How Did Hanoi Grow So Big Without Developing Slums?

In Vietnam, the city of Hanoi is going through a population boom. It has grown by several million people in just a few decades, mostly due to migration from rural areas of the country. But unlike many other urban areas, it hasn't ever developed slums. One reason is the region's lack of regulation.

Photo by VietnamPhotos, via Shutterstock

There's a fascinating article by Lauren Quinn about Hanoi in the Guardian this week that explores the history of Hanoi's growth and urban planning (or lack thereof). She notes that "90% of the buildings in Hanoi have been built without official permission," and this paradoxically seems to be the key to its unusually well-tended neighborhoods.

Quinn traces the history of the city's growth, noting that in the 1980s the city boomed during a period of economic reform. But a curious relic of the communist era prevented migrants to the city from living in slum areas with no city services:

Under socialist decree, all citizens were entitled to homes. Private property and construction was heavily restricted. Instead, housing was provided in state-run Soviet-style collective flats. But as growth increased, the new government struggled to maintain existing facilities and keep pace with demand. Occupants began building their own additions, often circumventing the arduous permit process. Other residents built illegally on public land.

Caught in a bind, having forbidden private construction but unable to house everyone, the government caved in and allowed private construction but with minimum standards. "Effectively, anyone could build a house on a minimum plot of about 20 square metres," says Michael DiGregorio of the Asia Foundation. But oversight was limited, and a culture of partially and completely illegal construction began to flourish...

In the culture of semi-legal construction, if someone built a structure that adhered to minimum standards, it became legal – and for the most part was provided with basic services such as electricity and sanitation. In most developing cities, those flooding from the countryside end up living in sprawling squatter encampments, lacking basic sanitation and vulnerable to eviction. But in Hanoi, the new arrivals could build houses that didn't have official permission but often received basic services anyway. Because the buildings were legal, residents had incentive to improve and rebuild with stronger materials when their finances allowed. As well as these new homes, there was a similarly positive trend in the existing overcrowded and under-serviced public housing blocks, with an incentive for residents to improve the buildings.

By allowing city-dwellers to own what they build, the city has managed to create a situation that is far more livable than other metropolitan areas. The city may look like a a crazy-quilt of construction and demolition, but nearly everyone living there has a roof over their head and plumbing — as well as incentives to improve their homes. It's a fascinating example of urban growth in an era when city population booms are causing crises across the world.

You must read the full article over at the Guardian.