Ho Chi Minh City should develop new townships closer to the center

[Zing News] “Ho Chi Minh City should focus on developing new townships in the North direction of District 12 or the North of Nha Be District instead of locations that are too far away,” recommends planning expert Nguyen Do Dzung.

At the end of 2020, Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Internal Affairs announced that it will be reviewing and making adjustments to the master plan for the city, including plans to establish Thu Duc City and upgrade 5 other districts. However, the challenges faced in implementing the 2010 master plan, shows the difficulty of developing a highly feasible and implementable plan. As Ho Chi Minh City begins this new round of planning adjustments, what factors should be considered to achieve a more practical plan?

Zing News has consulted the urban planner Nguyen Do Dzung, Cofounder & CEO of enCity (Singapore), to clarify this issue. With 15 years of experience in formulating and implementing urban development projects in more than 10 countries, and a lecturer in the Master of Urban Planning program at National University of Singapore, master planner Nguyen Do Dzung draws on his expertise to advise Ho Chi Minh City.

HCMC should develop new townships within 10 km from the center of Ho Chi Minh City

HCMC has two key issues – creating new housing and job opportunities for a growing population. With this in mind, development in the suburbs is a practical solution from an urban planning perspective. However, the weaknesses of suburban development are planning implementation capacity and infrastructure investment capacity. An example of this is the northwest urban area of Cu Chi. Ho Chi Minh City approved the masterplan for this area more than 10 years ago but it has been almost impossible to implement.

New satellite townships at such a distance from the center require two key features: jobs to attract people, and investment in infrastructure connections with the CBD (highways, railways, etc.). HCMC has not completed either of these, and that is the biggest limitation of this model. 

New townships should be developed closer to the city centre

We must look frankly into the city’s context, deployment and investment capacity. It is better to develop new townships near the city center rather than to develop satellite townships located too far from the center. Research shows that people often spend up to 2 hours a day travelling between their home and their place of work or studies. From that time, combined with the infrastructure system in the next 10 years, we can calculate the radius that allows people to move to the suburbs while still working in the city centre. From there, we can estimate what the potential urban development area actually is. 

From my experience, in the present context, a distance of 10 km is the most suitable. That is the distance from the west of Binh Tan District or from the east of District 2 to the city center. Based on this radius, I believe the city should focus on developing new townships in the North of District 12 or North of Nha Be district instead of locations like Cu Chi and Can Gio, which are too far away.

Of course, in the longer term, when the transportation system is upgraded, we can consider further urban development. But in the short term, we have to look at the reality.

Satellite cities require a sacrifice of economic benefits 

The “satellite city” model has two very important points. One is to have a green belt between the satellite township and the existing city. The second is that these satellite towns will be connected to the central city by railway to help people move smoothly between them. 

This is not an ideal model to implement, often leading to increased land prices and high infrastructure costs. First, setting development boundaries for central cities through green belts makes urban areas unable to expand, limited land availability leads to increased land prices, and the city becomes less attractive to people and businesses.

Second, the cost to build the infrastructure system connecting the satellite city with the center will be very expensive because it must serve a large area, and runs through the green belt, where no or few people live. In Singapore, the government builds new towns in a chain along public transport corridors, but not separated from the central city by green belts. Instead the city developed as a perimeter around a green core.

Thus, the satellite city model is ineffective in terms of infrastructure investment and requires the government to take a leading role . The state invests in infrastructure and urban construction because no private investor can recover the large land bank needed, financial capacity for infrastructure or the patience to implement a project lasting decades. 

In Vietnam, the gap between the planning of satellite cities on paper and the actual implementation is still too great. For me, a good plan is one that can be implemented. A plan that cannot be implemented and exists only on the drawing board is not valid.

Almere satellite urban center seen from above. Photo: Gemeente Almere.

Ho Chi Minh City should prioritise eastward development

Clearly, eastward is the most important and strategic development direction for Ho Chi Minh City. This is the direction of the North-South corridor axis from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi; it also leads towards two production centers of Vietnam, namely Dong Nai and Binh Duong. Further in the future, when Long Thanh airport is built and becomes larger than the Cai Mep – Thi Vai port area in Vung Tau, this will be the direction of strategic infrastructure connections for urban development in HCMC.

In the long run, the development to the north is reasonable because of the high ground and large land bank, and the city needs to implement divergence. However, they cannot focus on developing all directions at the same time.

In my opinion, Ho Chi Minh City should first prioritize the development of Thu Duc City, because this is where the conditions are ready: the ecosystem for scientific and technological research and production as well as the governmental organization, social and technical infrastructure are all adequate. In the next 10 years, Thu Duc city should become a key part of Ho Chi Minh City, more than any other area.