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Hanoi: the first sustainable capital by 2030

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

Hanoi master plan 2030: first report to the Vietnamese government

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.

Main concepts

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.

Green Corridor

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).

Go team!

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

JINA Architects: Eliot Bu (Co-CEO), Do Yeon Kim
(Co-CEO) and Nam-ho Park (that’s me)

  Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

PE & JINA Team: Paul, Do Yeon, Jaida,
Brad Perkins and Young

Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

2 Brains: Paul Buckhurst (PE)
and Prof. Young Bum Reigh

  Hanoi Master Plan: 1st Report

JINA Hanoi crew: Deok Ho Kim
and Soo Youn Choi

The walkable Hanoi: a half-day tour

A half-day walk through Hanoi

A half-day walk through Hanoi

Hanoi is a walkable city.

You would never know this with all the traffic overflowing in the streets. Of course the locals will prefer to ride their scooters. It’s actually dangerous to cross the streets when you are overwhelmed by bicycle motorcycle, automobiles and bus traffic coming from all directions, with traffic signals and traffic lines ignored most of the time.

But the scale, the tree-lined streets, and the distance between landmarks do lend itself to a leisurely stroll. Deep down inside you know Hanoi is in fact a very walkable city, it just forgotten it for a while. Recovering this aspect will be something that will be key to making more tourist friendly and a more of an attractive destination.

Here’s one of my favorite walks, if you have a half day to spare:

1. Opera. Start preferably after lunch at the Highlands Cafe next to the Opera. Nothing like a good coffee to start the tour. My personal favorite from their menu is Mango Mania. The Opera was built at the turn of the 20th century by the French colonists modeled on Garnier’s Opera in Paris. Crossing the road is a real challenge for the first time visitor. Just remember to walk slowly and predictably (whatever you do, do not run) so that the traffic can be aware of your presence in the street. Once you cross the road, walk down Trang Tien street towards the Hoan Kiem lake. This historic street has many bookstores that have good materials in English and maps of Hanoi and Vietnam.


2. Hoan Kiem Lake. The undisputed spiritual heart of Hanoi. The name means the The Lake of the Returned Sword and legend has it that emperor Le Loi was handed a magic sword by a tortoise here that brought him victory against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. The walk around its periphery is one the more calm experiences in Hanoi if you can mentally block out the noise. Once you make the a 3/4 circle, cut back up Hang Trong and then down Nha Tho to face the cathedral.

3. St. Joseph’s Cathedral. A scale-down replica of the Notre Dame in Paris completed in 1886. The streets around the cathedral have attractive boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes and is one of the more gentrified, tourist friendly parts of town. If you already feeling tired, drop by the Moca Cafe. For those seeking exotic home furnishings, Mosaique Boutique provides interesting buys. When you are ready to move on, take the alley to the right of the cathedral and make you way down Phu Doan towards Hoa Lo Prison/Hanoi Towers.

4. Hoa Lo Prison. AKA The Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the call in here) incarcerated downed fighter and bomber pilots and crew. It was famous for being the POW home of Senator John McCain, and Pete Peterson who later became the first US ambassador to Vietnam since the US resumed diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1997.

5. Hanoi Towers. A large part of the Hoa Lo Prison was demolished to make way for the Hanoi Towers. At 25 stories, it was the tallest building in Hanoi when it was completed in the late 90’s. You can stop the tour here, and finish at another Highlands Cafe for some refreshments. You can also go to the 4th Floor of the residential tower to a restaurant called “Jaspa’s” and order their famous Bun Cha.

6. Quan An Ngon. What’s a walking tour without a dining destination to motivate you. This one is well worth the walk. Housed in a spacious French-style Villa, which I was told used to be owned by a wealthy Vietnamese doctor, now is the venue for a very reasonably priced restaurant that serves glorified “street food”. A favorite for both Vietnamese and visitors alike, you should try to go beyond the familiar spring rolls. It will be a rewarding experience.

Postcards from Central Vietnam

Old Town, Hoi An

Old Town, Hoi An, Vietnam

I took a weekend trip to central Vietnam a few weeks ago. We arrived in Da Nang and took a taxi south to Hoi An. Hoi An seems to be known for 2 things: beach resorts and its Old Town designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Maybe I was tired after spending the previous 2 weeks charretting on the project I am currently working on, but I was a bit disappointed by what I saw. The architecture was nice, but it seems like one big souvenir shop. Every building was selling some kind of “cultural artifact”. Is this what happens when a place gets designated a Heritage site?

Talking this weekend to Michael Waibel, a prominent socio-geographer who has been working in Vietnam for over 10 years, he told me that before it had the designation, it was just another disintegrating town, and at least now the locals have an income and finances to restore and revitalize the area. However I begin to wonder what is it we are preserving? What is the point of preservation?

This is what UNESCO has to say about the matter in its Historic Districts for All: a Social and Human Approach for Sustainable Revitalization, a manual for revitalizing historic districts:

Cultural urban heritage related the history of the city, its inhabitants, religions and social and cultural transformations. This heritage is deeply anchored in the spatial and economic structure of the cities, their buildings and monuments. The people living and working in the city identify with it. Today, historic districts are symbols of the city’s image; above and beyond their own cultural value they fulfill an important mission in modern urban development: they create the identity and the city’s image and are key geographic factors for the local and regional economy.

Old Town, Hoi An
My Son

So the “why” in historic district preservation and revitalization seems to be rooted in a sense of identity for the local inhabitants. But the over-commercialization and the sales of mass-produced cultural artifacts you can now find homogeneously across Vietnam seems to go counter to that sense of local identity. Local crafts traditions are lost in place of what tourist will want buy. Is there a way to balance local identity with its economic sustainability? I had more questions than answers, and felt a little robbed.

Next day was My Son My son is Hindu temple complex constructed by the Champa civilization between 7th and 14th centuries, then abandoned and lost for centuries and only rediscovered by the French army in the late 19th century.

My Son is also a UNESCO Heritage site, but in stark contrast to Hoi An, My Son was relatively deeserted. The guide told me that in peak season, they get as many as a thousand visitor a day. That doesn’t seem a lot. In a well-rehearsed guide talk, he showed us on a map all the regions destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War. Apparently about 80% of the existing complex were lost during the carpet bombing raids.

Marble Mountain, Da Nang
Marble Mountain, Da Nang

On the way to Hu?, we stopped by the Marble Mountain in Da Nang. Don’t believe the guide when he tells you there’s only a hundred some steps to the summit. After we reached what perceived to be the top with nice temples, but he lead us rock climbing through naturally formed caves to the actual top. Ok for me but not ok for my boss who is fit for his age but close to 70. Nice view at the summit, but not worth the extreme physical effort for the benefit of our sadistic guide. What was more impressive was the huge natural caves that were used as a Viet Cong as a hospital until it was bombed. But it’s hard to know what to believe without the facts.

There are 2 way to get to Hu? from Da Nang. Through or boring tunnel or over the scenic Hai Van Pass. Our driver asked us what we wanted to do. Not having researched this fact, we elected thankfully for the Pass. Only tourists and joyriders seem to take the pass – everyone else takes the tunnel. Joyriders here are usually kids on motorcycles. We witnessed one accident where 2 kids on a motorcycles took a turn too fast and skidded out of control. Bike was damaged but the riders seemed ok.

Citadel, Hue

Citadel, Hu?, Vietnam

Hu? was the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguy?n Dynasty between 1802 and 1945.

Royal Tombs, Hue
Royal Tombs, Hue

It wasn’t intended that way, but we ended up doing all three UNESCO Heritage site in Central Vietnam, the Citadel in Hu? being the last one. The Citadel is a sizable complex apparently modeled in part after the Forbidden City in Beijing, but only a scaled-down version, a fraction of its size.

We took a trip down the Perfume River to visit a few of the Imperial tombs. The most interesting of which was the tomb of the short-lived Emperor Kh?i ??nh (1885-1925). His was built of cement that had weathered pretty badly, now almost dark grey or black in some places. He was a francophile and the interior was constructed from a mosaic of broken French ceramics, and took 17 years to construct. Sadly for him, it was not completed before his death.

At this point, I was so exhausted that I stopped registering any new information and just mechanically took photographs. Still some came out pretty nicely. Check out the rest of the Da Nang, Hoi An, Hue Flickr photos set.

Hanoi: Think Different


Panorama view from 25th floor of Hanoi Towers *

Hanoi Panorama

The view from the penthouse suite balcony of the Somerset Grand Hanoi, a.k.a Hanoi Towers is pretty amazing.


We’ve been looking for more economic alternatives for accommodations in Hanoi since we’ll visiting and working in Hanoi on a regular basis for the next year and a half, when we came across this one. It didn’t hurt to just look. It’s located on the 25th floor of the Hanoi Towers and has its own balcony overlooking downtown Hanoi.

The apartment was nice, but what was more surprising was the view: how few high-rises block your view. You would never get a view like this in Seoul, or any other major East Asian city. Hanoi is comparatively unspoiled and the government has done a good job resisting the pressures of development of Hanoi’s downtown area.

More Paris than Seoul

I had the strong sense that Hanoi has the potential of looking more like Paris than Seoul or Singapore in the future. Cities like Paris have many charms but the consistent density and height of its buildings reinforce its appeal and identity. The low-rise condition of Hanoi makes the city seem more humane and beautiful.

The other feature of the view that amazed me was how much greenery there already exists in Hanoi. Two factors contribute to this: tree-cover along major streets and trees that line the numerous mini-lakes you find around Hanoi. You don’t really realize how many lakes there are in Hanoi until you see the satellite image of downtown Hanoi. In the image below, I have indicated with stars all the lakes in the downtown area. The yellow star indicates Hoan Kiem Lake which is by far the most important and beloved lake in Hanoi and represents the spiritual center of the city. Once you can look past the weathered buildings and the ubiquitous motorcycle traffic, you realize that water, trees and nature seem to be at the heart and very identity of Hanoi.

Map of downtown Hanoi indicating lakes

Map indicating lakes in downtown Hanoi

Seoul: a failed model

If you look at Seoul, there are many relics from the past dotted around the city. You have the royal palaces, the gates to the walled city and names of places from the past city fabric buried under the new infrastructure. But rarely do they have space to breath. For example, you have the massive, ugly, Rafael Viñoly-designed monster, the Samsung Jongno Tower, towering over and suffocating Boshingak, the ancient building that houses the bell that announces the start of the New Year. In the history of Seoul’s development, growth and modernizing were given high priority over preservation and heritage. Hanok, the traditional Korean houses which were pervasive all throughout Seoul, were viewed as inferior and backwardly and replaced by concrete “A-pa-tu” apartment blocks. It is ironic that Hanok’s are now making a comeback. Jongno and Cheongyecheon, at the heart of the city were given over to the development of high-rise office blocks, and the identity of Seoul was gradually lost. What’s the point in belated attempts to recover the heritage when it has been lost already?


Ugly Seoul

The danger is replicating the Seoul model elsewhere. It is a failed model that is lopsided towards only serving growth and economy and not the social and cultural well-being of its inhabitants. If urban planning and design are taken only as engineering exercises, the solution will be Seoul. But the city is not an engineering project. Even more so when that city happens to be the capital of a nation. The engineering approach is the easy thing to do: to forecast growth and model housing and infrastructure needs and configure the city to efficiently handle those growing needs. In an unintentional imperialistic gesture, Korean or Japanese engineers will develop Hanoi based on what they know and experienced – in the image of the likes of Seoul, Tokyo. They cannot dream what Hanoi can be.

If you start thinking about all the issues that need to be considered, the mind goes into a state of overload and paralysis. One needs to consider the issues of what to preserve, how to implement regulations, how to solve the traffic, transportation and motorcycle issue, how to promote development… and the list goes on.

People First

The solution may be simple: put people single-mindedly first. This seems to have worked well for Bogata, which emerged from a crime-stricken capital of a civil war-torn country, into a city that has one of the best transportation infrastructure and urban bicycle programs in the world under the brief tenure of Mayor Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2001). The lesson here is, it’s still ok dream big and to imagine a better future. But is takes an enormous amount of courage and leadership.

What to do in Hanoi? At the very least, Hanoi can freeze or restrict development in the downtown area for the next 20 years. In 20 years, the Vietnamese economy will be much stronger, and at a point where they will have the means as well as the methods to do a much better job caring for the cultural heritage embodied in Hanoi. Though painful now, the future generations of Hanoi and Vietnam will thank us if we do that.

Think Different

Most developing nations can only see into the short-term future, and end up sacrificing their heritage for development and growth. All the developed cities in East Asia and Southeast Asia attest to this. Hanoi can be different. It has the potential of becoming the only remaining well preserved, sustainable gem of a city in all of Asia.


Encouraging is the fact that in Hanoi, both national, local officials and academics understand this already. But there is mounting pressure from the private sector to develop and tap the real-estate value of downtown. Once you open that tap, Hanoi will likely see the unpleasant effects flooding in uncontrolled urban development on top of the natural flooding it experiences regularly.

The challenge here is to balance preservation, quality of life, urban identity with the pressures for growth and development. This is something I’ll be thinking very hard about for the next year, as our team works hard on developing the Master Urban Plan for the Hanoi Capital.

A good place to start is by first listening to the people of Hanoi.

* For you tech-heads out there, For the panorama photo at the top of this pose, I used the “File > Automate > Photomerge…” feature in Photoshop CS3, which did the painless job stitching my photos together. I found some interesting panoramas while doing some research into how best to stitch my photos together.

New Job, New City

JINA Architects

JINA Architects

I formally started working at JINA Architects on September 1, as an Associate Partner.

After a 9 year hiatus, I am back in architecture. Well not quite. It’s urbanism. JINA Architects is a more than a design studio. It’s currently has about 140 staff, a huge growth from having just over 30 a decade ago. Under the management of Eliot Bu (blog / mostly in Korean), it has transformed from just another architecture studio, doing mostly commercial and academic buildings, to now consulting for local and international government clients on urban design issues.

The key to its success? Design Knowledge. With any consulting practice, the key is consolidating and managing knowledge. In the case of JINA, knowledge enables the analysis of legal codes and policy that govern urban design practice. Corporations and architectural practices see the building code as a constraint they have to “deal with”. The government see the building code as a tool for regulating the quantity and quality development. And hence the lack of communication between the two. When you have a deep knowledge of codes then you can act as a medium between the two seemingly opposing entities, and the role that JINA has carved out for itself.

In the US and Europe, non-profits function to collect, analyze data and consolidate knowledge. These non-profits provide politically neutral facts that both businesses and policy makers have equal access to. Korea hasn’t reached that stage yet, with knowledge being held in closed government institution or corporate think tanks. Yet, this is one of the ultimate goals of JINA – to create a non-profit: to collect, analyze and provide access to urban design knowledge and through it to influence the quality of life and in turn, and as corny as it sounds, to change the world.

What is my role in all this? Eliot invited me to join JINA to head the project to develop the Master Urban Plan for the Expanded Hanoi Capital which they were finally officially awarded Sept 23.

Am I qualified? My lack of urban design experience surely would pose a handicap. In the words of Eliot, this is the exact reason I was offered the job, apparently. Urbanism is more than engineering and construction. It’s about the lives of people and hence more infinitely complex, and in dire need of a new approach. He wanted an outsider, untainted by ingrained urban design practices to seek a new approach that incorporates the wide range of expertise that have typically been left out.

For the Hanoi project we have experts in energy policy, international affairs, marketing, sustainability, urban sociology, cultural studies, clean energy development, Vietnam legal system in addition to local experts providing their perspective on how a city should be developed.

This a new approach to urbanism that hasn’t been attempted before and I am caught between fear and dread and shear excitement and optimism that I have been lucky enough to have been offered the opportunity to participate in such a history event of developing a master plan for a city.

We will be changing the lives of the millions in Hanoi. And I know already that Hanoi is a city that will change my life. I have to believe it is a calling, and I am humbled.

I won’t be moving to Vietnam as the title might suggest. But I will be making frequent visits to Hanoi. The title’s just a play on the last time I posted about a new job, New City, New Job. That time, I found a city and then found a new job. This time I found a new job which found a city.