Small lakes and parks scattered throughout the city provide welcome relief among the bustling traffic and dense development. Hanoi’s parks are not only the lungs of the city, filtering air and providing ecological necessities, they are also community centres, offering an important opportunity for exercise, fun, and social interaction.
Urban Space, Urban Health
UN-HABITAT, the United Nations Human Settlements Program, names public green space as a key necessity for healthy urban centres. In a city where footpaths are clogged by scooters and crossing the road can be akin to swimming with sharks, Hanoi’s parks and lakes offer spaces where people can move without two wheels. Away from traffic congestion and the stresses of work and home — from running and skating to dancing and artwork, Hanoi’s parks represent an important space where people come together, share hobbies, and learn new skills.
“I go for exercise but I also like it because there are many interesting and friendly people to meet and talk with,” says Thuy, a morning participant in Hoan Kiem Lake’s exercise scene. Thuy rises at 5.30 every morning to walk with her husband and son; “even if we did not live in the Old Quarter I would still come for the peace and beauty,” she says.
Environmentally, Hanoi’s parks provide essential ecological services within the city. Trees and greenery are most known for their ability to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. In cities with poor air quality, such as Hanoi, natural green foliage is an invaluable asset. According to the Sustainable Cities Institute, vegetation is also important for improving water quality, reducing flooding, and moderating temperatures; all of which are regular problems for Hanoi.
A Sense of Place
Imagine Hanoi without green space. Without the mature trees in the Botanical Gardens, the open spaces in Thong Nhat Park, or the shady benches around Hoan Kiem Lake, so beloved by overheated tourists and young couples. Imagine the urban centre devoid of natural air filters, seasonal indicators, and the interactive joy of plant growth. The thought is not only environmentally concerning, it is unnatural and claustrophobic; a foreign space that is both unliveable and unlovable. In his book Hanoi: Biography of a City, William Logan talks about how the vegetation among the built surfaces and frequent lakeshore interactions between water and town are central to “Hanoi’s sense of place”. According to Logan, the lakes and parks are part of the city’s distinct charm, a uniqueness loved by locals and visitors alike. “The parks are an important part of the city,” says Phong, a regular at Lenin Park on Tran Phu. “They are nice places to be, with lots of greenery and old trees.”
Avoiding the Concrete City
Hanoi is a green city. Many streets are lined with old trees, pockets of greenery settle amongst the buildings and, if you look closely, hidden gardens can be found in courtyards and on rooftops. However, green space is still lacking and the evening crowds that descend on the parks are indicative of the need to extend Hanoi’s green areas. “It is a lovely place to come and enjoy,” said a regular Thong Nhat Park walker, “but I would like to go jogging and it is impossible with all these people.”
Although Hanoi is struggling with a growing urban density, according to World Bank Urban Specialist Dean Cira, it is the outdated housing and lack of public facilities, not population growth, which is the real problem. As the city becomes more crowded and living quarters shrink, Hanoi is under pressure to increase common areas of greenery.
“The current living spaces cannot handle all these people — they are too crowded,” says Thuy. “So we use the park as a place to relax and enjoy the open space.” However, research by the National Institute of Scientific Research (INRS) in Quebec found that Hanoi residents are allocated less than one square metre of public space per person. This adds up to less that 0.3 percent of the city’s territory, and is far below that of other cities in the region.
The 2011 Asian Green Cities Index, a study by urban and environmental experts at the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Hanoi as well below average for land use and buildings. Hanoi, however, did score points for its policies that protect green spaces and environmentally sensitive areas. Moreover, the city employs planning standards to promote green space, such as the stipulation that all new residential areas must include three square metres of park and garden per person. However, the enforcement of these policies and regulations is not always obvious, particularly in light of last year’s announcement to turn a large portion of Thong Nhat Park into a parking lot.
Plans for a ‘green, attractive, and modern city’ clearly indicate an awareness of the importance of urban green space and a desire to expand Hanoi’s current parks which, according to Cira, are becoming smaller and more fragmented. The plan recommends that 70 percent of the city, including tree-lined streets, river banks and lakes, should be protected from further development. These resolutions will hopefully lead to a future Hanoi that embraces the preservation and expansion of green public areas while ensuring the sustainable expansion of living and working spaces.
Back in Thong Nhat Park the roller-blader is back on his feet and tearing towards a group of German Shepherds. Muzzled at the nose, they laze under the shade of a palm tree as their trainer watches a fierce game of badminton. “As a dog owner the parks are very important,” says Hoa, as her Husky puppy plays with a tiny Chihuahua, “I come to exercise my dog and socialise with other owners. The parks are great; I just wish there were more of them.”