The PoliticsWhat are Think Playgrounds’ links with municipal authorities?
Contrasting with the Global North experience, the notion and practice of DIY urbanism is completely new in Vietnam. In this hierarchical and relatively authoritarian context, the very idea that groups of individuals, with no formal training in urban design nor position in the urban administrative apparatus, might take it into their own hands to transform the city is inherently transgressive. Despite this political challenges, Think Playgrounds has succeeded to apply key-principles of DIY urbanism in Hanoi. Through these projects, Think Playgrounds raises the question of the right to the city from a particular perspective – the children’s perspective. If the organization claims a right to intervene in public spaces, it does so on the basis of its projects’ relevance for a specific, omnipresent, and often overlooked public.
In a context where the political ideology limits a full affirmation of human rights, the topic of children’s rights helps legitimize citizen’s claims by depoliticizing them, thus making them less sensitive.
The Vietnamese Urban Administration
A Top-Down Layering of Functions with a Transversal Political Influence
Command and control
The Vietnamese city administration is far from independent. As explained by Labbé and Musil (2011), a command-and-control political structure links the national government to ward administrations, where policies and objectives are defined at the top and should trickle down the administrative layers, indicating the scope of their possible actions. In this system, every local decision is expected to be a segment of a nation-wide goal. In theory, this rigid structure puts limits on possibilities to go up the ladder and to challenge policies from above. In practice, however, there are considerable local adaptations and selective enforcement of policies by local governments, especially at the ward and sub-ward levels (Koh 2006).
As for the ideological influence, all the hierarchy is duplicated through specific cells of the Communist Party of Vietnam. This dual structure is meant to ensure that the governmental administrations remain strongly committed to the national ideology as personalized by the members of the party cells.
Through the head of residential groups (tổ trưởng tổ dân phố), a formal title defined as much by informal relations, the Party and the Government reach within the homes of every citizen. These local leaders link the local administration to their group of residents. The structural liberties that Think Playgrounds can foster lay at this level. It is a place of political bargains and community life organization. The heads of residential groups acts as communication channel to voice the residents’ concerns to the ward administration.
The Political Influence of Do-It-Yourself Urbanism
Acting Out of the State, Building Up the Relations
As a growing movement, Do-It-Yourself urbanism is a new way to think and act on the city by its constituents. Kurt Iveson (2013) describes it as “[a] range of micro-spatial urban practices that are reshaping urban spaces” (941) where the “practitioners make themselves parties to a disagreement over the forms of authority that produce urban space” (942). These spatial conflicts expose new potential for planning and shed light on groups willing to voluntarily engage their human capital in the creation of better cities. Coming from the resource scarce community, the micro-interventions put forward sophisticated, innovative and cheap solutions to problems the city would not or could not tackle (Finn, 2014). By refusing formal practices, these urban activists challenge the common planning paradigms of consensus, public health and urban governance (382). While planners in developed countries acknowledged this contemporary potential for a more inclusive city and better place making, in developing countries like Vietnam, the situation is vastly different. Intervening in the public space is still perceived as a strong political stance which opposes much more than the planning of specific spaces. Through the strong hierarchal governmental structure, an act against the district’s planning is a stance against nationally defined urban policies. Thus, Do-It-Yourself urbanism in Vietnam must be aware of its unavoidable dissident nature. Contrary to developed countries, partnership with city officials are hard to create. The practitioners need to focus on personal more than institutional relations and put forward strong success stories as demonstration of the efficiency of their solutions.
Micro-spatial urban practices
Conflict over use
“The planning for the public space is the responsibility of the government. There are many unsuccessful experiences of top-down development of public spaces. [It] does not fill the need of the people.”Think Playgrounds
The Right to Play
An Apolitical Approach to Subversive Place Making
Right to play
“The government says there is many ways to think about human rights. It’s ok. But there is one way to think about children’s rights. They need a place to play. We have do it. It’s very simple.”Think Playgrounds
Think Playgrounds, throughout their projects, put forward the right to play. Children have a specific right to the city, however these spaces are always designed for and by the adults (Torres, 2009). The organization aims at providing free and open playgrounds where children can engage in safe and collective play. This explicit mission claims the right to play as directly linked with public space design and urban planning. The right to play is also affirmed in the UN Rights of the Child Convention. The scholars recognize play as the “work of children”, where individual and collective identities are defined (Bond et Peck, 1993 : 733; Corsaro, 1998: 378-380). The playground thus becomes a specific place where are mixed “overt imagination, covert rules and highly charged emotions” (ibid.: 398).
Municipal authorities have a clear role to play in the protection and the promotion of the right to play (Jutras, 2003). Playgrounds should be a core component of public space planning. Especially in an era where the privatization of parks and public space is a growing trend (Malone, 2001). Play has to be free, in its access and in its code. The municipal governments should aim for “child-friendly cities […] where children and youth can socialize, observe and learn about how society functions and how they can contribute to the cultural fabric of their community” (ibid.: 11).
Bringing International Trends into the Vietnamese City
The vietnamese municipal administration is moving towards decentralisation, which brings new potential for urban planning. These emerging possibilities must be actively demonstrated through every day bargains, especially at the ward level (Koh, 2006). The planning practices inspired by international trends can’t be put in place in a more traditional manner, they can’t rely on the same tactics as the informal restaurants or barber shops of the “pavement economy” (Kurfüst, 2011). The youths who are bringing new ideas and practices need to put forward a positive and inclusive discourse about their passions, and respect the existing uses in the public space (Geertman et al., 2016). Throughout these tactics, Internet plays a major role. It serves both the private interest of the civil society, by enabling the growth of their organizational structure, and the public interest, by putting forward the beneficial message of their activities (Kurfüst, 2011).
Results & Discussion
We try to inspire the volunteers to follow us, to build playgrounds. Give them more experience to change the city life.
Right to Play
Underlying every project, the discourse for the right to play allowed the politicians and professionals to openly support Think Playgrounds without falling into a critique of the existing formal practices in urban planning. Instead of a shift in the paradigms, the discourse was a way to convince some specific actors of the validity of the projects. The subversive character remains despite a public support. Each new playground is a demonstration of some inefficiencies of the municipal administration in identifying issues of everyday life in Hanoi.
Through the multiple projects, the permanent members of Think Playgrounds trained many youths in identifying and solving urban issues. They learn to manage and implement innovative projects without waiting for a solution from above.
The rapid growth of Think Playgrounds has to do with the completion of a strategic first project. The success of this initial playground launched the development of a diversified network of stakeholders. Simultaneously, it brought opportunities of media coverage (from formal medias and social networks), it started a process of conceptualization for new projects and it brought new partners from the civil society willing to contribute. This new reality pushed the agenda of the organization straight to some members of the municipal administration.
After three years of constant growth, Think Playgrounds is now part of a vast and complex network. All the stakeholders aren’t political decision makers, but they all are active contributors to the city’s life and shape. This network is a demonstration of the essential character of Think Playgrounds in public space planning. With new projects always on the sketching table and new partners knocking at the workshop’s doors, this web is bound to expand including both local and international actors.
Think Playgrounds is a prime example of a citizen-led initiative creating its own expertise in municipal infrastructure development. This provision of necessary equipment by members of the civil society raises the issue of governmental decentralization. In such a case, the infrastructures are provided to the benefits of the municipal administration at the lowest possible costs and without responsibilities of management and maintenance. At first glance, such a situation might benefit the actors of the DIY urbanism, but in fact it also places them as the cheap contractor, with clear burdens of action, in the necessary development of the city
At the ward level, Think Playgrounds works with the government to design, build and maintain new playgrounds and public spaces. At the district and city level, Think Playgrounds acts often as a consultant. These levels of the municipal administration are where the profitable contracts are being given and, thus, can allow the transition towards the social enterprise.
The role of foreign ideas, international views and higher education in the success of Think Playgrounds is undeniable. The founders do benefit from an important social capital and a capacity to seize exclusive opportunities. They are actors of the internationalized youth of Vietnam. These privileges raise the issue of the true democratic character of DIY urbanism. Despite a need for vigilance in social inclusion and collaborative creation, Think Playgrounds operates on an explicit desire to provide free, open and necessary infrastructures to the children. The exclusive privileges of an international education shape the forms or the location of the projects.
Internet is the core tool of media coverage for Think Playgrounds, from their website, to their Facebook page, to the news network. It allows to both recruit volunteers within the city and share the projects all around the world. Within the two first months only, more than one thousand people subscribed to their Facebook page, which now counts nearly sixteen thousand members. Internet is a way to share the work as much as the discourse of Think Playgrounds. It greatly helps to put forward the right to play. The target public includes, among others, university students, journalists and politicians.