A love of garden cities

Though rarely recognised, the character of a city can be largely determined by its greenery.

By GRANT RILEY on July 07,2017 10:03 AM

A love of garden cities

photos: GRANT RILEY

What defines a city? What are the main components that form its character? Our urban spaces get their identity from their people, of course, and also from their history, and certainly from culture and architecture and also from food, nightlife, restaurants, pubs and clubs and so on. However, for me, one factor that predominately distinguishes one city from the next is its greenery, specifically its trees. I think of the vast and old plane trees that tower over London. Tokyo has cherry blossoms that whiten the streets in the spring months. Then there are the great, green spaces such as Central Park in New York. And, of course, the main cities of France, with their classic tree-lined boulevards. Napoleon Bonaparte famously initiated an extensive tree planting program to shade his marching troops across the countryside, and magnificent and mature trees also fill many of France’s urban spaces. Here in Hanoi, several of its urban characteristics, not only its architecture but also its tree-lined streets, were introduced by French colonialists.

A love of garden cities

Some of my favourite streets in this exquisite city are fine examples of these now very mature, canopied streets, such as Hoang Hoa Tham and Phan Dinh Phung. Huge and elderly African mahoganies shade the footpaths from the otherwise punishing summer sun. Yet, it was not just the French that greened Hanoi. Many of its Banyan trees, sacred to Buddhists, have been maintained, cherished and sat under, perhaps even for moments of enlightenment, for time immemorial. Many are as old, if not older, than the temples adjacent to where they grow. Some I suspect to be two to three hundred years old or more. Hanoi also has its palm-lined lakes and beautiful green spaces, both big and small throughout the old city.

Nevertheless, the capital is one of the fastest developing cities I have ever seen. And I am pleased to report that green infrastructure does seem to be prioritised in certain areas. In my few years of residence here, I have been impressed to see a significant new road being built between Lac Long Quan and Cau Giay and to have numerous plants and trees promptly planted amidst its adjacent surroundings, even before they got the traffic lights working (which still haven’t been switched on a year later!) Yet, some of the incumbent, outer peripheries of the stark and rapid urban sprawl appear to be bereft of almost any greenery. New builds to accommodate hundreds and thousands of residents have little or no new planting. I feel sorry for the current and future residents of such bleak concrete jungles.

Modern science has provided us with empirical evidence of the remarkable and at times overlooked significance of the positive roles that trees play in our urban environment. There are the obvious ones: trees provide shade and cool our streets and cities on a rapidly warming planet. They host hundreds of types of wildlife, from bats and birds to insects and plants. They purify our air and help clean the soil and even the water from some of our heaviest pollutants. Trees like the London plane absorb and then shed pollutants in their flaking bark. But have you ever considered that trees can also help reduce crime, aid recovery from poor health, and even improve well-being? If you doubt such claims, I urge you to research these phenomena. Trees help keep us happy.

A love of garden cities

Of course, some critics cry that we are overly sentimental about our trees, which is something I would strongly argue against, obviously. Trees, especially heritage trees, are what makes our cities so great, or at least bearable. Hanoi has a good history of residents standing up for and protecting their trees from overzealous and pragmatic planners. But I regularly see that Hanoi’s trees remain under threat. Around 1,300 trees on Pham Van Dong Street are due for the chop. Another recent report states that more than 4,000

Trees, especially heritage trees, are what makes our cities so great, or at least bearable. 

African mahogany trees will be gradually cut down to prevent accidents during rainstorms. Arguably, public safety is paramount and all these mahoganies will need inspecting by professional arboriculturists. Around the world, highly trained and skilled tree surgeons do exactly as their title suggests: carefully examining and surgically removing parts of trees that are found to be sick, diseased, or dead. In many cases a delicate operation is needed, but not a wholescale removal. If every tree was felled because it had the potential to hit someone during a storm, there would not be one left standing. And let’s face it, Hanoi’s mahoganies have been standing for over 200 years now! Maybe they were not the best choice of street tree, having shallow roots and rapid growth, but perfectly strong and healthy trees can also be uprooted in extreme weather. It’s often just a matter of circumstance. Trees that are 200 years old cannot simply be replaced by young saplings, as there is 200 years of growth missing. Simple, is it not?

So let us celebrate our graceful elders that provide us with so much and ask for so little in return. I love the pink flowering bougainvillea that drape from balconies here, the bonsai decorated courtyards and numerous plants, shrubs and trees that fill this city. All are to be celebrated! Local residents are certainly green-fingered and individually help maintain this beautiful Hanoi Garden City. Long live the trees!

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