Urbanity evolves.

Shame on me – from the beginning of 2007 to now, I have logged in roughly 18,876 air miles just from relocations alone, covering five cities in three different continents.  Such is the irony of being an urban planner in the international development context – our behaviours are inherently contrary to the very principles we espouse.  We fly long distances as we lament the escalating global carbon count and gun for short-term projects in different corners of the globe while preaching the virtues of developing indigenous solutions.  Somehow all these are justified by the belief that our work helps nurture local capacity and will, but do the reports and studies I conduct translate to concrete action that leads to progress?  Only time will tell.

I care about my work and carry no regrets for the endeavors I have pursued, but I also have to admit that as of now, the places I have called home—along with their inhabitants—have taught me a lot more than what I have offered them.

For that, I am thankful.

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Hanoi continues to surprise me with its multi-faceted urbanism and burgeoning subcultures.  The eclectic sights and sounds registered in the past couple weeks have left much food for thought; as the city continues to open its arms to the outside world, it is bombarded by myriads of influences that are either complementary or in conflict with what is perceived as Hanoian or Vietnamese.

But what is Hanoian or Vietnamese?  As I did deeper I was inevitably reminded that places and the identities tied to them are not fixed in time.  They evolve with time and circumstances: baguettes and coffee that were once consumed by French colonialists had become staples of Vietnamese life; movements such as hip hop and rock, though foreign in origins, are manifesting in forms that are distinctive to Vietnam and thus are becoming parts of the country’s cultural palette; I too, expatriate and all, have merged into Hanoi’s urban fabric over a short span of six-months.  As such, we are all part of the amorphous localities we reside in regardless of our backgrounds, beliefs, and interests.

Now if only we can live harmoniously with one another and work together for the good of the societies we are based in.

I can hope, right?

Vietnamese or not – a corner in Hanoi.

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Living under the drizzling cloud in Hanoi.

Icky-shticky, drip drop drabby, rainy weather seems to be all the rage in Hanoi these days.  I always have a good giggle when Hanoian natives / transplants I speak to flash a knowing smile when I bemoan in conversations that there had been precisely one good day of sunshine in the seven weeks leading up to today – they know which blessed day I am referring to.  Not since my boarding school days in England have I abhorred the colour grey and rain with such intensity.  But somehow I persevere in Hanoi; it might just be an indication that something is working out for me here.

Weather aside, I have come to uncover and embrace some of the hidden charms in this informal and slightly-rough-around-the-edges capital of Vietnam.  Behind the city’s downtrodden veil that is the aging stock of buildings is an abundance of art galleries, straw-mat-on-the-floor and hole-in-the-wall type establishments serving mouth-watering nibble-fare and delicious Vietnamese coffee variants such as ca phe sua chua and ca phe trung for the price of pennies.

Don’t know what I am talking about?  Well, you will have to come experience it for yourself, especially if you are one thirsty for the perfect cuppa.  There are coffee shops for everyone in this urban wonder: the bohemians, the caffeine addicts looking for a quick fix, the expats, the hipsters, the old-school, the outcast, the tourists, the yuppies…  Somehow, inhabitants of the city can always muster the time and peace of mind to lounge for ca phe in improbable spaces surrounded by bustling chaos, be it by the roadside, in an alley, or in the attic of a seemingly dilapidated building.

“Coffee, sir?”  “Yes.  Hallelujah.”

Overlooking Central Park? No, it is a cafe built on a Hanoian rooftop, likely to be an illegal building extension.

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Vietnam in anecdotes.

Living in Vietnam means that I am constantly straddling the murky line between formal and informal.  On the surface, Hanoi seems like a city where anything goes: incessant two-way traffic occurs on narrow roads with lanes drawn only for aesthetic purposes; hawkers litter the myriads of alleyways that mark the seams between the city’s numerous fragments, selling anything from bras to tasty bowls of bun cha.  Pavements here are a lot more than just pedestrian walkways; they are homes to parked SUVs of the wealthy, as well as café-sua-da-sipping locals and Chinese chess-playing seniors.  Once you leave your apartment, you have nowhere to hide – not in this densely constructed beast of a city filled with street life.  In urban Vietnam, public spaces are public, in every sense of the word.  And I love it: finding democratic public spaces occupied by all walks of life in a country under authoritarian rule, no less.

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Doy muon mot cai, I stressed and pointed at the spring rolls as I kneeled next to a food stall on Hang Ma.  “Những gì???” was the response from the vendor.  I attempted to enunciate the Vietnamese words with deliberation but it clearly did not register.

Damn.

I thought as a native speaker of Cantonese—a tonal language, like Vietnamese—I would have a distinct advantage over the average foreign expatriate; after all, many Vietnamese expressions and vocabularies are inherited from millennia of Chinese occupation.

Wrong.  Just because I can spot the difference between an up accent and a down accent does not mean I can correctly pronounce words that begin with ng and nh, such as ngu or nhi.

Such is the life of a southern Chinaman in Vietnam: everything seems so familiar yet inaccessible at the same time.

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Working as an international development professional in this formerly-socialist (at present it is only communist in name) country also means that I get a full frontal of its bureaucracy.  Public sector agencies in Vietnam, much like ones I have come across in Latin America and other developing nations, are characterized by not-so-subtle exchanges of winks, handshakes, and envelopes stashed with American dollars.  UN and World Bank projects all reserve budgets for informal payments (note: bribes); cash is required whether it is a request for a meeting with the minister or government data needed for a public needs assessment.  This highlights the irony of development efforts in Vietnam and elsewhere: in order to help craft better living conditions for those who are less-privileged, we have to enrich those who are (at least partially) responsible for the pervasive socioeconomic injustices.  Necessary evil?  I do not dare answer.

Relaxation spots can be found anywhere in Hanoi.

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Slum tourism a folly? And a reflection of personal encounters with informal communities.

Rocinha in Rio de Janiero, Dharavi in Mumbai, and Kibera in Nairobi are all informal settlements that have gained global infamy as the poster-children of urban development gone wrong. Through increased exposure in cinema and other forms of media, these haphazardly built communities have become defining features of the dichotomized megalopolises they are based in. They are considered worthwhile case studies for anthropologists and urban practitioners, and are ostracized by the cities’ public officials and wealthier classes. They have also in recent years emerged as breeding grounds and exporters of fashionable urban trends (think “City of God”, “Slumdog Millionaire”, hip hop, and “Baile Funky”) and burgeoning tourism destinations for intrigued and wide-eyed visitors – “slum tourism”, many call it.

I personally have never been a fan of slum tourism—I fear the caricaturization and the overly-simplistic views of urban poverty it may engender—but I am not one to question tour operators’ (usually consisting members of concerned informal settlements) means of generating income for their disadvantaged communities. Nonetheless, I came across a New York Times op-ed that triggered this posting and wish to share a particular statement with readers. A member of the Kibera community, Kennedy Odede piercingly sums up the pitfalls of fleeting slum tours with the following:

“…it’s just as likely that a tour will come to nothing. After all, looking at conditions like those in Kibera is overwhelming, and I imagine many visitors think that merely bearing witness to such poverty is enough. Nor do the visitors really interact with us. Aside from the occasional comment, there is no dialogue established, no conversation begun. Slum tourism is a one-way street: They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

The social fabric that exists within informal settlements is complex and multi-faceted. The pervasive poverty present in these tin-foil communities are often symptoms of greater systemic problems such as discrimination, poor planning, inequitable economic development, and public and private sector neglect. Truth is, no article, film, or tour will ever do the resident experience justice; outsiders like you and I, sans lengthy immersive experiences, would be hard-pressed to develop a nuanced understanding of the hopes and obstacles harbored in these irregular urban forms.

In the summer of 2008, I had the opportunity to interact with Rio’s favela residents for a project that assessed the city’s municipal urban upgrading efforts. After three weeks of dialogues and settlement visits in a cidade maravilhosa, I had only begun to comprehend the complexity of that beast called slums. With all said, I would like to conclude the posting with a couple paragraphs from a journal entry I wrote after a visit to the informal community of Morro de Estado in Niteroi:

“Government neglect appeared to be a reality that is confronted daily by the residents of Morro de Estado. The worn-down community clinic was not open during our visit, and the police station located next to the football pitch was surrounded by a concrete wall, while the military police officers seemed detached from the area they were assigned to. Local hip-hop artist Vitor said of service provision by the government: “there is a lack of services and racial discrimination from government agencies is severe. We don’t speak to these policemen, they don’t speak to us. Often, they treat us poorly.”

Amidst the negativity and harsh living conditions, stories of success displayed positivity and resourcefulness amongst the community’s residents. Jorge’s parents proudly told of their son’s training to become a pastor, while fourteen year-old Jefferson taught himself English albeit the lack of school supplies; it is easy to envisage any of these individuals succeed in more favorable environments. Ultimately, outsiders have to understand that the only ingredient missing for residents of informal settlements is the right set of circumstances and opportunities.”

For Kennedy Odede’s Op-ed “Slumdog Tourism”, click on the following: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/opinion/10odede.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=slumdog+tourism&st=cse

 

It is more than just tin huts and poverty.

 

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The ungodly northeastern heat. And climate change.

Alternating between New York City and the DC metro area suburbs over the course of my search for employment, I have lived and tasted the whole spectrum of America’s built environment. Ever since I started calling a two-storied Virginian mansion my (temporary) residence in January, I have transformed from an urbanophile to the not-so-native son of suburbia. My 4-door Honda Civic, though mechanical and free of blood and veins, has become a vital organ for my survival just west of the nation’s capital. Thankfully, I can keep in touch with my urban roots and replenish my once-legit street cred (note: sarcasm) by running amok in the big apple’s rat-infested subway stations. In short, dichotomy and paradox have become the defining words of my existence and lifestyle.

Despite the vast differences between Vienna, VA and New York, NY in their densities and urban forms, the two localities inevitably share an inextricable link: they are both plagued by the sweltering summer heat of the Atlantic Northeast. Oh yeah, I remembered the miserable winters (you do not forget) when I resided in Los Angeles, but memories of suffocation in the New York tube stops during the summer months eviscerated into thin air. In a series of mindless banter / texts with San Francisco-based buddy Dave in which I extolled the virtues of NYC summer living and bragged how it cannot be paralleled by that of SF’s, Dave put the nail in the coffin with “at least peeps ain’t dying due to heat waves in SF”. True, Dave, True. That stopped my yapping pronto. And for readers who are unfamiliar with the aforementioned experience in New York’s underground stations during July and August, think of steamed pork in a Chinese wok – at least that is how I feel when I wait for the L train that never seems to come.

How I feel like in the New York subway, but not as tasty.

To continue with the theme of climate and extreme temperatures, I was recently gripped by a lively discussion about climate change and current renewable energy technologies on KCRW’s “To the Point”. Unsurprisingly, experts on the panel agreed that the global agenda to promote carbon-free energy production is mired in a three-way tug-of-war between moral obligations, economic considerations, and scientific limitations. While few progressive-minded readers here would debate the urgent need to ramp up renewable energy infrastructure in both rural and urban areas, the relatively low efficiency of today’s technologies and their prohibitive upfront costs have disallowed implementation on a sufficient scale.

According to Bjørn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus, the quest to green our energy sources has become a tool for manufacturers and politicians to score political points and profits. The funding for research and development into more cost and energy efficient means of energy generation, he added, is incongruent to the dollars plunged into the manufacturing of expensive instruments. “Look at the Germans. They put up solar panels everywhere despite of the high production costs of photovoltaic cells; but does that make green energy more accessible on a global scale? Unless the cost of renewable energy can be lowered to compare with that of coal energy’s, it is unlikely that countries such as China and India will sign on for the long-term. Likewise, the US government is not going to subsidize domestic solar and wind energy anytime soon.”

Although I personally do not adopt such a dim view of what countries like Germany have accomplished—they have proactively pursued paths that they believe to be the best for the environment and in the process set examples for other nations to follow—such a statement nonetheless highlights the gap between the moral ideals and economic realities of clean energy production and the need for comprehensive, long-term thinking when tackling climate change. The fact that major carbon producers of the world view each other as adversaries in the race to become top clean energy product manufacturers only adds to the siloing and fragmentation of efforts to mitigate the global problem.

Can the relevant power brokers abandon their short-term views and work collaboratively to devise accessible solutions and technologies that achieve both economic and environmental sustainability? Only time will tell.

Fellas, not everyone can afford this.

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The ongoing saga and political realities in Washington, DC.

New York City beckons.

It’s been exactly 66 days since I have plopped my belongings down in the nation’s capital, and the city is already beginning to feel a little minute for my oh-so-worldly (note: sarcasm) palette. I am an ardent supporter of walking through the mostly compact and human-scaled streets of DC, and have diligently adhered to the ritual of strolling through neighborhoods during early days off and weekends, selected by methods somewhat akin to throwing darts at an area map. Most times, I have a couple cameras lunged over the shoulders for good measure. However, eleven weekends and more than eleven metro area segments later—from the Daniel Burnham-esqe glitzy to the relatively obscure; from the pedestrian-friendly to the deadly-for-pedestrians; in the snow and in the midst of the cherry blossoms—my fountain of ideas is about to run on its last trickles.

Is it a hopeless case of the itchy feet, or is it a yearning for the contiguous, amorphous urban forms and diverse social dynamics that are so prominent in the ginormous and semi-rotting apple? Of course, it may just be a sign of that incurable ADHD that I need to have checked out. Either way, New York City beckons.

Where outside of New York City can you catch this on the daily?

Meanwhile, a lot has transpired recently; and being in the modern world’s alleged political center means an unobstructed front-row view of the good and ugly of policy-crafting. The passage of the healthcare bill means that many vulnerable populations previously precluded from healthcare will now have access to some form affordable coverage. But it also brought out the worst human behaviours in the forms of indiscriminant Republican obstruction, and Tea-Party hooliganism; the opposition party’s inability to think outside of short-term gains, and the tea-baggers’ reluctance to consider the plight of others are as mind-blogging as they are atavistic.

Fast forward to Obama’s recent lift on the moratorium on limited off-shore drilling; as pundits say, this is ultimately a move to garner the one or two critical republican votes needed to pass the eventual climate bill. Such is American-styled, incrementalist democracy: you take one step back in the hope to gain two steps forward. One sure hopes that when the political machines inches forward, it is moving towards the right direction.

I am not willing to go down the path of advocating for benign authoritarianism, but it does look attractive on occasions, doesn’t it?

Well, at least for now, sakura petals have replaced snow-residue as DC’s ground ornament as spring comes to full-bloom.

The sakura flowers come to full bloom.

P.S. Proud DC folks, my suggestion box for places to visit is now open.

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Tales from a capital: Washington, DC.

12:05 p.m.: On highway 695, between Washington DC and New York City.

After two years and some change in the rather surreal and sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles, settling in DC is equivalent to living in smallville—at least in terms of distance; but I am, by all means, having a ball.  Between a fantastic new job working with global microfinance and community building-related issues, cheap intercity bus rides (with wifi connection, no less), free public events, accessible underground trains, and compact, human-scaled neighborhoods, I am finding myself sipping the fountain of youth and re-living my early-twenties when I pranced around the East Coast; except in those days I did not fall asleep on the couch drooling when the clock struck midnight.  It is remarkable how a well-planned, walkable city can energize the mind and spirit.

Joys of riding the metro.

Washington DC is a microcosm of its own kind, and its dominant political culture is palpable in the air.  You would be hard-pressed to find another city where you can so frequently encounter random groups of twenty-something talk about their meetings with congressional and senate leaders, or the grants they are writing to help rebuild Haiti.  Suffice it to say, I was blown away when it struck me that the State of the Union address a week ago was happening only a few miles away from me.  “(Insert expletive)!  I can throw eggs at house minority leader John Boehner if I so choose to!”

The fantastic Kramer Books in Dupont Circle.

But like any other city, Washington DC has its own share of imperfections.  For those who have not been there, think of the city as a piece of pie cut into four segments: the NE, NW, SE, and SW quadrants, divided by Connecticut Avenue in the middle.  Most of the action we hear and see on the news takes place in the NW quadrant, within a half-mile radius of where that pretty popular guy named Barack resides.  Taking a stroll in vicinity of DC’s national monuments on a Saturday afternoon, I was struck by several images of contradiction and irony: visible homelessness just outside the monolithic headquarters of the IMF and the World Bank, and mentally ill wanderers mumbling to the air by the Lincoln Memorial.  Otherwise, the NW is dominated by political heavyweights and younger professionals trying to do some good or climb the political hierarchy, both of whom rarely step foot into other quadrants that are less aesthetic and sanitized; and you wonder why policies devised nowadays are so out of touch.  Sadly, I am guilty as charged in fueling this path to homogeneity.

But there are glimmers of hope.  Several key topics are emerging to be the talk of the capital and are slowly capturing the attention of legislators.  In the two short weeks following my arrival, I sat through progressive panels on urban agriculture and green building designs and will be attending a lecture on smart growth policies.  Concepts brought up in these events were nothing new, as they were emphasized repeatedly in class and in the educational rants of buddy Evan; yet, the sheer number of people in attendance—federal employees, municipal officials, students and practitioners in the public and social sectors—indicate the potential of reaching a tipping point in the quest for a more equitable, just, and verdant DC and beyond.

And just like other great metropolises I have experienced, Washington DC is a less-than-perfect city marked by a mixed bag of beauty, burgeoning activism and hints of social injustice.

The road to political stardom.

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