Answers to more of your questions on rapidly growing cities


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Dean Cira

 (Urban specialist Dean Cira recently answered in a video 5 questions on rapidly growing cities that had been submitted to us by internet users. This post addresses a few additional questions).

 Manh Ha from Vietnam asked:  Urban planning currently focuses too much on having new buildings, which increases the population and construction density and reduces living environment in size. What planning model do you think Vietnam should follow?


There is a popular belief among planners and among Vietnamese generally that densities of the major urban centers of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City need to be reduced to improve the quality of life.  But if we look at the density of Hanoi, we actually see that by Asian standards, it is not particularly dense.


Indeed the average population density of Hanoi is less than Seoul , Tianjin and Hong Kong, all of which are considered to be quite livable cities.  But as we suggested in our previous video answer, planners in Vietnam and indeed everywhere need to focus on ensuring mobility for labor and consumers and affordability of land and housing for firms and households.  On this score, Vietnam’s planners can do much better.




While Hanoi may not be particularly dense compared to other Asian cities, it does lack the infrastructure to support its population densities.  Take a look a road space, for example.  In his work for the Vietnam Urbanization Review, Alain Bertuad, a well known urban expert, shows us that in the central business district of Hanoi only 9% of the area is devoted to street space, making it similar to Bangkok which has notorious traffic congestion.  Compare that to New York’s Mid-town Manhattan or Seoul’s CBD which devote about 32% and 14%, respectively both of which have excellent mobility options.  


Similarly, Hanoians take fewer than 60 transit trips per year compared to about 250 for those living in Barcelona, Spain – a city of similar population density.  The reason is a lack of transit infrastructure.  The point here is that Vietnam’s planners need to focus not only on building new towns and buildings, but on ensuring widespread good mobility for its citizens and affordability of land and housing by appropriately planning and sequencing the development and integration of land/housing development and transport as a primary focus.


Hoang Duc Minh from Vietnam asked, Has the urbanization process attracted more people to cities or has the migration process forced cities to expand?  Should we stop or restrain the migration flow to cities? Why? If yes, how can we do that?


There is some evidence to suggest that access to basic services is better in urban areas than in rural areas, and in larger urban areas than in smaller urban areas in Vietnam which is often a reason for people migrating from rural to urban areas.  But it is also evident that people in Vietnam are migrating in large part for better economic opportunity (pull factors) rather than for lack of services in rural areas (push factors).  


Urbanization does not guarantee economic growth and modernization, but an integral part of Vietnam’s transition from a low to middle income country and beyond may well depend on how well it manages the transition from a largely rural to an urban economy - nearly all countries become at least 50% urbanized before fully reaching middle income status.  


Vietnam expects to reach that point by 2025.  These are strong reasons not to attempt or restrain migration to cities.  But, Vietnam will need to carefully manage the tradeoffs that will come with rapid urbanization.  There is the potential for increased congestion costs, regional inequalities, increased urban poverty, urban pollution and rising land and housing prices.  Some of these risks are already manifest and increasing rapidly. 


At the same time, Vietnam must be ready to employ urbanization as an instrument to sustain economic growth and opportunity for all.  This will mean, among other things, ensuring the economic competitiveness of key economic regions, ensuring the economic, social and environmental sustainability of cities (including small and medium sized cities) making them desirable places to live and work for all segments of society and increasing economic productivity through accelerated technological advances and a better trained, educated and mobile workforce.


Sari from Indonesia asked, I just wondered whether it is possible the blueprint of a "good" city can be applicable to other cities. If it so, why not just share and follow the benchmark.  How long do you think to have Jakarta as a better place to live in?


These are some really good questions and I decided to ask my colleague Peter Ellis, who has been living and working Jakarta for the past four years what he thought.  He believes that Jakarta, like many cities needs to focus a lot more on issues of connectivity and therefore needs a much better public transit system, which should focus on increasing densities around the transit routes and nodes.  


This may sound counter intuitive to those of you that think Jakarta should be decreasing density, but it rings true to me. Mr. Ellis also suggests that when planning for such a change, Indonesian planners should also consider that manufacturing is already leaving Jakarta for surrounding cities where land and labor are cheaper and Jakarta is seeing a future as a service center, including financial services.


I would like to know your views on whether you think traditional urban planning methods are really applicable to today’s urbanizing countries.  In many countries in Asia and in Africa, for example, we are seeing urbanization growth rates higher than 5% per year.  And much if this urban growth is taking place within a context where, for example, maybe 20% of the population can afford the housing that is being produced in local markets, where high percentages of the population live and work outside of the so-called formal sector and where governance at all levels, but perhaps especially at the local level is often weak.  


Most planning methods and tools assume reasonable growth rates, strong institutions and a formal economy.  Are the planning methods and tools that most planners are taught and employ adequate for twenty-first century urbanization which will take place largely in the developing world?



Dean Cira

Urban Development

Join the Conversation

Dr. Ngo Viet Nam Son
September 15, 2012

As an urban planner / architect who teach and work in both North America and in Vietnam, I think that the answer of Mr. Dean Cira is good, but not enough to show the big picture. Therefore, I would like to share my views with him as we all care about Vietnam developments.

For example, two of his comments could be seen differently when we look at them from long-term and short-term views:

(1) The current and future densification of downtown Hanoi (and Ho Chi Minh City as well) should be seen from the view of a strategic plan.

For at least a decade or more from now, Hanoi & HCM City should give more priority to the suburbanization to release the pressure on the old and insufficient infrastructure system, and to take the pressure for more high-rise developments outward to suburban areas to take these opportunities to develop the country. From the economic view, this is much more efficient as well, since local government do not have to upgrade the infrastructure at high cost in the traffic jam of downtown. Therefore, the current attempts to build more towers in the historic areas of Hanoi and HCM City are good for private investor’s profit, but not good for the cities, because they not only destroy the heritage values, but also take away the chances for development of new areas (such as Thu Thiem in HCM City, and Ha Tay in Hanoi). In brief, new developments in downtown can be still allowed now, but the concentration of developments in this period should be outside downtown. That is the first phase – the suburbanization in Vietnam.

When the pressure for new developments in downtown is slowing down in the future (perhaps about 15 years), local government can allow new developments there, when they fit with the speed of upgrading infrastructure systems (roads, water and electricity supplies, social service facilities ...) that are adequate to support for new developments. That is the second phase – the centralization in Vietnam.

(2) To encourage people to relocate to new urban center, the current trend of construction of apartments and office towers are not enough, because it will only create Bedroom-community where people still want to go to downtown to get better services (health care, education, entertainment, ...). The challenge is to develop real new communities where people can live, work, and enjoy their life with the quality of life as good as in downtown. Almost all new urban centers in Vietnam, perhaps with the exception of Saigon South, do not provide adequate social facilities and services for local residents.

It would be nice if World Bank would consider assisting Vietnam to resolve two issues above. For example, it could be very useful to select several new urban centers in the Mekong Delta in Hue and Danang, and in North Vietnam, and help them to become real urban communities that can be used as models for development.

Dean Cira
September 18, 2012

Thank you Dr. Ngo for your very insightful comments.

I absolutely agree with you that development of Vietnam's major cities should take place within the context of a sound strategic and spatial plan. I would also agree with you that the existing infrastructure in much of the city, including the tradtional city center, is insufficient to support more growth and in many cases insufficient to even meet the existing demand in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Our own analysis suggests that Hanoi and HCMC are already developing from mono centric to poly centric cities, but much of the planned infrastructure (planned metro systems, for example) is not adequately taking that into account. My impression is that most of the new development will continue to take place in these newly emerging urban centers and until city planners, preferably through participatory planning processes, determine the preferred futures of the traditional city centers, that is probably a good thing provided the infrastructure keeps pace with the real estate development. It would be interesting to know how much of the recently constructed commercial and residental floor space has been developed in new urban areas versus the traditional urban centers of the major cities.

The second part of your posting is quite interesting. Certainly to accomodate future urban growth it is imperative to be looking at how best to develop new urban areas that will, among other things, allow Vietnam's cities to provide adequate housing, mobility, services and job opportunities for all segments of the population. In the Urbanization Review the World Bank recently prepared for Vietnam, there is a good discussion about why Vietnam does not have wide spread slums and how using trunk infrastructure to expand new urban development around existing urban villages in Hanoi and HCMC is an example of good, forward looking development. At least in the large urban centers of Hanoi and HCMC, Vietnam is providing some good development practices for others to learn from.

But there are some broader concerns about how urban expansion is currently evloving in many cities in Vietnam. Current fiscal policies make local governments in Vietnam dependent upon land sales/leases to raise own-source revenues for capital investment. When we combine that with the classification of cities process where cities compete to move up the classification system, there are strong incentives for local leaders to continue to push outward the urban boundary (even or especially in low density, medium and small cities) and this process is often endorsed through the physical planning process in Vietnam. Ineed our analysis suggests that from 1999-2009, urban densities decreased in class 1, 3 and 4 cities on average in Vietnam. There are many new urban areas planned or being developed in Vietnam's medium and small cities where there really appears to be little or no demand for them. Building infrastructure in the "wrong" places will be costly in the long run. One can (and some have) make similar observations about the new Hanoi Master Plan and the risks involved in its focus on developing satellite cities over 30 kilometers from Hanoi, while there is continued strong demand for housing and services within the existing urbanized area.

But it is a development imperative for institutions like the World Bank to work with policy makers in supporting sustainable and inclusive urban development in a rapidly urbanizing world, and not simply point out the problems. I would like to hear from you and others how you think the World Bank can best do that in Vietnam and elsewhere.