Looking high and low in Hanoi and HCMC

By Martin Rama   July 12, 2018 | 06:03 pm PT
The cities' aesthetics and economics are best served by emulating Paris in retaining a low-rise urban core and keeping high-rises at a fair distance.
Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank.

Martin Rama, Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank.

For many years, as a Ph.D. student in economics, I lived in Paris. This is a city everybody loves for its beauty and its charm, and I am not an exception. I have remained enamored of the city for my entire life, and keep returning to “her” on a regular basis.

Interestingly, Paris is a city without a single skyscraper in its urban core. Most buildings are six-stories high, pleasantly “rhythmed” by balconies on the second to the fifth floors, and by unmistakably French mansards on the top floor.

The low-rise beauty and charm of Paris made me feel encouraged when I read that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc instructed authorities in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in April to stop approving the construction of high-rise buildings in the urban core of both cities.

The urban cores of Hanoi and HCMC have much in common with Paris. Important parts of their street layout were designed in the 1930s by Ernest Hébrard, a talented architect who mastered the urbanization ideas of the French Enlightenment.

Hébrard also understood and valued traditional Vietnamese buildings, and is credited with having created the amazing Indochine architectural style. The University of Pharmacy, on Hanoi’s Le Thanh Tong Street, is a stunning example.

Hanoi and HCMC also have many extraordinary public buildings left by the French colonial administration. And the urban core of Hanoi is graced by more than one thousand French villas that give an unmistakable character to the city. Few other major urban agglomerations in East Asia have such a strong European legacy. Mostly everywhere else urban cores are made of tall buildings with no individual style and no collective coherence.

True, in instructing the authorities of the two cities to stop authorizing the construction of tall buildings, Prime Minister Phuc evoked economic considerations, not urban aesthetics. And he was right: a street layout conceived for a population of a few hundred thousand people cannot accommodate the traffic congestion that millions of people living in high-rise buildings would create. But in this case, economics and aesthetics reinforce each other.

There is no doubt that Hanoi and HCMC need to accommodate millions of new residents. The growth of these two cities is essential to the successful development of the country. By the time Vietnam completes its urbanization process, each of the two cities could host more than 10 million people, the equivalent of the Paris metropolitan area today.

High-rise buildings in the center of Ho Chi Minh City are seen from across the Saigon River. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

High-rise buildings in the center of Ho Chi Minh City are seen from across the Saigon River. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

The question is: what is the best way to accommodate this massive population growth? The answer needs to take into account that preserving some of the European charm in Hanoi and HCMC would give both cities a clear advantage over other, bland and generic East Asian metropoles. As cities develop, their productivity increasingly depends on attracting top talent, and not just on having good infrastructure. The very special character of Hanoi and HCMC is one of Vietnam’s assets in the global competition for the best talent.

This same question was asked in relation to Paris by Edward Glaeser, a Harvard professor who is also one of the leading global thinkers in urban economics. In his book Triumph of the City, he discusses the lessons (good and bad) from a city that grew in space, population and density without losing its character.

Indeed, the urban core of Paris may be low-rise, but it is very compact. As a result, it accommodates 21,500 inhabitants per square kilometer, one of the highest population densities in Europe. The greater metropolitan area of Paris has also succeeded in “densifying,” despite having protected its historic core from high-rise buildings. Today, the metropolitan areas of Paris, London and New York all host about 8 million people. But Paris is almost as dense as New York, and twice as dense as London.

This did not happen by accident. In the late 1950s Paris launched La Défense, a grandiose project to build what is by now the largest business district area in Europe. There was a clear decision to preserve the historic character of the city, which meant that the new district had to be outside of it. The design aimed at overcoming traffic congestion, maximizing the flow of people and goods converging to the area, and in the process relieving some of the traffic pressure on the urban core of Paris. A vast network of highways, service roads, rail lines, and bus terminals was built underground.

For Edward Glaeser, the design of La Défense is an inspired solution to the lack of space in Paris. A great fan of skyscrapers, he recognizes that high-rise buildings would have been undesirable in the historic part of a city everybody loves. But he rightly points out that La Défense is too far away from the city center, so that the large numbers of people who work in the area, and commute to it from other suburbs, do not benefit from the beauty and charm of central Paris.

I love Hanoi like I love Paris, and I also keep returning to “her” on a regular basis. The instructions by Prime Minister Phuc give me hope that Hanoi will preserve its beauty and charm, as Paris did when it decided to keep its old low-rise structure and to build La Défense outside of the city core.

I can only wish that clear regulations will be adopted on what can be built (and what cannot be demolished) in the historic area that goes from Truc Bach to Reunification Park, and from the dyke road to the train line. This focus on preserving one of Vietnam’s key assets should ideally be accompanied by an emphasis on public transportation, including metro and bus. This way, congestion would be minimized and it would be possible to quickly reach the beautiful and charming urban core of Hanoi from anywhere in the city.

*Martin Rama is Chief Economist for South Asia at the World Bank and Project Director at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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