Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Value of Green Space

A few months months ago, before the incessant daily downpours had dampened my spirits like a dead fella dressed in red hanging limply from my chimney on Christmas morning, some mates and I decided to celebrate the sunshine by spending the day in the park. Said celebrations in South Africa or Australia usually include packing a mountain of food and beer in a cooler and spending the day on the grass or on the beach, barbecuing, drinking and kicking a footy or playing some pick-up cricket. Why then not do it the same way here in Saigon?

Luckily, we live in Phu My Hung which is dotted with parks (they make up nearly half of the overall area, according to the PMH Corporation). In great anticipation, we packed a killer picnic including a smorgasbord of snacks, meats for the braai, drinks and a footy to kick around. We lugged the barbie down and also had some music and speakers. Just as we had set up shop for the day, security guards told us that not only were we not allowed to have a barbeque, but we couldn’t have music and weren’t allowed on the grass! After some very unsuccessful negotiations, which resulted in a fleet of PMH security guards suddenly appearing from behind every tree and from every side street, we gave up the fight and trudged back to our small apartment where we had to celebrate this day of outdoor fun, indoors. What am I getting at here, you may ask? The severe lack of green space in Saigon. 

Let's get technical: "Green space" can be defined as a natural area of vegetation in or around a development to provide a buffer for noise, such as a recreational area or a wildlife haven, all intended to increase general quality of life in the area. All great cities in the world have at least one world-famous green space to lure tourists and families out of the shade of the skyscrapers on sunny days. Think about London’s Hyde Park, Albert Park in Melbourne (although the noise buffering doesn't work that well when the Formula 1 circus rolls into town) and perhaps the most famous of all – Central Park in New York. Parks are just one form of of green space. Greenbelts, greenways and other environmentally-orientated designs, such New York’s renowned High Line – a disused lifted railway that has been transformed into a wonder of a green space – are essential for maintaining the integrity of a developing city, ensuring the safety of certain natural areas and increasing the general quality of life for its citizens.

These kinds of green spaces are important for both adults and children. Parks, reserves and botanical gardens also create safe areas for children to play, away from traffic and other dangers, where they can partake in active and less sedentary activities at no cost. Turn your attention to the current "fun" areas for children in  Saigon: horror-show merry-go-rounds with ear-splitting techno, badly-maintained, creaky spinning sea-shells and elderly aunts who smell funny having a gas bag when they should be watching little Anh slipping out of the malfunctioning seatbelt on the Tornado.Let's not ignore the water-parks with their murky waters and concrete surfaces where wet little imps run around unsupervised. Compare these with a grassy embankment where kids can run around to their little hearts' content. It's incomparable really.

Although you often see early-morning exercisers in the parks in Ho Chi Minh City - mostly old timers engaged in a spot of tai-chi and calisthenics - and late afternoon badminton games happening, these all tend to congregate on the concrete footpaths around the actual park, bordering the busy streets, and not on the grass itself. It is important for older people to have somewhere to do their exercise and rest too, away from the frenetic whizzing of motorbikes and exhaust fumes, and with adequate and safe facilities.

Kicking back in Hoang Van Thu Public Park

Green spaces are essential for businesses in the city too, but their benefits are less tangible. According to a local publication, a report released by HCM City’s Department of Transport a few years ago said that over a decade (from 1998-2008), the city had lost about 50% of its green spaces to residential and commercial developments. This meant that citizens of the southern metropolis had less than one square metre of grass or vegetation per capita – significantly below the World Health Organisation’s minimum requirement of nine m² per person – and lower than much historically supercrowded cities like Tokyo (with three m²). One gets the impression that in those ten years, city planners have thought little about the long-term future of this great business centre, the health and well-being of its citizens, or developing sustainably. Instead, priority seems to go to expansion (with the new "urban centres" of Thu Thiem and Tay Bac), short term-profits, impressive, yet mysteriously half-empty high-rises and making a quick buck. Property firms also seem to be flouting the rules regarding mandatory green spaces in new developments with little or no punishment. 

By looking at the development of HCM City, one gets the feeling that the urban developers haven’t realised that in today’s environmentally conscious world, green spaces add commercial value to entire blocks, neighbourhoods and cities in various trickle down and knock-on effects. There are numerous examples around the world where green spaces have added value to properties. There is also tourism value, direct use value, community cohesion value, and the removal of air pollution and health value.

What is done is done, however, and I don’t see any buildings being demolished to create a botanical garden in this city, but one can take heed for the future. One solution is the implementation of strict regulations regarding new development and specifying the minimum amount of green space each project must include with strict punishment for those who flaunt the rules. Maximising space with underground parking and commercial facilities, vertical and rooftop gardens and parks, are also viable options. I know all of this is utopian, but its either that or a dystopian reality. Children (and adults) must be allowed to play on the grass, not only around it on concrete, and adequate facilities such as restrooms and lighting need to be built for safety. In a tropical country with such a wonderful sunny climate, there is so much opportunity to spend quality time outdoors with friends and family in a healthy and active way, but if nothing is done about this situation, I’m afraid this urban jungle will remain a concrete playground without a hint of its original state when the Khmer settled on the verdant banks of a wide and meandering river all those years ago.

Originally written for Doanh Nhân Sài Gòn

Sources consulted:  
British Forestry Commision
Official website of Columbia, Missouri 
Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development 
Sefton Council (UK)
Vietnam Business Forum 
The Trust for Public Land 



Miquel Angel said...


I laugh a bit on your great lines...is a big truth what you comment on parks and the way "of no use" we are living.

Should we install an open grill zone in a designated area here in Q7?

Take good care, let's see if anyone upstairs read the lines too.


henno said...

Thanks Miguel - even if someone upstairs reads this, I don't think they would care enough to even raise a finger. If and open grill zone is some kind of Catalan translation for a barbeque area, then I agree for sure.