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Sidewalks and other public spaces in Asia’s cities

Reviewed item: 

Reviewed titles:

Annette Miae Kim. 2015.
Sidewalk City, Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City 
Chicago: Chicago University Press
ISBN 9780226119229

William S. W. Lim. 2014. 
Public Space in Urban Asia 
Singapore: World Scientific Publishing
ISBN 978-9814578325

Urban public space in Asian cities can be approached in a normative way by pleading for its safeguarding as a means to achieve a ‘right to the city’, and as an analytical object, leading to research questions about the optimal usage of an omnipresent but overlooked representative of this space: the sidewalk. In two books these different approaches come to the fore.

Public space, in this case urban public space in Asia, is a complex, even tricky concept that can be approached, discussed and analysed in several ways. In an multi-authored but not edited book that is heavily Singapore-oriented, pleads major author William Lim, chairman of the Singapore-based non-profit organisation Asian Urban Lab and other contributors for a safeguarding or even restoring of urban public space. Not as such but as a means to achieve a ‘right to the city’ as coined by Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey (notably in an article in 2008) and as an instrument to reach the idea of ‘spatial justice’. Annette Miae Kim, Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Southern California, however, chooses a specific manifestation of urban public space: the sidewalk of Ho Chi Minh City, to explore first its actual dimensions and qualities as shall be seen later in this review.  

Public space: some outlines
But, what is public space? Generally speaking two characteristics are accentuated – in the study of Kim and, either in an explicit or implicit way in the contributions forming the ‘Lim-volume’: open access and some form of public authority over its use. Open access is most strongly worded by the Hong Kong based architect H. Koon Wee in a contribution in the volume by Lim. He refers to Habermas’ public sphere and its location: ‘public spaces are intended to be open ended’ (Lim, p. 190) and being able to absorb an ‘incongruent mix of people’ (p. 192). Open access sounds however more obvious than it is, as is shown in the same volume by Tat Lam and Benedetta Tavecchia, (affiliated to a Hong Kong urban research bureau) regarding the Occupy-Wall-Street movement in Hong Kong (also referred to as Occupy Central) in 2012 when the Hong Kong High Court ruled that protestors had no legal right to occupy the public space of the ground floor of a bank. Moreover, public space may be endangered by its own (perhaps incongruent) users. The Indonesian architect Marco Kusumawijaya observes in a thoughtful essay bitterly that “Women are especially freer in the malls than in the real public spaces that are dominated by male chauvinism in certain countries” (p. 139). Open access is in another way an uncomfortable concept: where does it end and where starts limited access, e.g. for special categories of population groups? Often, more appropriate concepts are then used, such as civic space, and more often, common space and even the ‘commons’. A clear characteristic of the commons is given by Kusumawijaya, as “collectively belonging to a spatially and temporally specific community, usually limited in size of its membership, for their free use and maintenance on their own” (p. 143). The architect Stephen Cairns and a team, who studied the usage of the open ground floor spaces underneath the public housing blocks (‘void decks’) in Singapore, observe in an interesting overview the confusion when distinguishing public space from common space. The Housing Board links the ground floor spaces to “smaller, and more clearly defined social units than indeterminate as ‘the public’” (p. 81), i.e. common spaces for residents of the blocks. However, the authors suggest also that the Housing Board holds with the hare and runs with the hounds when calling these common spaces “into the service of Singaporean aspiration for ‘public space’” (p. 81). In a contribution on the Singapore hawker centres, the architects Randy Chan and Jolene Lee place some of these centres clearly in the realm of residents in nearby high-rise apartments and thus as an aspect of common space, while other ones are representatives of a public space, and where, as they lyrically write, “the homogeneous silence of vertical concrete housing dissolves into a menagerie of sights, sounds and flavours” (p. 94). Lim finally brings both types of space together in his normative conclusion that next to public space also the “urban commons … should be considered as key criteria towards achieving spatial justice” (p. 229). 

Following the considerations about broad or narrowed access to public space the question who is in charge of it emerges. Kusumawijaya stresses the formal status of public space as it falls under the authority of the state that is present for maintenance and conflict mediation (p. 143). Civic spaces, however, have a high degree of autonomy and are even named as ‘free’ spaces offering ‘venues for social encounter and associational life’, according to Amrita Daniere and Mike Douglass (quoted by Jane Jacobs, p. 190). Other dimensions play a role as well when public space is at stake. The concept can arouse emotions, especially when dealing with (threatened) heritage, as is the case in many Asian cities, or when the private commercial sector threatens to transform the public character of space into shopping plaza’s and the like, which can ‘cope with the consumptive demand for abundance and variety’ and even greed, as Kusumawijaya mournfully observes, while several other authors join him.

Another conclusion of the contents of the hectic volume by Lim is drawn by Jacobs, who, commenting on the contributions, remarks that the essays “both engage with and move beyond … existing models for thinking about public space … also because they see these spaces not through the lens of the social scientist but the scholar/activist, the architect/urban designer, as well as cultural commentator” (pp. 186-7). This strong statement on a very heterogeneous book that has not fully materialized its good intentions to plead for urban Asia’s public space, leads via the encouraging questions from architect/researcher Lilian Chee: “Yet what is public space? … Where is it located?” (p. 196) automatically to the book of Kim, who worked in the tradition and the methodologies of the social sciences by seeking answers to questions about public space in Ho Chi Minh City.

Sidewalks: public space in Ho Chi Minh City
Kim has written a complex book. She starts in the first place to debunk the concept of “right to the city” for everyone by putting the question “where exactly would they be able to exercise this right”? (Kim, p. 18). Elaborating on this question she concentrates on a specific type of public space on which such a right could be exercised by Ho Chi Minh City’s citizens (and others) – the city’s sidewalks: “the most important and the most overlooked public space” (p. 2). She observes that sidewalks are often crowded and that local authorities try to intervene in contested sidewalk usages (notably chasing vendors), in order to fight congestion, promote public health, and make a modern world-class city. Her first questions then pertain to the rights to use the sidewalk for whom and for what purposes. Kim answers justifications and operationalisations to claims on space by applying property rights theory. While understanding the fear that property rights might refer to the protection of private property, she transplants it into the public sphere. As she states: “Our rights depend on the cooperation of neighbours to respect the agreed upon rights and limit their behaviour” (p.155). Therefore, property rights do not pertain to owning or controlling “a thing such as land as much as one’s relationship to everyone else in society” (p. 155). This theory enables Kim to understand the forces that create, claim, coordinate, and contest space. And, subsequently how it is translated into the sidewalk regimes in Ho Chi Minh City through state laws, local police enforcement and social narratives that challenge or enforce current usages. Not in general, but on each sidewalk at any time, and in parts of Ho Chi Minh City that have a very different historical and cultural background: the central districts of French colonial Saigon and ‘Chinatown’ Cholon. She offers fascinating reading on the fine-grained power balances on heterogeneous stretches of sidewalks based on observations and interviews with many users, but one wonders whether the idea that all parties involved in the city’s sidewalks should take each other’s interest into consideration needs more theoretical foundation. Is this not a political or even moral issue? Her outcomes are given in terms of a social cost–benefit ratio. Be aware then of a whizz kid who gets the idea to monetize sidewalk use and introduces sufferance taxes to e.g. food vendors or motorbike taxi drivers on some conveniently located sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mapping sidewalk use
Actual findings on the working of property rights in a specific setting are offered by Annette Miae Kim in two ways. Her purpose is “to map the use and arrangement of activities currently taking place on HCMC’s sidewalks as well as the negotiations and norms developed between users, neighbours, and officials” (p. 216). Finding that conventional maps could not deliver her aspirations, she develops, what she brands ‘critical cartography’, debunking the ‘neutral’ and positivist image of conventional maps (presented in much detail in Chapter 3). “Mapmaking is an inherently political project”, writes Kim rightly (p. 68). One could also say ‘tailor made’ maps: maps that would properly visualize her intentions. That is in this case: who makes use of the sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City, and when, and for what purpose? And, referring to vendors, shop-spill over, parking of motorcycles, etc.: how much space do involved activities take and how are these shared with others on the sidewalk? Further: which conflicts exist over the use of space; how are they solved? Her fieldwork – spatial ethnography – included physical surveys, interviews with hundreds of vendors, and photo’s, and is presented in Chapter 4 and translated in a ‘critical cartography primer’ (p. 109): her maps show the results of the ethnography, up to an absolute highlight: the fascinating mapped narrative of a vendor of coconut water from her home in the outskirts of the city to and through the central districts: “navigation of the city as a terrain of economic opportunity and police threats” (p. 132-5). 

The confrontation of the maps with the property rights discourse may lead to a better understanding of public space and more promising and creative ways to resolve public space conflicts. Kim finally proceeds into a surprising final chapter: she ventures to make a map – based on her fieldwork techniques – that can be used in practice. She takes an ‘overtly normative position’, as she admits (p. 217) by making a map that legitimizes sidewalk vending combined with recreation: notably attractive for foreign tourists who long for a genuine tourist experience. A red pedestrian ribbon indeed that links some central sidewalks and exposes some vendors to the eyes, purses and cameras of tourists. What about vendors in the next street without her red ribbon? Will a ‘lucky’ vendor’s place become a marketable item? What about many more questions when rich tourists frequent the red ribbon along Ho Chi Minh City’s highlights? The question arises whether this chapter is a serious final act in a very serious book. Kim presents in different chapters a very detailed and painstaking account of her proceedings to answer her research questions. The expose of her proceedings with spatial ethnography and critical cartography can serve as an example and a manual for other researchers who are fascinated by aspects of Asian urban societies. They should certainly read her book, enjoy her careful way of presenting her research in an excellently brought out book. But then, why this last chapter?

Daniere, Amrita and Douglass, Mike (2009) The Politics of Civic Space in Asia: Building Urban Communities. London and New York: Routledge.
Harvey, David (2008) The right to the city. New Left Review 53: 23-40.

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