This story was prepared by Lucas Conan who was an intern at HealthBridge in Vietnam during 2022.
A network of public spaces was developed by HealthBridge and Think Playgrounds in Hanoi’s Tan Mai district. These two sites include the playground and community garden at 38P Nguyen Chinh Street and a courtyard hosting public artworks also on Nguyen Chinh Street. I wanted to understand what factors enable or disable such spaces to generate encounters and social connection. As a student in the master’s program "City, Territory, Landscape" at the University of Montreal, I am interested in the social role of design and its ability to create contacts and interpersonal experiences between different social groups.
For my research project I selected these spaces in Hanoi’s Tan Mai ward for several reasons. First is that rural migrants were involved in the process of designing and building these spaces. The building of these spaces was an opportunity for creating meaningful contacts and fostering a common sense of belonging to the space. The second reason was related to the programming of the two sites, which focused on activities that could be practiced and enjoyed by all the groups present, i.e., urban agriculture, children's games, and public art. The last reason is related to the location of these sites in the heart of Tan Mai, a district in the south of Hanoi that is extremely dense. This area has few public spaces available and is home to a population composed largely of migrants from the central and northern regions of Vietnam.
My field research took place from June 1, 2022 to September 8, 2022, with the support of Healthbridge's Hanoi office and the Hanoi University of Civil Engineering. A series of questionnaires was randomly administered to users of both spaces to provide us with a general portrait of the users of the two sites as well as an initial idea of the perception and use of these public spaces. A series of structured interviews was also conducted with some participants to help us understand the development of the space over the past three years and the social phenomena that may have occurred there.
From the preliminary results it is possible to say that after 3 years, the playground site seems to successfully create encounters. Indeed, a certain proportion of the people interviewed indicated that they have met new people more regularly since the playground equipment appeared and that they feel like they belong to a local community. Some users note that prior to the development of the space, many residents and temporary migrants did not take advantage of the space once they got home from work. The creation of the playground has encouraged a large portion of the neighborhood to take advantage of the outdoor spaces and get to know each other. Some testimonies even speak of the organization of shared meals between neighbors, where each one takes turns cooking dishes from his or her region of origin. The playground is also frequently used all day long by young children, elderly people, and young parents, although it should be noted that the 15–25-year-olds rarely seem to use the space. Observations suggest that the space acts as a "social connector" between Tan-Mai micro-communities, enjoyed by many residents living around the space. On the other hand, some participants indicated that they avoid the space with their children, especially after rain, because the space is unsanitary. Indeed, the space presents a significant amount of waste, dog faeces, and the presence of rats can be detected. The use of sand, which is considered dirty, is questioned by the users. This indicates that while the design of the space is successful, the management of the site could be improved.
The courtyard hosting public artwork was found to have a weaker role in connecting the community. The closed configuration of the courtyard limits the opportunities to meet with people from outside. Additionally, some of the equipment added to the space was not practical, for example benches which were small and uncomfortable, discouraging people from lingering in the space. However, in response to the undesirable design, residents surrounding the courtyard made the space their own by adding equipment of their choice such as traditional benches and children’s play equipment. It seems that even if the initial design of the space did not meet the expectations of the residents, this ultimately led to contact and cooperation between neighbours to improve the space and turn it into something useful for themselves.
Further analysis of the data will reveal more about factors that allow these spaces to generate opportunities for encounters and social ties at the micro-local level.