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Endless urbanisation threatens green spaces

Update: February, 12/2015 - 09:54

by Mai Phuong

Eerything has its price. But the price Viet Nam is paying for industrialisation and urbanisation seems too much to bear.

Citizens and experts in Ha Noi and HCM City have expressed concerns over the destruction of the cities' greenery to make room for the country's first metro lines. It's been heart-rending watching the trees fall away, only to be replaced by more concrete.

It started in early July, when authorities chopped down 298 large, ageing trees on major streets in Ha Noi such as Thai Ha, Lang and Nguyen Trai. A total of 550 trees – including a number of century-old ones – were removed to prepare for the construction of seven train stations for the Cat Linh - Ha Dong Railway.

More devastation occurred in HCM City in the same month, as authorities cleared trees to make way for the underground Metro Line No. 1 station and the upgraded Nguyen Hue Boulevard. They took down 51 trees and moved ten to other areas.

The tree-cutting has continued unabated, despite cries of objection from citizens and warnings from environmental experts.

Happytreeinsaigon.com, a website established by nature lovers in HCM City, has asked people to sign a petition asking the authority to stop cutting trees down en masse. The trees are the city's lungs – people need them in order to breathe in the more polluted urban areas.

The website, which provides commentary and analysis on the issue, seems to have attracted a lot of attention and promoted more awareness. Nearly 4,000 people have given their signatures.

The nature lovers also asked readers a series of questions: "Does the city seem hotter this year than it did last year? Have you noticed how the city streets seem just a little less green than they did last year?" And they follow them up with a statement: "Whether you or your parents were born here, whether you are Vietnamese or a foreigner, if you call this city your home you must be concerned about the environment you live in."

Trees combat the effects of greenhouse gases, the website says. It also critiques the city's development planners, who have ignored large trees' value.

"Many of the city's trees are over 150 years old," the group wrote on its website. "They are our heritage. It takes years for a tree to grow, and yet they are now being cut down in just a few hours in the name of development."

If this is being done simply for the short-term benefits, we will all pay the price for it tomorrow, the site said.

However, the site seems to ignore the fact that building public transportation systems in big cities cuts down on greenhouse gases in another way: More people taking the metro and less people driving motorbikes or cars means significantly less exhaust fumes entering the atmosphere. Increasing public transit could help our cities become more environmentally friendly, but it isn't worth it if it comes at the cost of what little nature we have left.

Uneasy goodbye

Like those in HCM City, people who have lived in Ha Noi for more than three decades and are used to being surrounded by green also feel uneasy saying goodbye to so many trees.

"It is not comfortable going down these familiar old roads without trees," said Hong Thi Thu Nga, 40. I spoke with her on Nguyen Trai Street in Ha Noi.

Nga isn't alone in her feelings; many people I've spoken to have similar opinions.

She said she grew up with Ha Noi's trees, and they've seen her and many others through so many of life's ups and downs, as well as the rises and falls of the country. Some even say the trees have become an indispensable part of their physical and spiritual lives.

Everyone I talked to said replacing such valuable old trees with modern transportation systems wasn't worth it.

Considering all trees do for us, it is high time we halted their serious decline.

Planting large tree species in urban environments brings a host of social, environmental and economic benefits, according to Tom Armour, the associate director of ARUP, a global firm consulting engineers, designers and planners on urban natural landscapes and architecture. He said at the same time, rapid urbanisation and tree loss can cause structural damage, subsidence and a host of other problems.

Many of our finest urban trees are also a living centuries-old legacy, Armour said. They have become a symbol of a green and ancient city.

Vast, towering trees contribute significantly to the attractiveness of a city and compliment its architecture. Here in Ha Noi and HCM City you can find examples of buildings paired with large trees and roads, creating magnificent views.

In HCM City, gigantic, pyramid-shaped trees have beautified the streets for centuries and appear in the lyrics of countless romantic poems and songs about the city.

When dozens trees in front of the Sai Gon Opera House were cleared to make way for the city's first underground metro station, citizens also expressed shock and sorrow.

Vietnamese senior architect Hong Dao Kinh said cutting down large trees did change the face of a city, but that it was a necessary sacrifice.

"The green area should be restored [after construction work is complete]," Kinh said.

Actually, the trees should be replaced immediately, alongside the construction of the metro, as opposed to after it is finished.

Moreover, experts say trees have a host of financial benefits. They increase property prices and reduce energy consumption by regulating local microclimates. They've also been shown to improve physical and mental health, reduce hospital recovery time and increase workplace productivity. Their canopies intercept rainwater, reducing runoff and flood risks. And their roots filter water, improving its quality. Cities are beginning to recognise and measure the value of their trees, which are a key to creating climate-proof, happy, healthy cities.

So why aren't we keeping more of our trees? It is vital we see large tree species not just as ornamentation, but as part of an integrated urban ecosystem. If we don't plant more large trees, we will be short-changing future generations. — VNS

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