Viet Nam News
Eradicating the sidewalk economy to clear pavements for pedestrians is not a wise solution.
Rather, the Government should consider pavements as “public goods” and plan to manage them in a manner that benefits all stakeholders.
In mid-February, a team of police and urban management officers in HCM City’s District 1 cracked down on illegal sidewalk encroachment, kicking off a movement for localities - from the north to the centre - to follow suit.
The issue made headlines in all media outlets. It was a hot issue not because it was being done for the first time, but because of the strong spillover effect on other localities – something that had never happened before, and because of authorities’ forceful, even heavy handed response to pavement “violations” that have been a way of life.
Imitating the “pioneer” in the south, many districts in large cities in the north like Hà Nội and Hải Phòng, and in the centre, like Đà Nẵng, also tried to free up footpaths as part of a beautification effort and improve “social security and order.”
Hàng Đào Street in Hà Nội’s Hoàn Kiếm District in one of the Old Quarter’s busiest and most crowded areas. — VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng
What they did
They removed illegal parking areas, street vendors, advertising boards, extended canopies; dismantled ongoing construction works as well as parts of completed buildings, and even broke down perrons (exterior steps and platform at the main entrance to a large building) in front of people’s houses if they encroached a part of pavements.
The actions were deserving of praise in so far as they restored pavements for pedestrian use and enhanced urban cleanliness.
But the actions also came in for deserved criticism for their harshness, with pavements being cleared regardless of their width, not taking cognizance of the fact that several sidewalks were still wide enough for street vendors or households to open a stall and earn a living.
Most of all, people are still wondering if such an aggressive campaign was really called for and whether it would bring long-term results.
We’ve seen similar campaigns earlier that were never as aggressive. Usually, they were launched just before Tết (Lunar New Year holidays) or some other special national events, and things returned to normal several weeks later.
The root of the problem
It seems that the pavement was being treated as a “private good” by some individuals/groups, and the State was failing its role as a “public goods” provider.
It is pertinent to note that there are two important characteristics that differentiate public goods from private goods. First, it is non-competitive, meaning consumption by one user does not reduce supply available to others, and second, it is non-exclusive, meaning users cannot be prevented from consuming the goods. These characteristics make it difficult, if not impossible, to charge for public goods.
So, according to the definition, pavements are public goods, but in Việt Nam, we could see that some pavements or pavement sections were being treated as exclusive property.
An investigative report by the Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper in late March showed that several sidewalks in HCM City were “owned and traded” between local vendors.
Depending on the location, a section of pavement could be sold for between VNĐ100 million (US$4,400) and VNĐ300 million, the newspaper reported. Some of these places were protected by gang members paid to help sellers keep the space from being occupied by other competitors and also to deal with inspectors.
Local authorities seemed to be unaware of the situation till it was exposed by reporters. This, by itself, is evidence that the Government cannot eradicate the sidewalk economy completely.
So what we saw was the emergence of an “underground economy” where pavements were traded as private goods. We saw the deprivation of opportunities for vulnerable, low-income migrants, and the loss of tax revenues, an important source for the State Budget.
However, another aspect that should not be overlooked, is that for visitors, the pavement business is a prominent symbol of the attractiveness, friendliness and vitality of Vietnamese localities. Street food stalls, in particular, are a mystery and an adventure for foreign and domestic tourists.
Recently, international news agencies have reported that street food stalls would be banned in all main roads of Bangkok – a Southeast Asian city long renowned for its street cuisine. This move also prompted outrage among the nation’s citizens and disappointment among foreigners.
We will have to wait and see what the city authorities do next to deal with the situation and what the ultimate outcome of this crusade will be.
But I agree with Annette Kim, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the college’s Sol Price School of Public Policy, who was quoted by Saigoneer.com saying “…you could be losing an important part of the culture by following a homogenous, modernist approach to city planning.”
Experience from developed countries like Germany or France shows that sidewalks, as places for business by households and street vendors, can be an important source for employment/job creation and cities’ budget revenues if they are well managed. In these countries, authorities choose specific stretches of pavements dedicated to business households or street vendors to set up shops and they are only allowed to operate for a specific period of time in a day.
In short, even if it is the key function, a pavement is not just for ensuring the right of people to have a walkway. It is also a space to promote the vitality of a locality. As a public good, it would neither be provided by the market at all, or would it be underprovided. In another words, even in public goods administration, things like market failure and social inequality can create conflicts of interest that the State has to deal with.
Therefore, the State must intervene in providing this public goods space with appropriate plans that take into account social, economic, cultural and environment factors to minimise conflicts of interest. The planning and implementation must be done in a transparent, accountable manner.
Otherwise, clear pavement or not, the State would have failed in fostering entrepreneurship and maintaining the nation’s cultural characteristics and identity. — VNS