The Community

How are the projects received and what are their impacts on the communities ?
Gabriel LARUE

The adoption of the 1986 Đổi mới economic reforms fundamentally altered the way in which Hanoi is produced, practiced and consumed. The emergence within the urban landscape of exclusive and globalized residential areas, consumerist spaces, and commercial recreational and leisure facilities destabilized the socio-spatial and socio-economic balance of the city. It’s within this context that the DIY urbanism of Think Playgrounds seeks not only to challenge the legitimacy of the city’s current governance, planning and political structures, but also to enable citizens to reclaim and reimagine their place within the urban fabric. Through its interventions in urban space, the group not only calls attention to the flagrant lack of children’s playgrounds, but also works to transform Hanoi into a more inclusive and vibrant city.


Understanding the contemporary urbanization of Hanoi since the Đổi mới reforms.


In summary


Some authors describe Vietnam’s urbanization as a “process of hybrid spatial production” (McGee, 2009). From the end of the 1980s, the country’s urban development was shaped by a blending of socialist elements and capitalist structures. From then on, private foreign companies would become key actors of urbanization alongside citizens and the state.


In the last few decades, the centre of the Vietnamese capital has undergone unprecedented urbanization, with an explosive growth in construction that has resulted in rapid densification. The erection of new residential and commercial spaces has come at the detriment of the total surface area of public space (Nguyen, 2015). In 2011, green spaces represented only 11.2 m²per capita, compared to an average of 39 m² in the rest of Asia (


The new models of urban development, the khu đô thị mới (KDTMs), were constructed on the outskirts of the city of Hanoi. New mixed-use zones of urbanization merging residential and commercial functions emerged out of nothing on lands that were little populated or occupied by rice-farming. Embodying the singular traits of order and modernity, these housing structures mirrored the professed values of the regime; their spatial configurations are ordered and aerated, their environments controlled and secured (Labbé and Boudreau, 2011).

History of Urbanization

A brief glimpse at the key stages of Vietnam’s urbanization leading up to the Đổi mới reforms of the 1980s. This historical perspective allows us to better understand the residential dynamics, formation of economic classes, and the transformation of the field of urban actors now under way in Hanoi.

  • Pre-colonization

    The spatial configuration of the pre-colonial city of Hanoi was centred around the Imperial Citadel. The city outside the citadel walls was composed of a multitude of villages and the “market district of the 36 streets,” in reference to the commercial specificities of each of the main arteries. The typology of dwellings from this period include the ground-level rural house and the narrowly stacked row houses of two-to-three storeys.

  • Colonization

    The French colonial period influenced both the urban structure and architecture of Hanoi. Contrary to the vernacular and irregular layout of the pre-colonial city, the new developments were laid out following an orthogonal grid plan. The addition of the villa introduced a new residential typology: the colonial house, ringed by a garden and rising two storeys high, exhibited a modern or Beaux-Arts architectural design (Jaupitre and Yong-Hak, 2001).

  • War And Communism

    The independence of Vietnam in 1955 ushered in a period of major upheavals: the arrival of the socialist era and war with the United States. With the Communist Party in control at all levels, communist ideology came to permeate all aspects of urban governance and production. The Party undertook a vast campaign of collectivization, and private property was banned. In line with their egalitarian doctrine, the Communist Party launched a massive construction program to create new residential neighbourhoods, or “collective zones,” the khu tap thé (KTTs). Built mostly in Hanoi’s surrounding suburbs, these slab apartment blocks counting dozens of units each initially contained common spaces to be shared by all occupants: entrances, stairwells, hallways, bathrooms, and kitchens (Pédelahore de Loddis, 2001).

    At the same time, 20 years of conflict brought about the de-urbanization of the Vietnamese capital. The American bombardments sparked the exodus of city-dwellers to rural areas. The result was that between 1955 and 1975, the urban population of North Vietnam, where Hanoi is located, increased by only 0.1 to 0.2% (Tran, 2012).

  • Reunification

    Upon the country’s reunification, the government adopted a Chinese- and Soviet-inspired centrally planned economic model. In line with communist ideology, the country invested massively in rural areas, dramatically slowing the process of urbanization. From 1980 to 1990, Vietnam’s urban population grew at a meagre rate of 0.3% (Tran, 2012).

  • Ðổi mó’i

    In 1986, the socio-economic reforms known as Ðổi mó’i (literally “renewal”) implemented by the Communist Party radically transformed both the capital and Vietnamese society as a whole. The centralization of political power remained, but the government’s new economic policies marked a sharp break with socialist ideology. The free market reforms opened up the country’s economy to private enterprise and foreign investment. The Ðổi mó’i thereby became the catalyst for unprecedented urban growth. At the same time, a new middle class had begun to emerge in the urban landscape. To respond to the significant housing shortage, meet the needs of the new middle class, and regulate the uncontrolled urbanization, the Vietnamese state adopted a new development strategy: the “new urban areas,” or khu đô thị mới (KDTMs). These expansive and densely populated modern settlement zones built by private or semi-public enterprises were planned around self-managing systems of technical infrastructure. The planning phase for these large-scale urban projects was launched in 1993-1994.

Hybrid Urbanization

The reforms implemented at the end of the 1980s transitioned Vietnam towards a singular form of “socialist market economy.” The means of production remained public, but became embedded within the globalized market economy. Some refer to an entrepreneurial paradigm. Although the socialist ideology of the Party remained intact, the new capitalist imperatives became incorporated within the urban development of the country. Urban spaces experienced a process of privatization and commodification. In the first instance, new consumerist spaces, such as shopping centres, supermarkets, retail shops and restaurant chains, emerged in the urban landscape. Similarly, new types of privatized leisure spaces appeared, while commercial recreational facilities, like aquatic parks, amusement parks and entertainment complexes, likewise altered the recreational offer.

The KDTMs represented a second symbol of entrepreneurial development. The new urban areas were characterized by the introduction of exogenous built forms and urban models centred around consumerism and exclusivity. In their quest for status, the new middle class adopted “modern” lifestyles and preferred indoor leisure spaces that were standardized and hygienic. A new preference emerged in favour of a clear separation between private space and the public space of the street (Harms, 2009). The tiNiWorld centres are an example of such indoor spaces, where consumers can find arcades, games, small cars and free wifi all under one roof.


« This development, termed ‘entrepreneurial cities’ or ‘corporate cities’, is considered to be linked with the privatisation and commodification of urban spaces, the decline of public spaces and with social exclusion.»

Tran, 2014, p.5

Center vs Periphery

I. Dense Central Districts


Already heavily populated, the central districts underwent further densification as a result of citizen transformations of buildings, apartments and neighbourhoods, as well as citizen appropriations (Cerise, 2009). In response to the physical constraints of the dwellings, the citizens of Hanoi sought to expand their residential space outside the home. Dwellings were modified through the addition of ground-floor extensions; new compartments were constructed in between the buildings; and residents appropriated the common spaces located within the housing complexes.

At the same time, the consequences of the Đổi mới reforms fundamentally altered the way in which the inhabitants of the city centre occupy the public spaces of the streets and sidewalks. Faced with a problem of density, these spaces became the preferred places for conducting small-scale economic activities: where things are bought, sold and consumed (Kurfürst, 2011). Leisure spaces, like cafés and other restaurants, abound on the streets of the central districts of Ba Đình, Đống Đa, or Hoàn Kiếm. Likewise, with the surface area of an average dwelling in central Hanoi so meagre, it has become commonplace for residents to invest these spaces for everyday domestic activities such as cooking, eating or tending to personal hygiene (Drummong, 2000).

« Les modifications habitantes sont suffisamment nombreuses et importantes pour provoquer un impact sur l’environnement urbain proche. Ainsi, le rapport entre les bâtiments et la rue, l’organisation des bâtiments entre-eux et la fonction du quartier rencontrent-ils des changements radicaux dans tous les secteurs de KTT [Khu Tập Thể, ou zones collectives]. »

Cerise, 2009, p.488

II. New Urban Models in the Surrounding Areas


The physical and spatial characteristics of the KDTMs contrast sharply with the buildings in the centre of the Vietnamese capital. Breaking with the scale of the narrow two- to four-storey compartments and four- to five-storey collective communist zones (KTTs), the new urban models featured buildings of more than 10 storeys in height (Cerise, 2009). The housing units of the KDTMs have an average surface area of between 70 and 150 m², while those of the KTTs hovered between 16 and 50 m² (ibid.). Referencing foreign urban and architectural forms, these residential towers are designed with public and commercial facilities at their centre and are surrounded by green spaces.

These modern, safe and well-ordered complexes were targeted first and foremost at the new Vietnamese middle class that emerged in the wake of the Đổi mới reforms. This new socio-economic group exhibited a clear desire for status and recognition. In the opinion of Drummond, Hanoi’s middle-class youth are engaged in a constant process of negotiation with established cultural symbols and behaviours (2012). Since the emergence of exclusive spaces and individualized lifestyles, we have witnessed an increasing phenomenon of spatial, functional and social segregation (Waibel, 2006).

« The conceptual design and implementation of these prestigious new urban areas can be interpreted as a visual symbol for the political as well as the individual wish to be part of a globalising modern community, as well as representations of internationally standardized town planning, driven by market forces. »

Gotsch, 2002, dans Waibel, 2006, p. 46

Results & Discussion

The current section of our study does not seek to undertake an exhaustive survey of the users or usages of the recreation grounds created by Think Playgrounds. The goal is rather to highlight key elements regarding the profiles of users, their usage of the playgrounds, their view of the installations, and the impacts on neighbourhood dynamics, as well as their general knowledge of the group Think Playgrounds.


Studied Sites

In light of the processes of peri-urbanization, the commodification of leisure, and the privatization of urban space, we decided to study the effects of Think Playgrounds’ DIY urbanism on four distinct sites. The selection of the sites was based, first, on their location as either central or peripheral, and second on their temporal nature.


Think Playgrounds’ installations also differ with regards to their activities and events orientation. The group first built permanent children’s playgrounds, such as at sites #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN and #4 YÊN SỜ. The group organizes event-based temporary installations as well. One such case is our site #2 PLAYSTREET, which takes place every Saturday evening on Đào Duy Từ street in the Hoàn Kiếm district. They also organize one-time events to inaugurate their new permanent installations. Site #3 PLAYDAY, located within the Yên Sở park in the Hoàng Mai district, was selected both for its ephemeral quality and event orientation.


The historic urban core of Hanoi is made up of five districts — Ba Đình, Đống Đa, Hai Bà Trưng, Hoàn Kiếm and Tây Hồ — while the new urban models were constructed outwards from the third ring road. For the choice of site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN, our research led us to an installation located within a collective housing complex on Nguyễn Công Hoan street in the district of Ba Đình. Similarly, site #2 PLAYSTREET stretches along a street in the historic district of Hoàn Kiếm in the centre of the Vietnamese capital. Far away from the centre, sites #4 YÊN SỜ and #3 PLAYDAY are both located within the Yên Sở park at the heart of the Gamuda City KDTM complex in the outlying district of Hoàng Mai.

A. Users

First, we wanted to develop a profile of the sites’ users that would detail their place of residence, their means of transportation and their usage of the playgrounds. The goal was to uncover whether the installations respond to the demands of the neighbourhoods’ citizens and reflect an everyday need.

In Which District Do You Live?


In depth

The data surrounding the origins of users reveal that the installations located in the central districts are used largely by the residents of these districts. Think Playgrounds’ event-oriented (#2 PLAYSTREET) and permanent (#1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN) installations seem to address the significant lack of communal infrastructure for children in the downtown districts, and of public space more broadly. By contrast, the sites located in the outlying district of Hoàng Mai (#3 PLAYDAY and #4 YÊN SỜ) are used both by residents of these neighbourhoods as well as by citizens who transit in from across the city. In interviews, citizens explained the trip by invoking the open spaces and natural settings of the sites, conditions that are notably absent from the downtown core. An in-depth analysis of the results (based on the days on which the surveys were conducted) shows that the sites are especially popular on weekends for residents of the city centre.

How Did You Get Here?

1. NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN (N=9) 9 0 0
2. PLAYSTREET (N=13) 6 5 0
3. PLAYDAY (N=40) 1 26 11
4. YÊN SỜ (N=25) 1 15 7

In depth

The mode of transportation used by respondents to get to the installations confirms that certain installations have become destinations for many users. At site #3 PLAYDAY on the periphery, 37 respondents (93%) arrived by motorized transport (car or motorcycle), as was the case for 22 people (88%) interviewed at site #4 YÊN SỜ. By contrast, all 9 users (100%) of site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN arrived on foot. More variance was found among visitors to the event site #2 PLAYSTREET, 5 of whom (38%) arrived by motorized vehicle (motorcycles only) while 6 others (46%) arrived on foot. No respondents claimed to have come by car, however. Among respondents at all sites, only a small minority preferred to travel by public transit (1), bicycle (1), shuttle (2), or taxi/motorcycle-taxi (2). Faced with the privatization and commodification of leisure spaces, the construction of free and accessible playgrounds contributes to a form of democratization of play, and resonates strongly with Think Playground’s championing of children’s right to play. Parking and entry fees, as well as transportation costs, are limited by an increased offer in the dense and overpopulated central districts.

How Often Do You Use These Playgrounds?


of the respondents in #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN have already used the playgrounds at the time of our meeting


of the respondents in #4 YÊN SỜ have already used the playgrounds at the time of our meeting


In depth

The flow of constant and repeat visitors to site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN confirms that play represents a fundamental need. The site’s location may suggest that the home’s interior spaces are too confined, or that children’s play spaces are scarce in the downtown core. The lack of adequate public services and facilities in the central districts highlights a socio-spatial imbalance between the central zones and the periphery. Since their construction and management are undertaken jointly by the state and private enterprises, the KDTMs in the outlying districts feature a higher quality of architecture and a greater diversity of services and facilities, while those in the central districts are neglected by the public bodies.

B. Opinion

Secondly, we sought to know the views of users concerning three important aspects of installations that are made from recycled materials and targeted at children: their safety, their aesthetic quality, and their overall design. DIY urban interventions may give rise to potential disagreements, stemming either from their characteristics or from the inherent cultural values they engender (Finn, 2014). With this in mind, we presupposed that users from the outlying districts, as well as the new middle class, would view the installations in a negative light. We believed that their affinity for modern and Western lifestyles would influence their perceptions of DIY installations.

The map shown below illustrates the predominant viewpoint expressed by respondents encountered at each of the four sites. Astonishingly, the results reveal instead a marked skepticism exhibited by respondents at site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN.

Would You Describe These Playgrounds as …

Mixed Opinion

Comments recorded during semi-guided interviews add nuance to the views of respondents at each of the sites and shine light on the overwhelming rejection voiced at site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN. Users generally agreed with the pertinence of the installations; the criticisms were largely focused on the poor maintenance of the sites. The degraded quality of the structures, made from recycled materials, directly impacts users’ appreciation of the playgrounds on the levels of safety, aesthetic quality, and overall design. Moreover, the acceptability of such projects would seem contingent on the pre-existing nature of the repurposed space, as well as on the altered usages. The legitimacy of an intervention is thus challenged in contested spaces, to which different groups of users exert competing claims (Pagano, 2013). Here are some of the opinions voiced by respondents :


The constant negotiation of space now under way in the densely built and populated central neighbourhoods has led to the playground at site #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN becoming a highly contested space. Although discussions were held among nearby residents prior to the construction of the installations, the dividing up of the common space has bred discontents. Respondents complained about the reduction of total available space, the significant increase in noise, and the decline in the level of cleanliness. We have thus seen a competition emerge between different age groups (teenagers, adults, children) and different types of users and activities (dacau [a very popular Asian sport], parking, commerce), with each group staking their claim to the space. The occupation of the space depends as well on the moment in question, be it the time of day (product vendors in the morning), the day of the week (more visitors on weekends), or the time of the year (Children’s Festival) (#1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN).


The simplicity and attractiveness of the playgrounds constituted a source of repeated criticisms on the part of respondents. The recycled materials – tires, ropes, wooden pallets – were often viewed as commonplace and rudimentary. Some respondents pointed to the installations in Cầu Giấy park as a model to emulate. These latter structures, which are industrially manufactured and follow internationally standardized forms, may be viewed as aspiring towards Western notions of modernity, as well as more automated and formal modes of production. To our astonishment, these views were voiced at sites #1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN and #2 PLAYSTREET, whereas we had anticipated hearing such comments from the more affluent users in the outlying districts.


The playgrounds were found to be poorly adapted to the various groups of users. Children aged 6 and over had few installations designed expressly for them; they persist in using structures ill-suited for their age, which contributes to their degradation (#1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN). The areas surrounding the playgrounds were also a target of complaints. Their construction without the concurrent installation of lighting systems prevents residents from using the installations after nightfall (#4 YÊN SỜ; #3 PLAYDAY). Suggestions were also made regarding the installation of benches and garbage cans (#2 PLAYSTREET, #4 YÊN SỜ).


Safety is of paramount importance when children are the subjects of urban interventions. Firstly, respondents criticized the absence of porous materials on the ground: residents reported two falls that resulted in serious injuries (#1 NGUYỄN CÔNG HOAN). The presence of large vacant spaces between the play areas was also a cause for concern among numerous parents, since it renders it difficult to monitor the children, as was the placement of a terrain around an ungated body of water (#4 YÊN SỜ). Lastly, the proximity of some installations to motorized traffic was a further source of concern for certain users (#2 PLAYSTREET).

There were thus positive and negative comments voiced during the interviews. While respondents acknowledged the merits of the installations, there were nonetheless criticisms regarding the quality of the materials, the impacts on noise, maintenance, the diversity and aesthetic quality of the playgrounds, and the narrowness of the structures.

C. Impacts

Thirdly, since DIY urbanism seeks to alter our perceptions and modes of interacting with the city and to transform citizens’ daily habits and lifestyles, we aimed to know the impacts of the installations on their communities (Iveson, 2013). We therefore undertook to study the encounters facilitated by the playgrounds, the residents’ perceptions of their neighbourhoods, and all other activities undertaken by the child users.

During Your Visits, Do You Meet People?


met people (N=9)


met people (N=13)


met people (N=40)


met people (N=25)

Allowing Play and Interactions Outside the Home

The data gathered pertaining to encounters made while using the playgrounds confirms that these installations encourage interactions among citizens. We can therefore conclude that communal bonds have been facilitated and strengthened by the installations. Childminders and grandparents with children in their care also have the opportunity to get outside the walls of the home and enjoy impromptu encounters. The presence of children’s playgrounds greatly improves citizens’ perceptions of their urban environment as well: across all sites, more than 90% of respondents stated that Think Playgrounds’ installations have improved their image of their neighbourhood. Constant activity and more foot traffic are guarantors of greater safety. The presence of the playgrounds thus allows certain areas to attract visitors from a more diverse cross-section of society, and provides a form of passive surveillance. Moreover, interactions between children have increased. Numerous respondents invoked solitary activities, confined to private spaces, as alternatives to Think Playgrounds’ installations. We have thus seen a return to outdoor play, physical activity and contact with other children.


and more say that the playground enhances their image of the neighborhood


Other activities that children do when they do not use Think Playgrounds playgrounds.

D. Think Playgrounds?

Lastly, since DIY urban interventions aim to highlight a problem and raise awareness among the population, we sought to ascertain whether the users of the playgrounds were familiar with the projects’ creators and instigators.

Do You Know Think Playgrounds

Think Playgrounds: Between Lack of Knowledge and Support

The vast majority of citizens were unaware of who had created the installations. Only 33 people out of 118, or 28% of respondents, claimed to know the organization.

The results from site #3 PLAYDAY conflict with the rest of the data: 27 respondents, or 68%, were familiar with the group. We can conclude that a positive impression of previous interventions, or perhaps of Think Playgrounds’ mission, motivated many people to take part in the one-time event. Social media played an instrumental role in promoting and disseminating the group’s work as well, both in introducing people to the group and in allowing them to follow their activities. The multiplicity and accessibility of these exchange platforms enable the mobilization of both resources and the public (Wortham-Galvin, 2013).

Once informed about the project, respondents expressed a favourable opinion of such a DIY intervention led by young volunteers. The primary qualifiers invoked lauded the creativity, environmental awareness and enthusiasm of the actors at the root of the initiatives. Isolated criticisms were nonetheless voiced by some older respondents regarding their inexperience or lack of resources. This disagreement could perhaps be in part attributed to certain cleavages emerging within Vietnamese society between younger and older generations. Having not known the horrors of war with the United States, and having lived in a time when the country was opening itself up to outside influences and increasingly distancing itself from socialist ideology, the Vietnamese youth are sometimes viewed as holding little interest for “national history, traditional values and cultural identity” (Schwenkel, 2011, p. 130).


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