From a planned city to spontaneous urbanization: Could Ho Chi Minh City go back to a sustainable development plan?

Tam Nguyen, Ho Chi Minh City Community Manager
Ho Chi Minh City, 9 September 2014

In 1862, under the order of the French colonial authority, Colonel Coffyn drafted the detailed plan for Saigon - Cholon, the area that today is central Ho Chi Minh City. The city was divided into two separate zones — the eastern part for governance and the western part for commerce, service, and industry. All streets were shaded with one to two lines of trees, and were either parallel or perpendicular to one axis route. Because of the difference between the city level and the running water level, a drainage system was carefully planned to avoid water retention and flooding. Important communal buildings — the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Central Post Office, and the City Government Office — were placed at critical spots in the city. This thorough plan was named "Projet de Ville de 500.000 âmes à Saigon" (urban plan for a 500,000-inhabitant city of Saigon).

Today, Ho Chi Minh City accommodates nearly 8 million inhabitants, 16 times more than the capacity in the original Coffyn plan. Unfortunately, besides one unsuccessful and unimplemented 1993 general plan, there hasn't been a macro-level plan for Vietnam's biggest city since the end of the war. Instead of focusing on high-tech industry and commercial services, the city has opened its doors to all investment proposals, which subsequently resulted in 15 haphazard industrial zones all over the area, along with one million workers who have migrated from other provinces. Due to the enormous housing demand, the population explosion has led to spontaneous housing zones and multiple slum areas, where the lack of planned drainage systems has increased the frequency as well as the destructiveness of inner-city floods. Ho Chi Minh City has become the so-called "fragmented city."

Is there any hope for a sustainable development plan?

Following the National Sustainable Development Strategy for 2011 - 2020, Ho Chi Minh City founded its own Sustainable Development Committee in 2013 in an effort to re-plan and expand the city into a mega-city. The Committee is to oversee the city's expansion in all four directions, with the long-term goal of accommodating 10 million inhabitants, increasing 100,000 hectares of land for urban construction, becoming a sizable political, economical, cultural, and technological center of the country by 2025. This mega-city would consist of one central city and four satellite cities in four directions. Each satellite city would have its own specialized industrial zone, university village, social service areas, parks, and most importantly, a suitable housing zone for its inhabitants.

One highlight of this ambitious plan is the already-started construction of the Ho Chi Minh City Metro, a very large-scale and expensive project, but a highly effective and sustainable one if completed. This system would become the backbone of the future mega-city, significantly increasing the convenience of transport between the satellite and central cities, thus greatly facilitating the thinning out of the crowded population in the central part and attracting more inhabitants to the satellite cities. Moreover, the construction of these Metro lines would also improve the overall drainage and traffic systems, which helps reducing the major burden of floods and jams for Ho Chi Minh City. There is still a very long and challenging way until this envisioned mega-city becomes a reality, but timely acknowledgement of initial planning is crucial to motivating resources and encouraging investment.

Photo: Construction of Ho Chi Minh City Metro's first station in front of the Municipal Theater, taken by the author

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