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Ho Chi Minh City: Soundtrack

Ho Chi Minh City has a soundtrack: on any corner, one is surrounded by the throbbing din of hundreds of sputtering engines and chatting horns. As rivers of motorbikes sweep down every road, their echoing sounds have become the pulse of the city.

Noise pollution is not the only nuisance caused by motorbikes. They cause more injurious accidents, their two-stroke engines and unfiltered exhaust contribute more to air pollution, and their numbers and ability to fill any gap in the road contribute to constant, hectic congestion. Crossing the street is famously difficult in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). (The best advice to tourists is to “just go” and trust that traffic will adjust around you.) Sidewalks are often blocked by parked motorbikes, and drivers more than occasionally use the sidewalks as a traffic lanes. Pedestrians are smart to look both ways before leaving a doorway.
In 2005, HCMC had a total of three million registered motorbikes, or about 412 vehicles per 1000 people (Duc, Le Anh). As its populations continues to grow — an expected 10m by 2020 — so will the tides of scooters.

Since the late 1980’s, HCMC has gone through a process of rapid urbanization due to industrialization, economic liberalization and foreign investment. The city is booming, but there has been a comparative lack of investment in infrastructure, especially public transportation and alternative traffic networks. The bus systems are fractured (no single lines extend across the city), unreliable, and slow due to traffic congestion. Consequently, motorbikes have become the vehicle of choice: a cheap, fast, flexible, door-to-door option.
Motorbikes are essential for HCMC’s residents. They transport families, animals, and sometimes unimaginable cargo. However, the most interesting urban phenomenon is that the bikes have become a form of social space. At night, parks and open spaces fill with teens and young adults on their scooters. Friends gather in lines and circles, each atop their seats, smoking and eating the city’s famous street food. Some are even fully reclined on the long, padded seats. As new friends join the group, the wheeled seating easily adjusts. The two-person capability of the bike seat is also an ideal perch for young lovers to get (very) close. It is imaginable that a local Saigonese can have a night out without ever getting off his or her perch.
As HCMC follows a trajectory towards becoming a global city, politicians, planners, and policy makers will need to solve the urgent transportation issues. However, the use of motorbikes has become so embedded in Vietnam’s culture that it will take more than transportation improvements and policies to address this problem.

Zhuhai Disappearing Village [polis]

In a recent post, I included some pictures of Shenzhen in 1980 (similar to the one above), just a few years after the establishment of the Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Thirty years later, these images of a car-free fishing village have been erased by a towering metropolis.

During a recent visit to Zhuhai, I found an area where a similar anachronistic scene still exists. On the western edge of the city, across the river from Macao, a former fishing and trading village now sits quietly behind construction walls — a ghost-town swept up by development. Large tracts of the settlement have already been razed. Intact blocks have been colonized by tropical house plants. Other streets bustle, only with demolition workers.
Nonetheless, there is also a sign of resistance. Someone has their laundry out to dry. An old woman peers at us from a dark window. Sprinkled along streets of mostly bricked-in homes, some inhabitants refuse to leave. It is unclear what the future of this site will be.
Many villages in southern China, swallowed by urban sprawl, develop organically as villages in the city (VICs). VICs are vital to migrant laborers in need of cheap housing, but are often unimaginably dense and without proper infrastructure. But as lessons are learned by urban planners, urban villages like those in Zhuhai are being more carefully integrated into the city plan. Unfortunately, this is often done to the benefit of developers more than the villagers or migrants.

Zhuhai, a city in the Pearl River Delta across the border and river from Macao, markets itself as a “Chinese Riviera” for recreation and leisure. Like Shenzhen, it became one of China’s five SEZs in the early 1980s and was one of the few small fishing villages in a largely agriculture land. Although now a modern city, the transformation still lags behind that of Shenzhen — a recognizable “world city” with a population of nearly 10 million.
But as the images above suggest, Zhuhai is on the verge of a larger transformation. Macao, its neighboring SAR, has only recently developed as a world-class tourist destination and is growing as rapidly as the Chinese middle class. The effects of this will certainly spill over into Zhuhai. What’s more, a mega-infrastructure project is under way to connect Zhuhai directly to Hong Kong with a bridge and tunnel across the Pearl River Bay (a route only traversed by ferry now). This connection will be anchored in Zhuhai by a new CBD and plans for service and tourism growth.The villages in the city will inevitably be lost in this growth. But let’s hope there is a way to preserve their vitality, their source of affordable and accessible housing, their pedestrian scale and community spaces, and their open and entrepreneurial spaces.Credits: Photo of Shenzhen in 1980 by Leroy W. Demery, Jr. Photos of Zhuhai by Natalia Echeverri.

Lifestyles from the Boom

In 2008, the onset of the financial crash, I traveled to several cities around the world documenting the impacts of speculation in the urban landscape. Although the real estate bubble in the US began to collapse in 2006, the construction boom was still peaking elsewhere. Along with the boom, developers were selling lifestyles: green, golf, luxury, exclusive–a recognizably western model.

Below is a survey of 100 billboards in Las Vegas, Shenzhen, Cairo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Hong Kong, Dubai, Barcelona, Berlin, Rotterdam and Shanghai. The tag cloud shows the frequency of words in the advertisements. Although it is a small sample, the persistent themes demonstrate the placelessness of the global, commodified lifestyle.



Madrid’s Pharaoh [polis]

Madrid’s Pharaoh on [polis]


After eight years of delays, traffic jams, noise and dust the last section of Madrid Rio — a combined infrastructure and public space project — was finally opened to the public on April 15. In the 1970’s Madrid was cut off from the (already forgotten) Manzanares river by the construction of the M30 ring motorway. Although this separation of city and waterfront was a common phenomenon in many cities around the world in the mid-20th century, Madrid’s “waterfront” went through the middle of the city, not at the edge; Madrid lost not only its river — it was cut in two. Neighborhoods once just over the river were instantly relegated to the periphery.


The Madrid Rioproject, a six-kilometer linear park spanning the a sunken motorway is the finalization of a plan hatched a decade ago to reconnect the city center and adjacent neighborhoods to the river.
Designed jointly by landscape architects West8and MRIO Arquitectos (a collection of architects including Burgos y Garido, Porras & La Casta and Rudio & Alvarez-Sola), the design also links to existing historic parks, sports and cultural sites, and includes kilometers of bicycle paths, playgrounds, 32 foot bridges, 33,000 new planted trees, and an urban beach.
This large infrastructure project is one of many initiated by Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, Madrid’s ambitious mayor. Gallardon came to power with a vision of reinventing Madrid by turning it into a global city. Following the Barcelona example, he became obsessed with winning the 2012 Olympics bid. When he lost to London, he tried again for the 2016 games. The river project, along with an airport expansion, new sports arenas, and underground parking lots, were part of this strategy. Many people — locally and abroad — simply began referring to the mayor as “The Pharaoh”. He seems to have deserved his nickname — since he came into power 2003 Gallardon started more than 70 major construction projects. Poorly managed (the Madrid Rio was delayed and for twice what it was supposed to cost), overly ambitious, and spanning Spain’s recent boom/bust, the projects helped contribute to Madrid’s debt — the largest in Spain — and leading the city into bankruptcy. After enduring living in the largest construction site in Europe, Madrid resident will now have to pay for all the projects with increasing taxes for the next few decades.
In times of economic hardship, large infrastructural projects are usually welcomed for creating jobs and building public assets. The works of the WPA in the USA during the great depression are often referenced in this way. Certainly the Madrid Rio, seen alone, is a valuable addition to the city that has done much to correct decades of neglect and bad planning. But in Madrid, these projects were undertaken not in a crisis, but in the heat of a speculative boom. In all this excitement, and with seemingly overflowing municipal coffers, urban renewal was not undertaken in an incremental way — it was an attempt at instant transformation. What’s more, the rush seemed too political, a kind of legacy-making that was more pharaonic than benevolent.
Credits: Image of landscape and section of Manzanares River and M30 fromLandezine.com. Map of Manzanares Rio from Landezine.com. Image of construction at the Manzanares and birdseye from El Pais.

Buenos Aires: The Boom After the Crisis [polis]


Buenos Aires new skyline, Puerto Madero

Buenos Aires is considered to be the best planned city in Latin America. Modeled after Haussmann’s Paris, the city is composed of large boulevards and monuments enclosed by roundabouts. The building structures were homogeneous and were occupied by a large and powerful middle class.

In the last three decades this urban configuration has changed dramatically. This was due to drastic changes that began in the 1970’s, when the nationaist-populist model was dismantled and replaced by a model of exclusion–an outcome of the implementation of economical and political neoliberal practices. This period was marked by two economic crises, each followed by a boom, making polarization and fragmentation more visible and reconfiguring the city and its society.

Carlos Menem became the president of Argentina in 1989 in a moment of hyperinflation. He implemented structural reforms strengthening the neoliberal tendencies. These changes improved Argentina’s image among international investors and led to an economic boom.

Buenos Aires suburbanized during this boom. Luxury suburbs like Nordelta sprouted along the new highway systems that connected the wealthier population of commuters to the city center. A new, gated, green lifestyle was promoted with amenities such as school, sports facilities and shopping malls. With the boom came the desire to transform Buenos Aires into a global city. In the heart of the city, Puerto Madero, became the postcard symbol for this tranformation, renewing the blighted dock area for a new skyline for the city.

Puerto Madero symbol of the “new global city”

A small elite profited from the privatization of Buenos Aires. The middle class–which had constituted about 70% of the population–disintegrated and polarized, punished by a new crisis of hyperinflation, which climaxed in December 2001, during the biggest financial crisis in the country in recent years. The peso depreciated as much as 400% against the dollar. Banks were closed to prevent people from withdrawing their savings, which plummeted in value.

Some time after this incident, farmers made fortunes with soaring international soy-bean prices. Mistrusting the banks, they preferred to invest their surplus cash in real estate, judging it a safer haven. Another construction boom followed.

Due to higher gasoline prices, however, the new constructions were closer to the center of the city. A new typology, called the “country-club tower” (torre country), also seen in China, Sao Paulo and Mexico City, was introduced by the developers. It razed entire city blocks in old traditional neighborhoods to construct high-rise apartments with country-club amenities, like swimming pools, tennis court, gardens and playgrounds–all surrounded by gates. These offered the same services of the suburbs of the previous boom but in center of the city.


New Country Towers, the new typology for the current boom

Among other things, the walls around these country-club towers have meant the “death of the street” as an urban landscape. These country-club towers are spreading around the city but are mostly concentrated in Palermo, a neighborhood that use to be of large middle-class houses and active street life. Now, as a marketing strategy these sectors are called Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and Nuevo Palermo.


Typical Palermo street vs “New” Palermo street with the gated “Coutry Towers”

Additionally, in a classic case of polarization, property prices have skyrocketed in these neighborhoods while the slums (called Villa Miserias) which had grown during the first construction boom, have kept increasing in size and height.


Villa Miseria 31

Credits: Image of Buenos Aires Skyline from Ivan Valin. Image of Buenos Aires Boulevard from Juan Pablo Gutierrez.Image of Puerto Madero, “Country Towers” and Palermo streets from Natalia Echeverri. Image of Villa Miseria 31 by http://www.prensamercosur.com.ar.