Searching for an environmentally friendly urban model in Vietnam

In Singapore, protecting water resources is as important as preserving national property and security. In the US, the government takes responsibility for improving air quality. In Vietnam, however, allowing urban development while maintaining environmental protections remains a major challenge for urban planners and managers.

Singapore’s experience in water quality management 

There is a story about water quality management in Singapore. Water here is such an important topic because Singapore does not have enough water resources for its 5.7 million people. Historically, they have had to import 60% of their water from Malaysia, which has affected both national security and international relations. The Government of Singapore has set a goal that Singapore will be independent in water by 2060, so there will be no need to renew the water supply contract with Malaysia.

To achieve this target, the Public Utilities Board of Singapore (PUB) has focused on solving two main problems: improving water efficiency and expanding alternative sources. They capture almost all of Singapore’s rainwater and treat it to create drinking water, which has resulted in the conversion of all major water bodies in Singapore into reservoirs. Overall, 70% of its territory is used to collect rainwater, including urban areas (except industrial zones).

In order to maintain water quality in its reservoirs, Singapore has strict regulations to minimize pollution, such as banning boats running oil engines and replacing them with electric motors. Singapore has also improved the quality of rainwater collected on the urban surface through a program called “ABC Waters”: Active – Beautiful – Clean. Public and private parks and developments are installed with natural water filtration systems: green roofs, potted plants in the balcony, bioswales and rain gardens to filter the water before channeling it into rivers and reservoirs.

ABC Waters Program of Singapore (Source: gov.sg)

If the story of urban environmental protection in Singapore is about water retention, in the US, the federal government is very concerned with reducing urban air pollution. Research at the Harvard School of Public Health (Boston) in 2020 showed that the PM2.5 fine dust concentration remained at a dangerous level for Americans, especially the elderly. A reduction of 10 μg / m3 in PM2.5 pollution annually would result in a 6% to 7% reduction in the risk of death, saving more than 140,000 lives each decade.United States of America: Reducing urban air pollution

To improve air quality, urban managers focus on one major source of emissions from vehicles. The US government has federal funding programs to help cities invest in public transport, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has even funded mixed use and high density urban redevelopment projects in city centres to minimize the need for travel and decrease the distances travelled.

 

An eco-friendly urban model in Vietnam?

Bringing these global lessons back to regional and urban planning in Vietnam, we also face similar problems in water resource protection and air quality, and more broadly, in protection and balancing ecosystems.

In Vietnam, many urban areas have not yet separated wastewater and rainwater, leading to domestic wastewater flowing directly into rivers and lakes and polluting the water environment. At the same time, the indiscriminate filling of rivers and lakes with litter not only increases flood risks but also separates water flows, leading to stagnation and water pollution.

Not only do we have to ensure flow continuity, we need to keep green corridors along the water surface to minimize the risk of polluted water flowing into rivers, while also adding green spaces in cities. Having lots of water surfaces in a city also increases the humidity of the air and reduces the amount of dust. Potential sources of pollution such as industrial zones need to not only treat their wastewater, but also their surface water, before it is discharged into rivers and lakes.

We also have to mention the high level of air pollution in Vietnam’s major cities. In order to improve the air quality index (AQI), there is a need to increase the use of public transport and to allocate more green spaces for air purification. In our proposal for developing a Highly Interactive and Innovative District in the East of Ho Chi Minh City (Thu Duc City) over the period 2020 – 2035, which has been approved by the City People’s Committee, enCity and our partners have proposed at least 10% of the city land fund (equivalent to 2,100 ha) for park space, of which up to 30% of these parks (about 630ha) will be water bodies. Another important strategy for Thu Duc City is to improve the quality of the public transport system, with the goal of moving 50 to 60% of people by public transport in the future. enCity is also working with investors to convert Ho Chi Minh City’s inactive landfills into parks and public areas, thus reducing environmental pollution and improving quality of life at the same time.

 

One of the reasons Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew launched a tree planting campaign in the early days of Singapore’s independence was “to make a difference in attracting investment and talents for Singapore”. In fact, protecting the environment is not only about improving the quality of living environment for urban residents, it is also one of the important strategies to make Vietnam’s cities more economically competitive. Singapore, through dealing with water shortages and water pollution, has become a research center for water – a capacity that now they can export to the world.

If planners, investors and urban managers join hands, one day Vietnam’s cities will be not only greener, cleaner, more livable and more attractive for investment, but will also become the evidence of a Vietnamese eco-friendly development model that we can export to the world.

Urban Planner Nguyen Do Dung (Co-founder, CEO of enCity)