Recently there have been indices published on what makes a great city and there has emerged a consensus around the concept of ‘liveability’. Generally the more liveable a city is, the more investment it can attract, and there is significant competition among Asia-Pacific economies for a ranking from one of the companies and magazines publishing indices of liveability. The leading ones are Mercer, The Economist and Monocle.
The Mercer list (intended to help multinational companies decide where to open offices or plants, and how much to pay employees) compares 221 cities based on 39 criteria, though their system is based on New York City, which is given a baseline score of 100. Other cities are rated in comparison. Important criteria are safety, education, hygiene, healthcare, culture, environment, recreation, political-economic stability, public transport and access to goods and services.
The Economist Intelligence Unit index also assists businesses to prepare for opportunities, and giving them confidence to make strategic decisions. In the Mercer index, Ho Chi Minh City comes in at number 155.
Monocle’s focus is on “the top 25 cities to call home”. Their criteria includes social and economic circumstances for residents, public health, infrastructure, and ease and availability of local transport. They define their highest ranked cities as “places that are benchmarks for urban renaissance and rigorous reinvention in everything from environmental policy to transport.” Ho Chi Minh City is unlisted.
On an Employment Conditions Abroad (ECA) list looking at Asia-Pacific cities, Ho Chi Minh City comes in at 42 out of 66 cities, narrowly edging out Hanoi at number 43 (Singapore is ranked top).
Ho Chi Minh City should score relatively well on several of the criteria, such as safety, education, culture, recreation, political-economic stability, and access to goods and services. The city is catching up with public transport, healthcare, hygiene and the environment.
Does it Matter?
Yet a high liveability score does not necessarily make a great city. The world’s best cities encourage global culture or commerce while being underpinned by a good infrastructure of buildings, spaces and activities. They are also fundamentally aspirational. Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most aspirational cities on the planet: It is chaotic, noisy, bustling and dynamic. People come here seeking to build a better life for themselves and their family.
Great cities are filled with the sights and smells of diverse cultures, are bursting with energy, and are raw, dynamic (and at times uncomfortable) places to be in. They suffer the social tensions that come with rapid change and massive migration. New York, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Mumbai or Dubai may not rank at the top of the liveability indices, but they more likely contain the blueprint of our urban future.
Our own built environment influences plays a large role in regulating social tensions. The layout of streets can contribute to reducing crime by allowing residences to overlook the street, while having shops and services at ground level provides activity. In addition, the provision of good public spaces can improve physical and emotional health for the community. Nguyen Hue is a great addition to sorely needed public space. I have looked at the drawings of the Ba Son development and have not seen significant public space in that development, which would surely be a necessity given its riverfront location.
We have a streetscape unmatched in its variety. Lacking enforced legislation, the cacophony derived from the proliferation of advertising signage both on small and large scales contributes to the excitement and energy many feel when they arrive in the city. It clearly demonstrates a strong streak of the do-as-you-please culture.
Yet there are problems with this approach. Traffic issues threaten to overwhelm the liveability of Ho Chi Minh City. Some streets are highly toxic to walk down due to the overwhelming number of motorbikes. While the city has many memorable tree-lined streets and boulevards, the best place to experience them is from inside a car because of the traffic, particularly the motorbikes.
Motorbikes are simultaneously a strength and a failing of the city. Their strength is they are an efficient transport medium allowing large numbers of people to move quickly and efficiently every day across the city. The motorbike is suited to short-distance travel, which has influenced the wide dispersal of services, restaurants and shops throughout the city. This has promoted diversity.
Removing bikes from the footpaths on some more key pedestrian streets in District 1 would be a good start in providing pedestrian-friendly streets. The eventual arrival of the Metro and the upgrading of the bus system will improve things.
For Ho Chi Minh City to move up the list of Southeast Asia’s liveable cities, some fundamental issues about how the city is used need to be addressed.