By Julian Gooneratne / Year 2 BsC Urban Planning, Design and Management
Editors Note: Welcome to Post #2! We are planning to make shorter posts on cities like this one a regular feature, and would love your help. The writing prompt is "Where are you from, and/or where are you going?" If you have experienced something in a city that you would like to share, please send us a brief piece and photos if you have them. Contact us with any questions you have through instagram or email!
Chapter Two: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Ho Chi Minh (otherwise known as
Saigon) are the seven million motorcycles, scooters and mopeds teeming the streets,
quickly filling up the arteries of the city. Even in the late hours of the morning, the zooms
and the sound of the revving of engines would reverberate over and over again in my
eardrums. The second thing that comes into mind was the unfortunate time I was stuck
in a traffic jam for six hours surrounded by swarms of these motorcycles.
What these motorcycles do offer for the residents of Ho Chi Minh are utmost
convenience: a quick, economical way to fly through the streets of Saigon and get from
Point A to Point B. Whether or not this is without hassle is a subjective matter. I
remember the anecdotes of my Year 4 teacher who used to ride his Honda into school
every morning, quickly developing a ‘thick skin’ for the apparent lack of traffic etiquette.
“Here in Saigon, you always have to stay ahead of the rush,” he would exclaim in the morning, before quickly straightening his tie and placing his motorcycle helmet on his
desk. “Don’t get caught out like I do!”
Moving to Saigon really opened my eyes up to the hustle and bustle of the urban
environment around me; I lived in a tall apartment block where everything I needed was
at arm’s reach, unlike Colombo, where it felt like everything branched out. Two minutes,
and you’d reach the Vietnamese equivalent of a Tesco Express. A brisk five minute
walk, and you’d be up by the local barber shop where I went for my usual buzzcut. A
few more minutes from the barber, and you’d reach a well-known phở outlet - because
let’s face it, who can resist a good bowl of phở? (Unsurprisingly, Vietnamese cuisine is
Image: Phu My Hung. Available here.
The one notable planning concept I associate with Ho Chi Minh during my time there
was the idea of the “parallel city,” designed to aid Saigon’s expansion through the
development of a river basin in the South to create a new residential and mixed-use
area for the upper and middle class Vietnamese and expatriates, known as Phu My
Hung. In comparison to the wild and dizzying streets and high-octane neighbourhoods of Ho Chi Minh, Phu My Hung offered a respite; a sanctuary, prioritising walkable
neighbourhoods and community involvement and organisation. It also aimed to avoid
the urban sprawl present in other nooks and crannies of Saigon, compacting urban
fabric within an environmental framework.
For these very reasons, Phu My Hung has been cited as an example of a rare
successful case of urban planning in Vietnam.
To be honest, I had no reason to go to Phu My Hung, except to visit my mum’s friends
every so often and for the multitude of Korean grocery stores (thanks to one of the
largest Korean expatriate communities in Southeast Asia). When I did go, however, the
young urban planner instilled in me fell in love with the abundance of green space,
sizable pavements and scenic waterways, even though it was an hour and a half drive
away from the heart of Ho Chi Minh.
Whilst I didn’t spend a lot of time in Vietnam - a measly five years - it instilled in me vital
principles in what I believe all planning should encompass: access to expansive public
green space, increased walkability and the prioritisation of pedestrians, and catering to
diversity and inclusivity within the built form to meet the needs of all.
Chapter Three: Jakarta, Indonesia
Malls. Malls, malls, and more malls. Over 200 and counting, to be exact.
Jakarta is where I’ve had the pleasure of calling my ‘home’ for the last 11 years - full of
chaotic charm, persistent clouds of smog and humidity and a strikingly clear divide
between the old and new. Often nestled in lists of the world’s worst-designed cities or
examples of cities with bad urban planning, there’s a love-hate relationship that I’ve
associated with the city. Amidst a lack of green public space, congested streets and
Jenga-like stacks of flyovers, Jakarta fights to put on a confident, bold new face to the
world: a groundbreaking Smart City urban development concept, a renewed focus on
adequate affordable housing to cater to increasing poverty and an in-progress flagship
108 kilometre Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system to increase transit connectivity and
reduce the heavy reliance on cars and motorbikes.
In the last few years I’ve been there, “The Big Durian,” or so it is called, longs to be the
next powerhouse of Southeast Asia - a Singapore in the making - fueled by a surging,
youthful population, thriving manufacturing and creative industries and an endless
pouring of foreign investment and trade. I see it through the windows in the car,
ploughing through the streets of Central Jakarta - the shiny glass facades of the malls
proudly on display, the mega-developments blending luxurious office space and
residential sprouting on every corner. On the other side of the river, a completely
different story unfolds: the Old Town’s colonial, romantic past is reflected in its museums
and local cafés, hidden away from the buzz of traffic and hordes of busy office workers.
Living there, I’ve realised that Jakarta’s urban planning leaves a lot to be desired;
despite the city administration’s push to address existing issues such as traffic
congestion, land subsidence and sea-level rise, a plethora of planning development
projects continue to lay in limbo, under threat from budget cuts and political scandals.
This, in turn, has even prompted the government to announce a $34 billion relocation of
the capital to the east of Borneo in order to reduce the strain on the megacity.
Whilst the city continues to move full steam ahead building glitzy malls and high-rise
apartments and road infrastructure, it is in desperate need of key planning practises to
prioritise liveability: greater citizen involvement, the reclamation of green public space
and improved connectivity in order to create a much more inclusive city for the people of
Image: Bintaro Jaya. Available (in Indonesian) here.
Take a short 15 minute car journey towards the outskirts of the city, and the landscape
transforms to showcase a vision of what Jakarta could potentially have been - a lush
amalgam of greenery, walkable pavements and designated cycling lanes which balance
the needs of pedestrians and cyclists, and essential services located within close
proximity. Just like Phu My Hung, Bintaro Jaya represents the pinnacle of planning in
Jakarta’s metropolitan region.
It seems as if the solution to the city’s problems are easily within reach; the real
question, however, is whether or not Jakarta will take to the stand.