Sunday, 06 May 2012 15:53

A Space Odyssey

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Every city needs public space. But in Ho Chi Minh City, the tendency is to bemoan the lack of them. Is it really all that bad? Words by Nick Ross


There is a distinct lack of greenery in this city and except on holidays or when there are outdoor exhibitions in the park areas, there are few places where the general public can mingle with impunity. Or at least, that is what it may seem. If you include sidewalks and indeed any social space that people can meet, exercise, play, relax or find solitude, Saigon has far more public space than we may at first assume.


That public spaces are important is often overlooked. Humans are intrinsically social animals, and while our homes can be our castles, outside the environs of our private space we need places where we can interact with others. It’s something psychological, something that is a feature of human development over the last 10,000 years. To see humans as atoms confined to their homes is to miss out on a prime characteristic of humanity.


With this in mind, we decided to do a little experiment.


In the 1980s the journalist and urbanist William H. Whyte put together the documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Places. Looking at the public spaces of New York and further afield, he observed people's behaviour and the design of these spaces to see what worked and what didn’t. Through this he came up with a number of recommendations that were subsequently followed by the city of the New York. We decided to take his observations and apply them to Ho Chi Minh City.


Putting People in Their Places


The mention of Phu My Hung arouses a myriad of emotions. Some love this development, this city built on a mangrove swamp. The more nostalgic see it as an end to the Saigon of old. Regardless of your persuasion, the inauguration of the privately created public space in The Crescent in District 7 has largely been a success.


Constructed to help transform this District 7 suburb into a city, says Phu My Hung Corporation president Gary Tseng, “If a city centre is only residential, it’s not a city centre… You must have a commercial hub. It means that outside people can also come to this area.”


At the weekends The Crescent Mall alone can bring in over 30,000 people. Wining and dining is also a big affair out here, as is the pedestrianised walkway and road that offer a place to stretch legs and take in the evening breezes. Then there is the abundance of greenery, the neon light-lit footbridge and the overall sense of community.


Yet, a trip down here on a Sunday evening exposes both the positive and the negative. With a couple of exceptions, the restaurants, cafes and bars are full. The fountain area with public seating at the front of the Crescent Mall, with its two coffee shops, also draws quite a crowd. The steps, ledges and fountains leading up to the second level close to Boomarang, heaves, too. And yet, observe the waterfront walkway area and you see a problem.


To keep people in a public space you need places to sit so they are not forced to wander through and then leave. As Whyte observed, people like ledges and steps to sit on. Conversely, public benches placed far apart tend to be isolating — strangers rarely tend to sit on the same bench as another stranger. On ledges, though, the whole world seems to come together.


And yet, the key seating location, the waterfront, the spot where people would most likely want to sit, seems to have been given short thrift. This is the place to really catch the view. But with small park benches 30 metres apart, people coming to the riverfront have a place to walk but nowhere to sit. The restaurants and cafes opposite can help to solve this problem, but most of them are simply too expensive for the non-middle-class. All begging the question, is the lack of seating an oversight, or is The Crescent only supposed to be for those who can afford it?


According to Gary Tseng, the lack of seating along the walkway was deliberate, but not for the purpose of exclusion.


“When we designed [the riverfront], we made it so it wasn’t easy to sit down,” he explains. “The problem is that the people coming here leave loads of garbage everywhere and pollute the environment… Just look at the grass area in front of Grand View… It is a place for people to walk, to exercise. If everyone can do like that, we can appreciate that. But if you just lie around the space or young couples do things in public that are perhaps not suitable, then it’s a problem.”


Adds Cheryl Li, the director of The Crescent project: “Many people who don’t live here come here for enjoyment. But they don’t respect the environment. They just come here and pollute it. So, our residents complain to us that we must take some major action to prevent this happening.”


Fines and Crimes 


Vu Thi Hong Hanh, a lecturer in Planning and Urban Design at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Architecture, agrees that there is a huge issue with misuse.


“A lot of people park their motorbikes in public spaces,” she explains, “But they're not places to park. Then there are those who use parks as a place to sleep. They are not places to sleep. There are also a lot of signs around — don’t step on the grass, don’t urinate here — but people just ignore them. It’s the result of improper management and also the behaviour of the users.”


She also bemoans the lack of accessibility. Take Tao Dan Park on Truong Dinh. A metal bar was erected there to prevent bicycles or motorbikes entering the park area, but in the process the park has been made inaccessible to wheelchair users. Then there is the linear park being constructed next to the canal on the East-West Highway. “With six or seven lanes of highway to cross, how will people get there to use it?”


She adds: “Most of the public spaces in the old city centre were planned during the French colonial period. We inherited them and modified them to fit our use. The modification doesn’t always fit. But if you provide proper design, then people will use it properly. It becomes a circle.”


A few years ago I was waiting for my family outside the Le Duan entrance of Diamond Plaza when I made the ultimate mistake. I sat down on a ledge surrounding a flowerbed. A security guard immediately marched over and moved me on. 


At the time I was shocked. It seemed counter-intuitive. Surely such a place as the Diamond Plaza would want people sitting outside — the impression of being busy would help draw other people into the building. And surely this area on the street was a public space. But having experienced the same scenario a couple of times since, it's quite clear the reason for this is a concern about people's behaviour.


It's a double-edged sword. On one front there seems to be a lack of planning behind spaces in the city centre. Take the Opera House and the greenery next door once occupied by Q Bar. With a bit of thought there could some great development behind these two spaces. Take down the fence and open the greenery up to the street. Add in some trees, a couple of umbrellas, some shade and some well thought-out seating. With it bring a quality coffee stand or two and maybe a stand selling takeaway food. And suddenly you would have a great little space in the centre of the city.


The worry is, as Phu My Hung has experienced, that with it would come the ‘undesirables’, the people who would drop litter where they sit, the people who would lie on the grass, and those who would spread out their picnics in an ungainly fashion on the lawn. The not-so-welcome elements of crime would also appear — District 1 already has a big issue with bag snatching and this may exacerbate it. Essentially, a large minority would ruin the space for the majority.


The problem here is an issue of awareness. At present Vietnam lacks a widespread understanding of the importance of public spaces and how they should be used. Until this is resolved, then anything created by the authorities or the private developer will be abused. And then, as Hanh points out, rules and regulations need to be enforced.


So, as a first step, maybe it's time to follow the draconian example of Bangkok. It started a decade ago with fines for spitting in public. This was quickly extended to banning litter, a policy that has gone even as far as fining people for leaving cigarette butts on the street. The method is not ideal. But it keeps the city clean. And like the zero tolerance policy of wearing motorbike helmets that was ushered in at the end of 2007, it may be the only way forward.


The Principles of William H. Whyte

In his documentary The Social Life of Small Urban Places and later in his book, City: Rediscovering the Centre, Whyte outlined a number of principles for designing a successful public space.


Suitable space

The size needs to be in proportion to the amount of people who will use the space — not too large or too small. It mustn’t be enclosed and there must be ample seating — mainly ledges and steps — where people can sit in a variety of positions. The seating must also take account of the natural size and height of the human being



The space should be at street level or close to street level. It should have easy access to and from the street and should not be fenced off


Sun / Light

Spaces need to be well-lit. In New York, the sun is not an issue. In Ho Chi Minh City it is. So transferring this to Saigon, a good public space needs ample shade and ample places to escape the sun



Food and drink should be available at a public space. It gives additional reasons to use the space



People like water features and being close to water, particularly water they can touch and feel



Trees and other sorts of greenery not only provide shade, they provide shelter. People like to sit under trees or in places with ample shelter



Make sure the spaces have something for people to look at — monuments, sites, street activities, music. Anything to keep people in that space


A Tale of Three Roundabouts


Difficult access makes it hard for central reservations in roundabouts to become good public spaces. And yet around the world some such areas have been a success. So we looked at three circles in Ho Chi Minh City to see what had been done with them.


The first was in the middle of Quach Thi Trang, the roundabout opposite Ben Thanh Market. For ornamentation, this reservation has been well-designed — there are bushes, flowers, shallow steps and a statue in the middle of war general Tran Nguyen Han. But beyond that it doesn’t quite work. There are no traffic lights, no walkways that allow you to cross the busy road to the roundabout. And when and if you get there, there is little shade and except under the shadow of the statue, nowhere to sit. A big thumbs down.


Fortunately the central space in the middle of the junction of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi offers easier access. The road isn’t so wide and there is usually less traffic. But occupied by a water feature surrounded by a fence, on getting here there is shade, but once again nowhere to sit. All meaning that the only time this space is used is during the flower market around Tet when the road becomes pedestrianized. Sitting here, though, certainly doesn’t do wonders to the backside.


Turtle Lake Circle, however, fulfills most of Whyte’s requirements. Built in 1965 once again access is not simple, but with a lower density level of traffic, crossing to the central public space is not dangerous. Filled with an extensive, accessible water feature, ledges to sit and easy access to the water, there is also ample shade and the monument itself provides something to look at. Street vendors make this place a stop on their travels and not surprisingly, it is always busy. This is a well thought out public space, possibly one of the best in town, and demonstrates that despite problems of access, with a bit of thought you can successfully create a place for the people.

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