Archive for the sustainability Category

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

Counter-Histories of Sustainability

In issue #18 of Volume, Panayiota Pyla writes in an article, Counter-Histories of Sustainability:

As the meanings and goals of sustainability are debated by architects and academics – because the planet’s problems are real and architecture has its share of responsibility – we must also remember a lesson from the history of architecture: a great cause is not enough! However noble, heroic models have pitfalls.

The concept of sustainability is not without its pitfalls of idealization nor immune from politicizing or commercializing over-simplifications. The article warns us of its many dangers, and well-worth reading.

Can architects have partnerships with techno-scientific fields without subsuming design to managerialism and anti-intellectual postures? Can ecological problems be debated in architectural circles without resorting to eco-determinism? Can architects embrace an ethical imperative without resorting to moralistic prescriptions or grand metanarratives? Maybe, but to walk between these fine lines it is important for both the profession and academia to constantly interrogate and contest emerging strategies.

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.

Thoughts on Sustainability or How to Grow Vegetables in the City

Community Garden in Bundang

Community Garden in Bundang, Korea
The sign reads: No gardening. The land is owned by Korea Land Corporation and will soon be sold and developed, therefore any cultivation is forbidden. No compensation shall be made for any damages to illegally cultivated goods. May 2005. – Korea Land Corporation

It is said that what is everybody’s is nobody’s. When something lacks ownership it tends to be abused or neglected.

This long Chuseok weekend, I finally had a little extra time to explore my neighborhood. I live in Bundang, which is one of 5 planned satellite cities (link in Korean) created to house the ever-growing population who work in Seoul. It is one of the better ones with a lot of (interesting) open space running through the rows and rows of mind-numbingly boring monolithic slab apartment blocks. I live in its far corner which ain’t all that bad, at the foot of some nearby hills with hiking paths.

On my walk, I noticed a empty plot of land, where people were growing vegetables, in the adjacent lot next to where my 3 block apartment complex stands. There are signs scattered across the plot which forbid any cultivation. I passed by without thinking too much, but this plot of land lingered in my mind long enough to form a series of questions what bubbled up to consciousness:

1. Why was it empty?

In a place like Bundang, where land is so precious, and high-valued, there must be a good reason why it is empty. According to records, it been zoned for residential development and is owned by the Korea Land Corporation, which is the government organization that developed Bundang. Signs on the land state that it will be developed soon, but it’s dated 2005. I’m not sure why it’s being left intentionally empty.

2. What was happening in this empty plot?

It was being cultivated as a community garden. Elderly residents of the nearby apartment blocks have taken over the land, and have planted all sorts of vegetables used in common Korean cuisine.

3. Why was this happening?

What is interesting here is that a vacuum is being filled not with abuse (e.g. communal trash heap) but with productivity (communal vegetable garden). Koreans, especially elderly ones, have a very strong attachment to the earth. My dad has it. He’s always been fostering a romantic dream of retiring to a house on a small plot of land where he can grow his own vegetables. I have never seen him grow anything in my years as his son.

4. What does it have to do with sustainability?

There are 3 components to sustainable communities in the broadest sense: Economic, Environmental and Social. The environmental is the middle sibling that gets all the media attention, but it cannot exist without its two companions.

In my mind, the example of elderly Koreans appropriating empty land for vegetable growing is on a small scale and example of sustainability in practice. It’s obviously environmentally sustainable. It’s also economically sustainable. Elderly people live on meager stipends, with a fixed income, so these people growing their own vegetables close to home make economic sense. But what is equally important is the social sustainability. No sustainable practice can be truly be sustainable without a strong social component: Growing their own vegetables give elderly people a sense of purpose and self-esteem. They are less apt to nag their kids because they have something to do, and it gives them a good reason to invite friend and family over to enjoy the food, or to invite themselves over, to bring over homegrown vegetable to their no-time-for-real-food kids who are too busy scraping a living together. It also provides a generational bridge for grandchildren to work alongside grandparent, not to mention all the knowledge sharing that occurs between gardeners.

In short, the 3 components together create a loop that enriches lives of all residents. A sustainable community.

I’m wondering why more housing developments don’t just create communal vegetable plots with their communal land, which most often suffers from bad landscaping or in worst cases, just cemented over to lower maintenance. Each resident could be assigned a plot of land in the communal garden. If they don’t care for gardening they can lease their land for a fee or freely to those who do care. It’s like guaranteed parking space.

I never cared much for growing things myself, but I can see why people do. I must be getting old.

Community gardening has been formalized in the US and UK, but from my shallow internet search (Naver, Google), there doesn’t seem to be any formalized grassroots (nice pun!) organizations in Korea as yet.

[update 2008-09-18] Found an entry on Urban Agriculture on Wikipedia (my italics):

Urban farming is generally practiced for income-earning or food-producing activities though in some communities the main impetus is recreation and relaxation. Urban agriculture contributes to food security and food safety in two ways: first, it increases the amount of food available to people living in cities, and, second, it allows fresh vegetables and fruits and meat products to be made available to urban consumers. A common and efficient form of urban agriculture is the biointensive method. Because urban agriculture promotes energy-saving local food production, urban and peri-urban agriculture are generally seen as sustainable practices.

Given that soon 50% of the world’s population will be living in cities, and many of the new residents would have migrated from agriculture, it would seem to make sense for rapidly growing cities to reserve land around the city for agriculture. This would also form a natural buffer to resist urban sprawl and promote density in urban areas.

To feed a city with a population of 10 Million (Seoul, New York etc), you need to import 6000 tonnes of food each day.


In the past couple of days, they (Korea Land Corporation) walled off the community garden in the photo, with a big sign saying it is being leveled to make way for new housing. Inevitable but still sad.

2009-08-03 has an article about the growth of neighborhood farming practices in the US: Urban farming takes root in surprising new ways.