The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Once the Land is Gone: Periurban New Towns as Vectors of Socioeconomic Integration

Posted in ASEAN-Canada Partnership by NTSblog on December 11, 2013

For nearly three decades now, national and municipal governments throughout the ASEAN have encouraged the implementation of new masterplanned communities on the periphery of large urban centers. This is despite the repeated warnings of scholars and urban analysts for whom this model of urban development generates more problems than it brings benefits to the region’s rapidly urbanizing territories and societies. As discussed in an earlier blog post, this critical perspective emphasizes the destabilizing effects that so-called “new towns” have on pre-existing socioeconomic dynamics and their role in the impoverishment and marginalization of periurban people.

For the most part, these warnings are rooted in studies of land acquisition processes and in analyses of farming households’ fate in the early years after the land is gone. While important, the focus on the first step in the land redevelopment process ignores the opportunities for socioeconomic integration that might—and actually do—emerge after the construction of a new town. While I do not dispute the view that new towns are problematic for ASEAN’s future urbanism, I contend that a longer-term perspective on the relationship between new towns and periurban populations can help scholars to move beyond the mere critic of these projects and toward the formulation of more effective policies to mitigate their negative impacts on surrounding populations.

This proposition derives from the exploratory case study of the livelihood trajectories of sixteen households living in two periurban villages of Hanoi. During the late 1990s, these households lost their agricultural land for the construction of two of Vietnam’s first new town projects. Echoing earlier research, I found that these people struggled considerably during the first years following the expropriation. The difficulties met by these people in their transition out of agriculture stemmed from inadequate qualifications and from the lack of state support. In interviews, many ex-farmers lamented that they have been let down by a communist state which, up to the reallocation of their agricultural land, had supported their livelihoods by giving them access to land on which they could grow food.

Yet, three to four years after their land was gone most households in our two research sites had re-established sustainable livelihoods. To do so, they tapped into the residential lands available next to their main residence to build makeshift buildings which they rent out to seasonal migrants and workers looking for cheap accommodation at commuting distance from Hanoi’s city center. Looking back, the households that we interviewed assess this post-agrarian income earning activity as less strenuous and more stable than rice farming. Most of them also hold a very positive view of the new towns built next to their villages which they see as beautiful, clean, and modern places that have embellished the face of their localities.

The resilience of ex-farming families in our two case studies and their positive perception of new town developments can certainly not be generalized to the rest of Hanoi or, for that matter, Vietnam. Yet, the fact that such positive stories exist at all on the outskirts of ASEAN cities must be taken into account before claiming, as many critiques of the new town model of urban development have done, that the planned city sweeps the poor away.

This blog post has been written by Danielle Labbe. Danielle is Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the University of Montreal and a Junior Fellow for 2012 under the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership. For more information on the ASEAN-Canada Research Partnership, please click here.


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