Planners from hell – The second suppression of Saigon

The Next City
March 21, 1997

The second suppression of Saigon

IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE END OF THE Vietnam War in 1975, the victorious communists renamed Saigon after their leader, Ho Chi Minh, purged it of discos, luxury shops and other Western excesses, moved part of the populace to the countryside and brought the city to a listless calm.

Then came economic liberation: In 1986, the government opened the country to foreign investment, and in 1992 the country began to trade with the United States. The city — with its large literate population, strong work ethic and prior experience in a market economy exploded — with growth. Dubbed the next likely “Asian tiger,” Ho Chi Minh City became a hive of development activity, revelling in its newfound freedom: Cafés and dance clubs opened to meet the yearnings of urban sophisticates, Western T-shirts and designer dresses adorn fashionable young women; Doi Moi square in the centre of the city jumps with activity Saturday nights, and downtown streets throng day and night. The Saigon name also made a comeback: Because the city’s residents stubbornly refused to put a pall over their home town by accepting its leader’s name, the authorities compromised, grudgingly naming the city centre Saigon while keeping Ho Chi Minh City as the metropolitan area’s moniker. With Ho Chi Minh City a magnet for people in the rest of the country seeking a better life, its official population has climbed back to match its Vietnam War high of 4.5 million. Rural folk who come to the city in search of casual work or to hawk their wares swell the population figure to 6.5 million.

In its rapid resuscitation, Ho Chi Minh City has been struggling to keep pace with development demands. Developers from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, teamed up with Vietnamese landowning companies, have been erecting apartment blocks, office towers and highrise hotels, and individuals have been redeveloping their own single-storey dwellings on narrow lots into four, five and even six-storey buildings. But these haven’t been enough. Most of the unofficial residents live on the street or in illegally constructed dwellings — some 24,000 of which are concentrated along the drainage canals, contaminating the water (one estimate claims two cubic metres of rubbish lurk beneath every square metre of water surface). While the city has been filled to incredible densities — with buildings rising out of courtyards, spanning watercourses and clambering alongside walls — the average amount of housing space per resident is now only 5.8 square metres.

DEVELOPERS ARE HAMSTRUNG by the Ho Chi Minh City development plan, an unwieldy straightjacket that was out of date even before its approval in 1993. To compensate for the plan’s shortcomings, Ho Chi Minh City planners published still more detailed plans in 1995 for each of the city’s 18 districts. These plans prescribe existing and proposed land uses, specifying building lines for every street, desired activities, target population and floor space densities, public utility requirements and lists of public and private projects. These more detailed plans also failed to cope with Ho Chi Minh City’s burgeoning growth. Planners went back to the drawing board, where they devised a series of yet more detailed land-use plans at the ward level.

To assess the impact of new buildings, planners use a 1:1000 scale model of the city centre. Would-be developers produced a miniature model to insert into the available spaces in the master plan — at one point last year they had 80 highrises of up to 37 storeys in the queue. A larger 1:250 model aids more detailed discussions.

The municipal regulators — including 80 professionals specializing in urban planning — have also failed to keep up with increased demands for mobility. To the regulators’ chagrin, the city’s increasingly affluent citizens have been trading in their bicycles for motorized two-wheelers to navigate the narrow and maze-like routes through city neighborhoods: 70 per cent of households now own at least one motorbike. City streets remain in disrepair, yet planners are still mapping out public transit strategies.

Less hardened municipal bureaucrats might have thrown their hands up in the air, admitted defeat against this tide of human energy and initiative and loosened their planning restrictions, letting developers build the housing and provide the services that the public so clearly clamors for.

But not these veterans of guerrilla wars. Instead, they have stepped in with the same ruthlessness of the military planners almost a quarter century ago. To settle the issue of urban congestion, the government has adopted a draconian population decentralization policy — one that will expropriate large tracts of city lands, clear them for development and expel 70 per cent of the urban population to the suburbs. To provide breathing room for the remaining city centre inhabitants, the planners opted for two megaprojects: an 800-hectare development across the Saigon river to the east and a 2,600-hectare site to the south. By fiat, the government will limit the total population of this greater Ho Chi Minh region to 7.5 million by the year 2010. And to solve traffic congestion, bulldozers will widen roads to suit large public transit vehicles.

In this Pol Pot with-a-kinder-face policy, the planners call for 12 CIPs — consolidated industrial parks — to be built on the city’s outskirts, each with its own housing and infrastructure. Six existing towns within a 100-kilometre radius are slated for expansion, becoming satellite cities of 200,000 to 700,000 people.

Lawrence Solomon

Winnipeg: the urban planners’ failed conceit

ON THE SILVER ANNIVERSARY OF WINNIPEG’S amalgamation, the evidence is in: The amalgamation of Winnipeg’s 13 urban municipalities into one unified city has been an abject failure.

The grand scheme, officially called “Winnipeg Unicity,” was implemented in 1972. As envisaged, it did create a large regional government endowed with exclusive taxing authority and monopoly power over vital services. The rationale behind consolidation was plausible to many at the time: Increased efficiency resulting from the elimination of duplication would reduce costs and improve services. But the planners did not anticipate the consequences. Instead of the hoped-for administrative savings and improvements in service levels, amalgamation created a Byzantine administrative tangle and high-cost government that debilitated the city’s economy.

Winnipeg’s unified service-delivery systems now have all the classic problems of traditional municipal governments, only magnified. They focus on the needs of providers first, those of taxpayers last, and they disproportionately spend on administration to the detriment of front-line services. They reward process rather than result and encourage a spend-it-or-lose-it behavior.

Winnipeg’s financial position has deteriorated substantially due to Unicity governance:

  • A recent independent review into a spectacular $210-million assessment demonstrates a staggering lack of accountability and a deep malaise within Winnipeg’s municipal government.
  • Interest payments on the sizable debt run-up during the civic building binge of the late ’70s and early ’80s are crowding out funds for long-standing municipal services.
  • The streets and operations department opened the “Taj Mahal,” its swank new $5.6-million headquarters, in the spring of 1994. A year and a half later, officials came to City Council with a proposal to spend $530,000 more on renovating it to “save the city money.” Departments were being consolidated, they said, and the 40 employees now moving in needed new walls, lighting, heating and mechanical systems.
  • In 1994, the civic employees’ union secured a five-year, “no layoff” contract, although internal estimates, where done, show that in-house provision of services costs up to 60 per cent more than alternatives readily available in the marketplace.In late 1996, Moody’s confirmed the magnitude of the problems by cutting the city’s top-notch credit rating.

    With the Unicity in place, citizens could no longer vote with their feet against government extravagance, for the informal and healthy tax competition that had formerly existed between municipalities in the Winnipeg region was gone. The monopoly behaved like a monopoly.

    Statistics tell the story. Municipal staffing in Winnipeg stood slightly below 10,000 in 1995. Compare this with an efficient city like London, Ontario, where a staff of about 3,200 serves a city of 325,000 — roughly half of Winnipeg’s size of 642,000. On a rough per capita basis, Winnipeg taxpayers employ proportionately 1.6 times the staff to do roughly the same work.

    That is one of the main reasons for Winnipeg’s slow growth rate, its downtown troubles, and the consequent social problems and crime. Surveys show Winnipeg comes out consistently at or near the top of the scale in terms of property tax burden.

    Winnipeg’s high property tax rates are also propelling a silent tax revolt that chips away relentlessly at the tax base. In the past, Winnipeg could expect almost ten times as many housing starts as the surrounding municipalities. Now the balance is even. With outlying communities on the edge of the city offering a more humane tax regime, less red tape and lower all-round operating and living costs, moving beyond the perimeter offers obvious financial rewards.

    Yet, too many in Winnipeg’s urban planning community haven’t twigged to the problem of municipal government gone awry. Their response to the problem of amalgamation is more amalgamation. The province, they say, should force nearby bedroom communities to raise taxes to level the playing field with Winnipeg, or better yet, the city should annex these low-property tax areas.

    Peter Holle

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