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Toward Green Resilience:
Eco-effective Design and Climate Change Adaptation in Vietnam

“Vietnam is not a country, but an aggregate of individual dreams.”

On the balcony of a traditional Vietnamese nha san house, overlooking a beautifully tended garden, the words float, a revelation. Spring breeze filters through the night sky, easing them into the back of my mind for future works, speeches. For the next day’s remarks to a group of architects and building professionals in Ho Chi Minh City.

Traditional houses, updated with glass and concrete footings, bound the garden. The speaker is a wise man. A Japanese-Vietnamese who studied architecture in college, with a sensibility formed by both countries. Nguyen Tri Dung sits across from me and says he created this one-hectare garden--perhaps the largest private green space in Ho Chi Minh City, where the opportunity cost for this expanse of paths and trees is likely in the millions of dollars--for his own philosophy. And to show his visitors, mostly businessmen from Japan and around the world, his dream. To show them that he understands.

Understands what?

Zen and the Art of Climate Change Adaptation

Vietnam is drowning in concrete and water. By the year 2050, the expected rise in global sea level will have inundated much of Ho Chi Minh City. No one talks or thinks about this much, as its enormity overwhelms most conversations. Still, the waters rise. The rains intensify. And once a week in HCMC, flood waters a meter high creep up onto the streets, cut into slapping waves by cars and buses that plow through them.

According to Ho Long Phi, the deputy director of HCMC’s flood control commission, this is not due to rising seas-not yet. Under darkening skies at an HCMC café, our coffees pushed to the side and long forgotten, he points to a series of graphs showing the rise in river levels and in rainfall. “It is higher rainfall,” he says. “And urbanization.” By the latter he means concrete. Low-lying areas long used for drainage of HCMC’s rivers are being filled and capped with concrete. Embankments narrow rivers and canals. With routes to flow and drain increasingly limited, the water gathers on the streets.

Current proposals call for HCMC to fight the water with increasingly complex polder systems, which reclaim and protect submerged land with dykes and pumps. Ho Long Phi has another idea. “Control the urban planning,” he says, sketching out a rough plan showing open spaces and retaining pools around buildings. “Decrease the impermeable surfaces. Then add a better drainage system and maybe pump water into aquifers.” That may work for the next 20 years or so. But when the seas rise a meter? Will it be enough?

First, the good side of polder systems--in the Netherlands, the certainty of inundation upon their failure made it necessary for the water boards controlling them to separate from other political systems. These boards, based on practicality and compromise, are sometimes known as Holland’s oldest democracies and evolved into an actual political system, the Polder Model, that brings groups with separate interests into agreement and cooperation. Vietnam could use a similar system for urban sustainability and climate change adaptation. A meritocracy of the country’s brightest and most dedicated souls, its true dreamers and geniuses, to face the enormous problem of its drowning cities. Not only architects, but city planners and managers, developers and engineers, and especially communities, must all have a hand in this great urban re-imagining.

For the truth, now that we’ve seen their good side, is that polders will not save Ho Chi Minh City. The great false belief of the post-Industrial Revolution West is that ever-improving technology will always hold back, subdue, and conquer nature. It persists in most quarters of advanced industrialized societies: surely a miracle technology will always come along when we need it. Unfortunately, we’re now seeing nature’s great counterattack--or, in the words of prophetic scientist James Lovelock, who posited decades ago that the world functions as a single living organism he called “Gaia,” this is the revenge of Gaia1 . Perhaps reaction would be a better word, as Gaia is a system and by no means warlike--only misunderstood and abused.

If this sounds like so much New Age tripe, other realities may be substituted. The economics of protecting a deltaic city in a developing nation, already deluged once a week from a rapidly rising sea, at an initial cost easily in the tens of billions of dollars, might persuade. As Vietnam wrestles with the agricultural loss of the Mekong Delta and the relocation of millions of people2, heroic engineering works that consume a significant portion of the nation’s budget will be unlikely.

The answer? Ho Long Phi, with his tight, meditative clusters of numbers and graphs, has it right: don’t fight nature. Invite it back into the cities.

We Had to Destroy the Country in Order to Save It

Vietnam is gifted with natural abundance. Fertile river deltas, lush mountains--the familiar litany. Foreign travelers, when not being accosted by smiling women in conical hats who offer their burdened baskets for a quick souvenir photo, enjoy these vistas (themselves under heavy stress from deforestation, water pollution, and so on), but often seem bewildered once they arrive in Hanoi, the other major city of Vietnam. This once charming city, scarred by countless years of war but always triumphant, now faces a truly implacable foe--unrestrained development.

Having recently annexed several neighboring provinces, the city will swell to three times its current area in the next twenty years or so (it has grown from one million people in 1986 to between four and five million today, its area at least doubling). Hanoi is no longer content to be a charming national capital of ancient banyan trees and sparkling lakes. In its confused industrial adolescence, it (the city itself, by all appearances in some agony, should not be blamed) dreams of becoming a localized version of Singapore, sleek and luxurious. Hanoi is many wonderful things, but thankfully it has never been and likely will never be “sleek.” Yet this is the vision. A megacity, sprawling across the Red River and holding ten million and more in a desert of concrete, glass, and steel.

What type of buildings will rise in the former rice fields? The architecture of Hanoi, its evolution and many layers, has been maligned and discussed elsewhere in rich detail3. Suffice to say, the brutalism of the remaining Soviet architecture, the endless metal-roof kitsch of the “self-built” housing, the blankly “Asian” high-rise apartments, and the climatically inappropriate glass boxes could all use a bold renewing vision (that uses and maintains some of the distinct cultural forms, such as the tube house4).

Yet Hanoi is trapped in several vicious cycles. The richer it gets, the more people it attracts. The more rural migrants arrive, the more the countryside dies. As rural areas collapse, more people flood into Hanoi. Livable cities are rarely those with exponential population growth. Traffic becomes unbearable. As does the air5. The city spreads out, rolling concrete, brick, and asphalt out before it. The green of the spring rice paddies, so vibrant it seems alive, disappears in a cloud of gray dust and red metal roofs. One feels lucky to ever hear bird song.

It must be said--Vietnam’s urbanization and development to date, essentially a process of moving workers from farms to factories, is widely praised. Per-capita income has risen quickly, though not evenly, and poverty has been greatly reduced by most measures, though it persists. Hunger, a daily reality for most urban Vietnamese in the hardscrabble (though not unhappy) period from 1975-1986, is now largely confined to the rural poor and pockets of urban despair. No one who’s met a child without food to eat will downplay this change. Yet the question haunting the nation is whether it necessitated the degradation, even destruction, of immense parts of the nation’s natural resources6 . Can a poor country develop while preserving open spaces, rivers, soil, and air?

Today we know this is not a question of aesthetics, but a moral issue. To writer and naturalist Aldo Leopold, a father of American environmentalism, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Can Hanoi do this? Can its neighborhoods and buildings “get right”? Is it possible to grow this jewel of a city, with its thumping heart of 36 ancient streets, into a model of low-carbon development and ecological balance?

Not only possible, it is necessary. Greening is now a matter of survival7 . Only through the large-scale introduction of eco-effective design8 can Hanoi meet the speeding challenges of this century. (The same goes for HCMC, though it will also likely require a phased retreat from the sea.) Why is green the only solution? Because it is the only elegant one, addressing climate change, ecological and environmental destruction, human and social well-being, resource scarcity, and economic constraints.

It’s not high-end, LEED Platinum, Norman Foster9 green we are talking about here. High-tech green will be reserved mainly for the offices, homes, and playgrounds of the most prosperous. The rest of us, most of Hanoi, will have to do with guerilla green, community green--a type developed over more than a thousand years of Vietnamese culture, based on intelligent passive design and landscaping10. It will draw on Feng Shui (geomancy), still a large influence on Vietnamese design, and common sense--a term not to be used around anthropologists and an influence on hardly anyone these days.

We must also change our lives, the real barrier to change: unlearn the habits of consumption taught by television, peel away the thin layer of materialist dreams pasted over the ancient yearning for peace, family, friendship, and natural abundance. People and societies out of balance change when animals and trees reappear in bleak downtowns, when relentless concrete is replaced with something more forgiving and human. This is no hippy pipe dream. It’s biophilia11. We’re talking about permeable pavements, open pavers. Green roofs and open space. You get LEED credits for them. They are real.

Smaller cities often get it first. In the US, towns such as Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and even Chicago--second or third cities--moved ahead while no one was looking. “First cities” are lumbering and unwieldy. Their politics are sclerotic, land is very expensive, and change is nearly impossible. New York is calcified; most people living there wouldn’t have it any other way. Vietnam likely faces the same problem. Bringing large-scale sustainability into its two dominant urban centers will be difficult.

This is not an entirely bad thing. By concentrating on its minor cities, especially provincial centers, Vietnam could stabilize its rural population and staunch the flow of migrants into the cities. Architecture shapes our inner life; creating beautiful, modern small cities and towns--sustainable, livable jewels--will help restore communities beyond the center and prevent the kind of rural collapse the US saw during its urbanization.

Balance. In eco-effective design we always return to balance and harmony. Vietnam can still regain them, wrench its development from the carbon-intensive path of concrete jungles surrounded by desolate, machine-farmed hinterlands. By weaving its natural world into its cities, and its urban sophistication into rural provinces, it can anticipate the carbon-neutral age. First, however, it must turn from its received notion of a city--the gleaming 20th Century metropolis, already outdated, increasingly obsolete, and soon untenable.

What is the alternative vision?

A (Living) Machine for Living In

A great irony of global warming is its intensification by air conditioning. Cooling ourselves, we fry the planet. Is this hyperbole or hysteria? Let’s make a quick detour to the recent, shocking loss of nearly half the Arctic ice cap. It must be seen to be appreciated12. Three years ago, glaciologists believed Arctic sea ice might disappear during summer months by 2080. Then came the great melt of 2007, when forty percent of the ice cap (measured against its 1979-2000 average size) disappeared. Now scientists predict the Arctic could be ice-free by 2013 or sooner. The headline progression is startling:

  • Arctic Ocean Could Be Ice-free In Summer Within 100 Years (2005)
  • Abrupt Ice Retreat Could Produce Ice-Free Arctic Summers by 2040 (2006)
  • Arctic summers ice-free 'by 2013' (2007)
  • North Pole could be ice free in 2008 (2008)13

Though it did not disappear in the summer of 2008, neither did the ice rebound. Any summer now could be the first iceless Arctic season for at least three million years (and perhaps 55 million)14. The highly reflective ice cap plays a vital role as a global cooling mechanism. Its demise is another indication that we have pushed the Earth out of its familiar glacial-interglacial climate oscillation, a constant for all of human history.

That is, our children and ourselves will witness a global climate system no humans beings have known before.

Now the trick is to soften, and prepare for, impacts surely coming. (In climate change circles this is called mitigation and adaptation.) We must begin in the cities. Our use of cities, the lives we lead in them, have melted the ice so quickly our predictions cannot keep up. Population is a factor, but without electric lights, air conditioning, cars and planes, our six billion would not affect global climate, disastrous as we may be for ecosystems. Our systems, particularly our shelters and transport, simply must change. Nations not yet fully urbanized must recognize that a fundamental urban shift is coming.

Mitigation and adaptation, the two approaches to climate change, dovetail into what we can call “Green Resilience:” the enhanced ability of sustainable buildings and urban areas to survive climatic shocks, economic dislocation, or resource scarcity. There is not a revolutionary idea. We expect a self-reliant farm, designed around the traditional Vietnamese command of water, trees, and structure for microclimatic benefits, to fare better during an intense storm, power outage, flood, and/or heat wave that might paralyze a city, emptying its markets and store shelves.

The goal is to get this self-reliance, use of nature’s services for basic needs, back into the cities. A designer must be aware not only of energy performance, but also how her building handles the extreme scenarios above. This is “passive survivability,” the ability of a building to remain viable without power and under climatic stress15. It might also be called “resilience,” an ecological concept currently of great interest to social and physical scientists. The resilience of a shelter or an urban neighborhood would depend on the “magnitude of disturbance needed to fundamentally disrupt the system16.”

For example, with effective passive design principles, buildings can buffer heat without mechanical systems. They use less air-conditioning, which decreases the urban heat island effect (rejected heat has to go somewhere17), resulting in cooler cities and even less air conditioning. The same principles can be applied to entire neighborhoods and districts, helping them resist disturbance from heat18.

In another example, setting aside urban land for community gardens and urban agriculture, as the Cubans did in their 1990s crisis19, increases food security. Emissions related to shipping food decrease, slowing global warming. The need to turn forests into farms also decreases, saving valuable carbon sinks and ecological havens. Open areas for drainage and storage ease the urban floods now ravaging Vietnam and reduce the heat island effect, again reducing air conditioning. Lightly treated wastewater can irrigate and fertilize these green spaces, conserving fresh water supplies, and preserving rivers without expensive wastewater treatment plants. The nature we miss instinctively returns to our lives, mitigating the city’s stressful tempos.

Everything is connected. The use of air-conditioning produces vicious cycles--bad results feed worse ones. The application of deep green principles in urban settings, however, can spawn “virtuous” cycles. Again this may sound like the magical thinking of a wishful tree-hugger, but there’s a good reason for the difference in dynamics.

Our greatest modern challenges stem from our alterations to the natural world--primarily the pollution and depletion of resources. In the phenomenon known as “overshoot and collapse,” unchecked populations either use up their resources or saturate their environment with pollutants (overshoot). Either case results in a population collapse. Only if a world’s resources are infinite, if it can absorb an infinite amount of garbage, effluent, and emissions, can infinite growth, our modern organizing urban principle, be sustainable. So we need to do three things: use less, pollute less, and brace for impacts.

This is why sustainability--a word so weakened, abused, and overused it needs to be put out of its misery--creates virtuous cycles. Nature’s designs and systems are the most efficient, non-polluting, and robust on earth. By tapping them, we receive many co-benefits. Trees are a good example. Architects have long known the benefits of planting trees for thermal comfort and aesthetics. Yet they also soak up and break down pollution (including carbon dioxide, our greatest concern); they shade concrete and bricks, easing the heat island effect; they control erosion, improve soil, and absorb water; they act as wind breaks; they provide food and building materials. All for free.

So why have we exiled them from Hanoi and HCMC? For the same reason we exiled nearly all nature from our cities--we didn’t know any better. We don’t have that excuse anymore. Even Le Corbusier, emblematic of inorganic machine-age design, went from “A house is a machine for living in” to “Life is right and the architect is wrong.” We can even repurpose his early statement for our own purposes. A house, or a building, should be a living machine, connected to its neighbors in a living system.

The idea of living machines is not new. John Todd and his New Alchemy Institute engineered living systems on household scales to produce food, treat wastewater, and provide clean water simultaneously. The “biotecture” movement uses natural systems and recycled waste materials to produce self-sufficient homes. Canadian research on the health and indoor air quality benefits of “living walls,” plant installations ranging in size from a few square meters to multiple stories, is nearly fifteen years old. Along with this biocomponent engineering and ecological design, we have the biomimicry researchers, who look to nature for design instruction, as do the permaculture practitioners who seek harmony between human and natural systems. In Portland, Oregon, the first “living building” is being constructed . This is some of the most hopeful, exciting work around

Someday a house will act more like a tree. A shelter that provides. “Root” pipes might water it and keep it cool. Climbing plants shield it from sun. Interrelated living systems provide food and treat waste. Weaving ecology into engineered systems is likely our most efficient means of protecting urban areas from the worst effects of climate change.

This movement can work with the wisdom of traditional Vietnamese architecture, reviving a threatened culture and nation. This is my reply to Nguyen Tri Dung and Ho Long Phi, to James Lovelock and all the thinkers and visionaries who work to preserve the best of the old world while steadily creating the new. An endlessly elaborating, cleverly articulated world that substitutes maturity for endless growth.

This is my dream of Vietnam.

Jalel Sager
3200 words
Copyright 2009


The writer is the founding director of the Vietnam Green Building Council and studies green cities and climate change adaptation in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California-Berkeley.

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2 Carew-Reid, J. (2008). Rapid Assessment of the Extent and Impact of Sea Level Rise in Viet Nam. Indooroopilly, Australia, International Centre for Environmental Management.
3 Logan, W. S. (2000). Hanoi: biography of a city, UNSW Press.
4 Casault, A. (2006) Comprendre l’habitat de Ha Noi: une experience interculturelle de partenariat universitaire, Presses Universite Laval
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6 MONRE (2005). State of the Environment Report of Vietnam. Hanoi, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Vietnam
7 Sager, J (2008 August). The greening of Vietnam: A question of survival . East & West, 6, 28-35.
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11 What is biophilia? http://tiny.cc/wtzBJ
12 Animation of the disappearing Arctic ice cap. http://tiny.cc/nLP2V
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NCAR. (2006). "Abrupt Ice Retreat Could Produce Ice-Free Arctic Summers by 2040." Retrieved April 6, 2009, from http://www.ucar.edu/news/releases/2006/arctic.shtml.
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NewScientist. (2008). "North Pole could be ice free in 2008 " Retrieved April 6, 2009, from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13779?DCMP=ILC-hmts&nsref=news1_head_dn13779
14 BBC. (2006). "Arctic's tropical past uncovered." Retrieved April 6, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5034026.stm.
15 What is passive survivability? http://tiny.cc/bpnnC
16 Resilience Alliance. http://tiny.cc/eiUlg
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18 Reuters. (2003). " French Heat-Wave Death Toll 15,000 - Official Report." Retrieved April 6, 2009, from http://www.planetark.org/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/22364/story.htm.
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