Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City

Sidewalk City: Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City

by Annette Miae Kim

NOOK Book(eBook)

$38.49 $45.00 Save 14% Current price is $38.49, Original price is $45. You Save 14%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


For most, the term “public space” conjures up images of large, open areas: community centers for meetings and social events; the ancient Greek agora for political debates; green parks for festivals and recreation. In many of the world’s major cities, however, public spaces like these are not a part of the everyday lives of the public. Rather, business and social lives have always been conducted along main roads and sidewalks. With increasing urban growth and density, primarily from migration and immigration, rights to the sidewalk are being hotly contested among pedestrians, street vendors, property owners, tourists, and governments around the world.

With Sidewalk City, Annette Miae Kim provides the first multidisciplinary case study of sidewalks in a distinctive geographical area. She focuses on Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a rapidly growing and evolving city that throughout its history, her multicultural residents have built up alternative legitimacies and norms about how the sidewalk should be used. Based on fieldwork over 15 years, Kim developed methods of spatial ethnography to overcome habitual seeing, and recorded both the spatial patterns and the social relations of how the city’s vibrant sidewalk life is practiced.

In Sidewalk City, she transforms this data into an imaginative array of maps, progressing through a primer of critical cartography, to unveil new insights about the importance and potential of this quotidian public space. This richly illustrated and fascinating study of Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalks shows us that it is possible to have an aesthetic sidewalk life that is inclusive of multiple publics’ aspirations and livelihoods, particularly those of migrant vendors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226119366
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 42 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Annette Miae Kim is associate professor of public policy and the founding director of SLAB, the Spatial Analysis Lab, at the University of Southern California.

Read an Excerpt

Sidewalk City

Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City

By Annette Miae Kim

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Annette Miae Kim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-11936-6


Seen and Unseen

Ho Chi Minh City's Sidewalk Life

In many cities, sidewalks are the most important and the most overlooked public space. While not the site of urban design laurels, in terms of square-meter area, a city's sidewalk system usually exceeds the city's parks and large open spaces. More significantly, because of the way that this network of concrete spreads its tentacles to reach people in many parts of the city, drawing them into intimate configurations, sidewalks have the potential to be a remarkable democratizing space. Sidewalks are also important economically as a transportation system and social safety net. After years of inattention, now more than ever, people around the globe are trying to unlock their potential by contesting the purpose of and rights to the sidewalk. Street vendors, property owners, local government, and the general public are engaging in innovative experiments in some places and bloody conflicts in others.

I learned the most about the potential and challenges of sidewalks from walking around and cruising on the back of mopeds in laid-back and balmy Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). I came to realize that the sidewalk space of the city is the city to most people. We do not or cannot enter most buildings, and most people do not even look up to see most buildings. Rather, as others have noted, people look at other people in a public space (Whyte 1980: 90), particularly in HCMC where all segments of the population eat, socialize, and trade on the sidewalk. It is the negative space framed by the built environment that is the city we experience and the most commonly experienced portion of this space is at the street level, narrow and long: the sidewalk.

At the millennium, I lived in the center of the city, in District 1. Then, and for years afterward, my local friends and I would try to figure out what was so vital and special about the city. HCMC, formerly known as Saigon, was different in so many ways from other cities with which I was familiar. It was hard to explain to visiting foreign friends where to locate this wonderfulness on a tourist map. When faced with the map I found that there was not much to point out. While panoramic photos of the urban landscape did not capture anything remarkable, shots framing a more intimate scene started to get closer to what I was trying to explain. At the time, my friends and I mostly exchanged anecdotes and impressionistic descriptions.

I have returned to HCMC many times. Each time I first land in the city, I invariably look for what is different because it has undergone tremendous change. The city has more than doubled its population in two decades and more than tripled its average income in less time. Still, I am usually pleasantly surprised to find how much of the city's charms have remained: vendors and motorcycle taxi drivers, remembering me from years past, greet me warmly while I also enjoy the rapid infrastructure improvements and ever-increasing array of goods, foods, and services in this cosmopolitan, international city. But, by 2010 I noticed that the sidewalks in my old neighborhood were empty. I also noticed that vendors now nervously glanced around while selling their goods, on the lookout for police who might chase them away.

In the early 2000s, the Vietnamese government introduced a series of sidewalk clearance policies and more significantly, these policies started actually being enforced in earnest in the mid-2000s. Police and traffic inspectors now regularly patrol sidewalks and public spaces. I now witness scenes such as a pair of policemen on a motorbike awakening a man napping in the park during his lunch break. The new paradigm seems to be that people on the sidewalk need to keep moving. The biggest targets are street vendors, so thousands of vendors throughout the city keep roaming around carrying their wares on their shoulders, bikes, or wheeled carts instead of staying in one spot. The rationale stated in the policy documents is familiar: we need to clear people off the sidewalks for the sake of traffic congestion and public health, and in order to be a modern, world-class city.

While my earlier research focused on the social conflict over rapid real estate development on the urban periphery of the city (Kim 2008), there was also another kind of struggle happening at a smaller but equally comprehensive scale in the center of the city. Society was renegotiating sidewalk space. I later found that the debate over competing conceptions of the sidewalk was not unique to HCMC but gaining policy attention in cities around the world. As people continue to migrate to urban centers at unprecedented rates, sidewalks are particularly important for the lower-income and marginalized urban dwellers who try to make their living in this space. Many cities in other countries have vendor organizations that advocate for their rights to use public space (Brown 2006; Tinker 1997), even leading to national policy and constitutional support for sidewalk vending in places like India (Sinha and Roever 2011). In North America, people have sometimes framed the conflict as third world practices clashing with first world institutions, especially given the current social tensions around international immigration (Marcelli, Pastor, and Joassart 1999; Kettles 2004; Garnett 2009). But, community recreating and vending practices on the sidewalk have also been viewed as sites of "authenticity" (Zukin 2009). And now a new breed of gourmet street food vendors are recognized as innovators in the culinary arts and economic development and have sometimes been incorporated into city planning (Urban Vitality Group 2008) while other times resisted (Kettles 2004).

This groundswell of debate and activity indicates that the very concept of sidewalks is being contested by the public. However, despite its importance, until recently, few scholars of public space have focused on the sidewalk. Design scholars have often imagined open, green spaces when discussing public space's function in providing leisure as a release valve to the stresses of urban life and reconnecting people to nature and each other. Political scientists and philosophers have harkened back to the plazas and forums of the Greek agora when imagining the ideal public space: large meeting places where different members of society can come out of their private spaces to debate and critique state power and social institutions are seen as key to an effective democracy and the formation ofa civic identity (Arendt 1958; Habermas 1962). However, the civic square was missing in the urban fabric of imperial Chinese cities, in the European market towns of the Middle Ages where business was conducted along the "high street," and even in some classical cities like Ephesus, where the colonnaded avenue was the main public space. In other words, in many cities the main public space has been the street and when vehicles overtook the street, eventually the sidewalk (Kostof 1992). Furthermore, recent scholarship has critiqued that public spaces such as the agora were not open to females and slaves while the radical political spaces of history included enclosed places such as cooperative meeting houses and private bars (Kohn 2003). Rather, a public sphere space is more essentially one where people can physically congregate and create and exchange counter-hegemonic dispositions as well as conviviality (Banerjee 2001). This could happen in a number of places, including on the sidewalk.

More recently, there have been a few important exceptions to the dearth of public space scholarship about sidewalks (Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht 2009; Blomley 2011). In their comprehensive study of American sidewalks, Loukaitou-Sideris and Ehrenfeucht also make the point that sidewalks have received insufficient scholarly attention. To help remedy this oversight, they outline a fascinating history of the conflicts and contests over the sidewalk between property abutters, city government, street vendors, and civil society activists over the last 200 years. Blomley insightfully examines Canadian sidewalks and finds that the institutionalized culture of traffic engineers and planners obstructs the civic humanist ideals of public space. However, while these scholars lay out the history and contemporary issues of sidewalks, they do not provide us with ways to think about a better sidewalk. They conclude their books with the kinds of questions posed at the beginning of this book. What kind of sidewalk would unleash its potential as a public space? How would it operate and what might it look like? How would we manage conflicts over the space? I approach these by first asking a question that has been nagging at me for years: What exactly is so wonderful about the sidewalk life I experience in HCMC?

One reason that I like asking these questions about HCMC is that the urban design literature rarely finds anything exemplary in the developing world. Rather, these cities are usually the subject of economic development literature, which invariably frames them as a matrix of massive sectoral problems to fix, including public health, transportation, housing, infrastructure, institutional capacity, unemployment, environment, etc.: the usual litany of being an underdeveloped city (World Bank 1994; UNCHS 2003). Of course these are real problems, damaging livelihoods and lives. But, with such an orientation, the solutions that are proposed, which are often as homogenous as the problems they frame, all too often end up demolishing what is valuable and unique to each city. Cities are not discussed as places, neighborhoods, or cultural bases. While cities in developing countries were formerly seen as cesspools of disease and filth, since the 1980s they have been reconceived as important engines of the economy by the international development literature (Farvacque and McAuslan 1992). The preoccupation has been how to make the engine more efficient and productive.

I too had first approached Vietnam preoccupied with trying to better understand how its economy had grown so rapidly. But, while pursuing that project, the particular rhythms and pathways of daily life in HCMC sensitized me to other curious things going on around me:

In order to get to Nguy?n Ðình Chi?u street from my house, I had to go down an alley of houses, turn the corner and walk down a wider, slightly crooked alley. Along the way, neighbors would inevitably give me direct eye contact and we would exchange smiles and morning pleasantries, most regularly with Ch? Bom, who had started an impromptu morning café that took up the side of the alley and a bit of the sidewalk of the street. I would pass by some of the customers who were seated low to the ground on the foot-high plastic stools that eased them into a nearly squatting position.

The boundary of where the plastic stools of the café took space in the alley and sidewalk fluctuated over the course of the year as business grew. Some weeks neighbors complained that the encroachment slowed down their cars and Ch? Bom would shift the configuration. Nevertheless, the neighborhood block group and the ward police allowed her to operate because she was a longtime neighbor who was down on her luck as a single mom with many children, including one with a substance abuse problem. I walked this route everyday.

I often return my thoughts to this example and consider why it was memorable to me. I suppose it had to do with the humane accommodation made by a larger confederation of neighbors for the poorer neighbor. It was also curious to me that this accommodation was made through a rather indirect process of informal conversations, adjustments, and inaction by both neighbors and local police, with Saigon's characteristically fluid and laissez-faire style of communism and bureaucracy. But it also had to do with what this situation was contributing to the life of the city. Within the sidewalk's narrowness, diners sat in clumps of twos and threes as people on foot, bicycle, and moped passed by. As I wove around them, orderly and relaxed, amid the scents and the chatter, I was a part of the daily ritual and imperative of people sitting down to eat their breakfast or taking an afternoon coffee break. Bourdieu says that space is the book the body reads by traversing (Bourdieu 1977: 90). HCMC's sidewalks communicated a tale of human condition, unlike what most other cities told me, something both gritty and humanizing.

When I started studying HCMC's sidewalks, I realized that part of why it has been difficult to put my finger on what was remarkable is that I did not have the conceptual tools to see and understand what was going on. Being able to see what was previously little noticed requires approaching the city with a different lens. In other words, acknowledging that we need to look again requires the openness of inductive research where we do not go into the field to test and extend well-defined theories but rather are open to reconfiguring what we know.

I have since studied an incredibly diverse array of literatures and eventually jerry-rigged a theoretical toolkit to see and understand sidewalk life and space anew, which consists of (1) spatial ethnography, (2) property rights of public space, and (3) critical cartography. I say "jerry-built" because these theories are not commonly found together but they can be combined to yield greater usefulness in understanding contemporary urbanization.

Seeing Anew: Spatial Ethnography

My first step forward in seeing Ho Chi Minh City's sidewalks anew was to figure out that I needed to integrate seeing both physical space and social space. I developed a method of spatial ethnography that joins together social science research and physical spatial analysis to uncover how sidewalks are actually used and the social processes and meaning of that use. This is necessary since rapid demographic changes and related political economies have changed spatial practices and claims in the city.

Spatial ethnography builds upon the "everyday urbanism" sensibility of looking with a fresh eye at places and people in the city who are often overlooked. The term is most identified with Margaret Crawford's work that draws attention to "unlovely" places in the city such as yard sales and sidewalk vending (Chase, Crawford, and Kaliski 2008). She views these spatial practices, which usually involve a significant proportion of the American underclass, as both subversive and creative. Her work can be seen as part of a larger turn toward the everyday across the humanities and social sciences. For example, in research about Vietnam and China, some political scientists have focused on the power of everyday politics and the role of peasants in affecting policies (Kerkvliet 2009; Kerkvliet, Chan, and Unger 1998). However, everyday people are not always a unified, organized group but in urban settings involve a variety of people with different tactics and understandings (Harms 2011). Similarly, some historians of Asia have focused on writing the lives of the poor and local families (Cherry 2011; Bol 2003). This is because while certainly places under imperialism and colonialism require considerable scholarship about government and political leaders, the account needs to be balanced with attention to the other people who also played an active part in society. Spatial ethnography echoes the spatial turn in critical history.

By doing so, this approach counters darker visions of postmodern urbanism that dwell on the privatization of public space, violence, and oppression (Davis 1990; Zukin 1991). Critical theory might disparage the relative optimism of everyday urbanism and its focus on what might alternatively be interpreted as coping mechanisms by those disenfranchised by the global circuits of capital. A countercritique has been that critical theory has ironically been simplistic and totalizing in applying a mono-narrative to many different places instead of examining the particulars of local situations. The emphasis on the local does not deny the fact that space is a part of unequal power relations, but rather it advocates for informing the global scale vision with the microscale data of actual livelihood practices (Turner and Schoenberger 2012). Few have systematically studied the use of a city's public spaces (Kayden 2000), but when one actually takes time to observe on the ground, one might find some surprising and revelatory ideas for spatial practices of resistance (de Certeau 1984; Hou 2010; Siu 2007).


Excerpted from Sidewalk City by Annette Miae Kim. Copyright © 2015 Annette Miae Kim. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

7. Reconsidering Sidewalks as Public Space 6. The Tourist Map: Altering Visions of What Sidewalks Are and Could Be 5. Drawing New Lines on the Pavement: Street Vendors and Property Rights in Public Space 4. Mapping the Unmapped: Mixed-Use Sidewalk Spaces 3. Looking Again: Power and Critical Cartography 2. Tropical Paris and Chinatown: The History and Resilience of Ho Chi Minh City’s Sidewalks 1. Seen and Unseen: Ho Chi Minh City’s Sidewalk Life Acknowledgments Contents Endnotes Bibliography Index

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews