I’ve spent the most part of the March and April preparing the first formal report to the Vietnamese government for the project I am working on for JINA Architects: The Hanoi Capital Construction Master Plan to 2030 and Vision to 2050. This is a project to establish a urban master plan for Hanoi to 2030, covering some 3345 km2. Just to put this area into perspective, it is 2 times the size of Greater London and 5 times the size of Seoul.
The report schedule ended up being pretty grueling:
April 13: Pre-presentation of the 1st Report to the Ministry of Construction
April 18: 1st Report to the Vietnamese Government Steering Committee chaired by the Vice Prime Minister
April 21-22: International Symposium: Hanoi 2030
April 24: Presentation of the 1st Report to the Government Standing Committee which included the Prime Minister, 5 Vice Prime Ministers, Cabinet and chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee.
The project is ambitious and close to impossible given the timeframe of 1 year. We started in January, and we are expected to submit our final deliverables at the end of the 2009 with 3 intermediate reports in April, July and October. After submission there will be a period of appraisal and if all is well, we should have approval in mid-2010 ahead of Hanoi’s 1000-year celebrations which are slated for October 10, 2010. (Oct 10 being a play on “1010” which is when Hanoi or Thang Long as it was called then was established)
Capital Master Plan: A Nation’s Vision
A project of this scope is not really a urban planning or engineering project so much as a political, national vision project. Each nation’s capital is a statement of the nation’s philosophical inclinations. Washington DC represents the ideals upon which the US was founded. Seoul embodies, like it or not, the breakneck economic growth and now the technological innovations that are driving the nation. A city is always a sum of collective decisions whether they were good one of back ones, or none. So some capitals don’t have a clear direction which may be a negative reflection of that nation’s lack of leadership.
So what does Hanoi want to be? We propose it can be: The First Sustainable Capital. Ambitious? Yes. But if you understand that this is political/national philosophy project and not an engineering project, having a strong vision that the leadership can bring to the people is important.
Hanoi and Sustainability
Ideas of sustainability is not a foreign concept to Vietnam. The national motto is: Freedom, Independence and Happiness. Vietnam fought hard to maintain these values in the various wars throughout its history with China, France and most recently against the US. So sustaining their way of life and independence has been a central philosophy all along.
What we proposed was that Hanoi needs to expand the ideas of sustainability to embody all 4 pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability.
The first, economic is obvious. Vietnam has had a breathtaking growth. It went from a starving population just 10 years ago to becoming #2 rice exporter, #2 coffee exporter and #1 cashew nut exporter. The economy is strong so it is important to ensure that this growth continues. Vietnam has 2 major cities: Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) and Hanoi. The Mekong Delta and HCMC is more of the industrial base of the nation. The 2 cities need to clearly identify roles. In Hanoi, industry should be promoted, but needs to transition to a knowledge-based industry. This is more becoming of the capital, where administration, cultural and higher education should be promoted.
Environmental sustainability is obviously important. The Asia Development Bank (ADB) sees Vietnam will be one of the counties that will be most affected by rising sea-levels as a direct result of climate change. Hanoi and HCMC are both in delta areas, which would mean that they will be hardest hit. Also water and air pollution, are major concerns, since waste water and industrial waste in Hanoi is hardly treated, and heavy motorcycle traffic is having a negative impact on air quality.
Social and cultural sustainability is less obvious. In the case of Seoul, since the 60’s economic growth has trumped all other aspects, and in the process, cultural and historic heritage were irretrievably lost. It is only recently that there are attempts to belated recover these assets. But what is once lost is manyfold harder to recover. Hanoi has such rich heritage, that was unintentionally relatively well-preserved due to the war and economic stagnation that followed. Hanoi has Chinese, French, Soviet and Vietnamese heritage and influences all in one city. The scale French colonial urban structure and colonial-style villas makes for a very interesting european city, while the Old Quarter makes for a uniquely Vietnamese experience all within walking distance of each other.
It’s apparent that Vietnam, given its economy, cannot invest in preserving its cultural assets as much as more developed nations. But what it can do is protect until it can discover and develop them.
Our methodology is based first on an assessment of the current conditions of Hanoi, then identifying the unique assets and potentials of Hanoi, then establishing a strategic framework to develop these assets while mitigating the challenges, applying international best practices adapted to the unique conditions in Hanoi. Pretty straight forward.
The analysis of the current conditions shows that there are many challenges that Hanoi needs to overcome. Traffic congestion, transportation, flooding, uncontrolled urban development, housing, new administration center are to name just some of the high priority issues.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing the plan on finding solutions for these challenges. However if you look beyond, you realize that Hanoi and Vietnam has many assets that need to be protected, discovered and developed. The numerous cultural and historic sites in and around Hanoi need to be protected, and the way of life in the numerous craft villages outside Hanoi’s urban core need to be maintained to the degree possible.
Agricultural land protection
Most important, high-productivity agricultural land needs to be protected. It is easy to overlook this issue. Many countries including Korea made the decision to convert its agricultural land for urban use. The Philippines also made a similar decision and, in a simplistic way, this is how it went from being a rice exporter to now the world’s biggest rice importer with Vietnam being a major exporter of rice to the Philippines. Given the growing urban population and uncontrolled development, this is indeed a clear danger for Vietnam also.
At its heart, it more a matter of principle than practicality. It would nice to have a good portion of the food resources needed for Hanoi to be cultivated and provided for from nearby farms, however this is not at all practical, given the projected population growth, and its appetite for new land for housing, industrial and commercial use. Also given how labor intensive it is to cultivated rice crops, it doesn’t make economic sense for the small-scale rice farms to try to supply Hanoi.
What’s more crucial is how the land is converted to non-agricultural use: High productivity agricultural land should be identified and only low productivity agricultural land be converted. If this principle is enforced in the capital, it should have a ripple effect on all the other cities in Vietnam which are growing and facing the same issue of land conversion. This will establish a principle that values agricultural land as a national principle and security. Not many countries around the world has the luxury or security of being able to feed its whole population from home grown produce. This is one asset that Vietnam should fight to protect and Hanoi can set the standard. Not many countries are a leader in anything. Vietnam should maintain its lead in agriculture as a matter of national priority, and work to build up other areas such as industry and technology to the same level.
So how to achieve these goals and principles in an economically and environmentally sustainable way? Based on the current conditions, in order to establish a sustainable growth strategy, our main concept is centered around the establishment of the Green Corridor of Hanoi to the west of the previous Hanoi’s urban core. The Green Corridor follows the flood plains either side of the Day and Tich Rivers.
The idea of Green Corridor is fundamentally different from a green belt. A green belt is static and strictly controlled. However a green corridor is more flexible in that it allows for certain “green” activities to occur through maintaining many levels of protection. Protection can range from strict control to “conservation-based development” which accommodates pre-existing craft villages to function. The Green Corridor also moves to protect the high productivity agricultural land that exists around the Day and Tich River flood plains.
The Green Corridor will also function in much the same way a green belt does in Seoul or London in establishing a boundary around the urban areas to control uncontrolled urban sprawl development. This will give satellite cities the opportunity to develop in a more competitive and compact way and
allow the depopulation of the current Hanoi center and give public transportation a chance to function as it links the new urban centers with the old. The big added benefit of course is the open green space for future generations to enjoy.
With the Green Corridor acting as an anchor, so called “innovation clusters” can be developed to tap new potential and opportunities in eco-tourism, high-tech agriculture and cross-functional cultural-education-technology activity zones.
The biggest challenge for all this is the 700+ approved projects in Hanoi in various stages of planning and implementation speckled around the whole area. Currently all these projects have been put on hold pending the approval of master plan. Negotiating, accommodating or even canceling some of these projects which have strong vested political interests will be hardest part of the plan. Now that we have proposed the general framework for development, more details on how to reconcile the plan with the existing projects is what the next stage and the next report in July will have to address.
For now I’m glad that the 1st Report is over. According to official Vietnamese press sources, it seems to have been a successful presentation. But we still have a very steep uphill battle all the way for the rest of the project. I guess it’s always like this.
A few notes
This project/presentation is a team effort. I am currently the project director, which means I herd the cats. I coordinate our JINA team in Seoul and Hanoi and liaise with our consortium partners, Perkins Eastman (PE) and Posco e&c as well as our Vietnamese counterparts. The presentation was prepared by our team members in Seoul, Hanoi and New York, and was presented by Bradford Perkins (“Mr. Perkins” in Perkins Eastman Architects), Paul Buckhurst (PE), and Eliot Bu (my boss and friend at JINA).