraction of the more than 3,000 photographs that were captured, one part of “Sidewalk Lab (SLAB)’s” study of cultural activities in Vietnam set up by Kim. Annette Kim is currently an Associate Professor of Urban Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She earned her PhD in City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 with her dissertation “Making a Market: the Institutions Supporting Ho Chi Minh City’s Urban Land Development Market.”

Kim was the judge at the international urban design and architectural competition organized in HCMC in 2007 – 2008. Kim is the author of “Learning to be Capitalists: Entrepreneurs in Vietnam’s Transition Economy,” published in 2008, and the forthcoming “Sidewalk City: Re-mapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City,” planned for release in 2014.