With brick pavers suitable for a power walk or slow jog, a play area for kids, outdoor gym equipment and hundreds of towering tropical trees, the Le Van Tam Park at the northern end of Saigon’s District 1 sees dozens of locals and expats every day, even during the height of outbreaks. Most run along the winding pathways, groups of youngsters rollerblade at the center, while others sit on benches under the canopies as they momentarily escape the heat and noise of the city’s traffic-clogged Dien Bien Phu and Hai Ba Trung roads just 30 meters away.
Probably unknown to expats, the park was a French-built elite cemetery. Originally known as Dat Thanh Tay, it is where French soldiers, military leaders and high-ranking government officials were buried. But in 1983, when people from the rural areas started moving into the city, the cemetery was removed and transformed into a public park. It was a good move — not only did it provide a green space for residents in surrounding wards, it also spurred the creation of more public parks.
But as Saigon continued to evolve into this bustling commercial city it is now known, the population also ballooned. What was then an emerging green city saw a number of parks turned into parking lots and commercial centers.
Same goes with Hanoi, the country’s capital. As it entered a crucial period of urbanization alongside the birth of doi moi, Hanoi’s economic development mobilized people from the countryside to flock to the northern region for jobs in the industrial and service sectors — opportunities that are only available in urban areas. Today, the peaceful vibe of the Hoan Kiem Lake at 6 am slowly fades as the delightful display of urbanism comes into full action when vehicles start to throng the roads at 7 am.
Vietnam’s urbanization will continue at a rapid pace in the next decade. According to a report from the World Bank, 50% of the country’s population will be living in urban areas by 2025.
While big cities such as Hanoi and Saigon are enjoying relatively good urban mobility for now, largely due to the use of motorbikes as primary transportation, mixed land use and the prevalence of shop-houses (where multiple-storey houses are converted into both commercial and residential spaces), there’s a big need to address the inevitable: crowded cities will soon become virtually uninhabitable.
Many experts and environment advocates have long presented the answer: letting nature back in.
Urbanization is an essential element in Vietnam’s economic growth, or in any country for that matter. Data from the World Bank shows that nearly all countries become at least 50% urbanized before fully reaching middle income status. Vietnam, a lower middle-income economy, is mapping out a strategy to high-income status, and it is traversing the right path.
But Vietnam also acknowledges this progress should go hand in hand with the creation of more green spaces. In Saigon, authorities already vowed to change the landscapes. In a 10-year project it presented last year, the city’s Department of Construction has detailed a plan to increase the coverage of parks and greenery. By 2025, public park coverage would be increased by 150 hectares with the aim of increasing coverage per capita to 0.65 square meters.
The project also involves removing factories from residential areas and replacing them with parks or flower gardens. At present, Saigon has more than 400 parks covering more than 500 hectares in public and residential spaces. Although, the original plan was to have 11,400 hectares of land reserved for public parks, with 7 square meters of park per person. Only around 1.54 hectares of public parks are being added to the city each year.
For comparison, Singapore has two million trees and a population of five million. There are only 102,000 trees in Saigon, which has a population of 10 million.
Actions taken so far
Just last Sunday, Saigon launched a tree planting and environmental sanitation campaign in Thu Duc. Dozens of volunteers and city government officials — all wearing face masks — planted 1,500 saplings. Another 34,000 seedlings were distributed to 34 wards to expand urban green space.
The move was a response to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s demand last December to plant one billion trees in the next five years in all parts of the country. The prime minister also called on social organizations and the public to join efforts with local administrators and agencies to plant trees on bare lands.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said 690 million of the one billion trees will be planted in urban areas and rural communities. The remaining will be placed in special-use lands and production forests (consisting of plantations to supply industries such as rubber and furniture production).
In a report by VnExpress, city chairman Nguyen Thanh Phong promised to “not trade the environment for economic growth”, adding that this is the city’s way to mitigate the effects of climate change and to foster socio-economic development.
Early this year, authorities also said they were planning to build at least seven parks in various districts, including Districts 7, 12, Cu Chi and Tan Binh.
In Hanoi, the local government already launched a campaign to heed the prime minister’s call. In coordination with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the capital planned to grow more than 400,000 trees in February alone. Hanoi has also approved a long-term strategy to build 18 new parks and improve the 42 existing green spaces in the urban area.
Ninh Binh Province, meanwhile, targets one million trees within 2021, and an additional 4.5 million in 2025. Phu Tho Province is also working on planting 1.5 million trees by the end of this year.
The southern province in Binh Duong has just opened a new park in Thu Dau Mot this month. Covering an area of 550 square meters, the park provides a fresh sight amidst the industrial parks and crowded neighborhoods nearby. Thu Dau Mot already invested nearly $900,000 over the last three years for its greenery projects.
Hai Phong, a major industrial city and the third most populous city in Vietnam, has big plans on the works: raising public park area from over 1,200 hectares to more than 1,600 hectares by 2025. As a class-1 city, Hai Phong should meet the 10-15 square meters per head standard. Currently, it stands at only 5.5 square meters per person.
The city would make use of all available land to make sure each of its wards in the mainland would have a park spanning 5,000-10,000 square meters.
The Vietnamese government said it would mobilize urban planning experts as well as experienced local and foreign architects to build the most strategic roadmap for the development of green urban spaces — where economy and nature can both thrive.