Urban parks have essential functions that make them a vital feature of any city. Regardless of a country’s level of development or geographical context, research has shown that urban parks contribute to the population’s wellbeing by reducing urban heat islands and noise, fostering physical activity among adults and children, and contributing to social interaction, which thereby strengthens the social cohesion of communities [1
]. There are two key factors that influence park use and visitation—spatial accessibility to parks and characteristics of park space. Numerous studies have shown that the closer individuals live to a park, the more they use or visit parks [4
]. Some authors have also demonstrated how certain characteristics (such as size, equipment, maintenance, etc.,) influence park visitation [2
]. More specifically for children, previous studies show that green spaces—most notably, urban parks—provide children with many possibilities for enjoying physical and psychological activities that foster their physical, cognitive, environmental, and social growth. As such, the interactions that children experience in parks have a positive impact on their overall health and also help strengthen their creative skills, communication skills, and ability to participate in community life, explore nature, etc. [2
In this article, we examine spatial accessibility to parks for children in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam. We address only urban parks, one of the formally planned public spaces that exist in Vietnam. Parks with open and green spaces are scarce in large Vietnamese cities. In HCMC, as in other urban agglomerations in Vietnam, the lack of accessible open and green spaces is compensated by the use of the sidewalk and street spaces [10
]. However, sidewalks in densely built and populated cities such as HCMC cannot replace safe and accessible open and green public spaces for multiple reasons mentioned above. Particularly, a study in Hanoi demonstrates intensive usages of parks throughout the day for physical exercises, relaxing, and socializing [12
]. Furthermore, in HCMC, park provision and access have been changed rapidly and profoundly. Since its foundation 300 years ago, the City has evolved under many different political regimes and urban planning models [13
]. Nowadays, the city, home to more than 8 million people, is characterized by a high population density (11,899 inhabitants/km2
in urban areas) and rapid urbanization with the annual rate of urbanization and population growth of 3.8% and 4.1% [14
]. Like in other cities in Vietnam, urban planning in HCMC is increasingly privatized [15
]. Moreover, with spatial segregation on the rise, wealthy neighborhoods are often well supplied in terms of quality services in contrast to disadvantaged neighborhoods [15
], which further contributes to the divide between the rich and the poor in urban Vietnam [18
]. Combined with the lack of financial resources to provide facilities and infrastructure [13
], such transformations in the City may undermine the provision and access of urban public amenities such as parks.
The provision of parks in HCMC remains very limited [21
]. The park surface area per inhabitant is only 0.22 m2
—significantly lower when compared to other cities in Southeast Asia, such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (1 m2
and 1.25 m2
], or Hanoi (1.48 m2
]. And yet, public spaces—particularly parks—play a major role in the relaxation and recreational activities of the HCMC population [23
]. Parks are constantly threatened by illegal construction, real estate development projects, and the parking and spatial encroachment resulting from the numerous commercial activities that take place in parks [24
]. In this context, an empirical evaluation of park accessibility is urgently required if we are to help planners set priorities in park development plans and convince them to invest in parks as an essential public service. This study is a tentative response to this need.
We ask the three following questions: What are types of parks and how are they distributed across the city (space) and urbanization periods (time)? What is the extent of spatial accessibility of different park types and how does it vary across space and time? Are there discrepancies in the accessibility to parks for children across the city, compared to the overall population? We consider three periods of urbanization (1975–1996, 1997–2003, and from 2003), based on the city’s history of urban development and official dates that urban districts in the city obtained their ‘urban’ status.
We hope to shed light on the distribution of parks while taking into consideration the population size and urbanization process. At the conceptual level, we also adapted concepts that were developed in Western cities (i.e., the very concept of ‘park’, types of parks, etc.,) in order to capture cultural, historical, and other place-based nuances of park provision in HCMC. As such, we contribute to the scant literature on urban parks in the Global South.
5.1. Typology of Parks and Variations across Space and Time
The AHC allowed us to distinguish five types of parks (Table 2
), which are illustrated in Figure 3
. This optimal number of clusters was selected by using the Pseudo-F statistic [59
] and the Cubic Clustering Criterion [60
Nearly all of the Type A (16) and Type B (46) parks were very small in size (less than one hectare). These two types were distinguished by their level of equipment and services. Type A parks were better equipped—75% of them had at least one piece of exercise equipment for adults (compared to 17% for Type B parks) and over 31% of parks of this type were equipped with a play structure for sliding and a riding structure for children (compared to 17.4% and 2.2% of Type B parks). In terms of their services, 50% of Type A had public restrooms with maintenance staff (versus 6.5% for Type B) and 31.3% of Type A had parking for motorcycles with surveillance (versus 2.2% for Type B).
Type C parks (14) were characterized by a weak presence of equipment and services and, most importantly, a high level of deterioration (100%). They were quite variable in size—78.6% were smaller than 1 hectare and 21.4% were larger than 5 hectares. Type D parks were all of average size (1 to 5 hectares), of which 41.7% of these parks had exercise equipment but rarely had play structures for children (4.2%). Close to half of these parks included public restrooms with maintenance staff (45.8%) and parking for motorcycles with surveillance (41.7%). Street vendors were also present in these parks (54.2%). In terms of vegetation, practically all of the parks included decorative plants but the presence of trees was rather limited since. Most of the parks were clean (91.7%), equipped with garbage receptacles (91.7%), and showed few signs of deterioration (20.8%).
Lastly, the eight Type E parks had large sizes (over five hectares) and were often well outfitted in terms of equipment—87.5% had exercise equipment for adults, 100% had paths, and 75% had at least one play structure for children. 75% of these parks had tree coverage representing between 10% and 49% of their total surface area. Type E parks also featured several services such as public restrooms with maintenance staff (100%) and parking lots for motorcycles with surveillance (100%). Restaurants/cafés (100%) and street vendors (62.5%) were also highly present in these parks. All of these parks were clean (100%). Nonetheless, the majority still had fee-based games (87.5%).
The spatial distribution of park types is presented in Figure 4
. To examine this spatial distribution along the three periods of urbanization, we created a contingency table (Table 3
). Type E parks were located solely in central districts (planned before 1996). Types A, B, and D were more frequently found (75.0%, 47.8%, and 54.2%) in central districts than in peripheral neighborhoods planned after 1996 (with the exception of the Phu My Hung neighborhood in District 7). On the contrary, most Type C parks were located in peripheral neighborhoods (35.7% in areas planned between 1996 and 2002 and 50.0% in areas planned after 2003).
5.2. Spatial Accessibility of Parks and Variations across Space and Time
We calculated univariate statistics for the different accessibility measurements obtained for the 259 wards weighted by the total population and the children under the age of 15 (Table 4
). The average and median values show that, in HCMC, both of these populations were located relatively far away from parks—an average of 1879 and 1890 m, respectively (median = 1304 and 1313). Furthermore, one quarter of the city’s inhabitants and children under the age of 15 reside more than 2500 m away from the closest park (Q3 = 2533 and 2570).
The number of parks and number of park hectares located within a 500- and 1000-m radius—considered an acceptable walking distance—was relatively low. For example, within a radius of 1000 m, the average number of accessible park hectares was 2.49 and 2.36 when weighted by the total population and the population of children under the age of 15, respectively.
When breaking down the accessibility to park types, Type D parks (well-equipped and good-quality parks of medium size) were the closest at 3030 m away from residential areas. Type C parks (poorly equipped and deteriorated parks) were the furthest, at over 5000 m away. It is also worth noting that Type E parks (very well-equipped and good-quality parks of a large size) were also characterized by poor accessibility, being located an average of over 4500 m away.
Only three indicators of accessibility are presented in Figure 5
. Accessibility to parks was better in central districts and more limited in peripheral neighborhoods which were generally urbanized in 1997–2002. However, accessibility in the periphery was slightly better during the last period (after 2003). For example, when weighted by total population, the average distance to the closest park was 1034 m for wards in the first period, 3642 m for the second, and 2134 m for the last. But when looking at park quality, central and older wards were closer to Type D parks (well-equipped medium-sized parks of good quality) while peripheral and newest wards were closer to Type B parks (small, poorly equipped parks of average quality).
5.3. Spatial Accessibility, Population, and Children
The correlations between the three demographic variables and the distance to the closest park are all significant, ranging from weak to moderate (between ± 0.10 and 0.62 in Table 5
). Negative correlations show the greater the population density and the density of children, the better the proximity to parks (the shorter the distance to the closest park), regardless of the type of parks. This is because in central wards where the population density and the children density are higher, the distance to parks is shorter (as shown above). However, there were positive correlations between the percentage of children and the distance to parks. The higher the percentage, the lower the accessibility, which is due to the fact that the percentage of children was higher in peripheral wards where accessibility is worst. Overall, Type A parks (small and well-equipped parks, located in central wards) tended to be the most accessible, having the highest correlations with the densities. Type C parks (bad quality) were the less accessible, having the lowest correlations; however, what is worrying is that most of them were found in the periphery.
Correlations in Table 6
corroborate the preceding findings. Within a 1000-m radius, the higher the number of parks and park hectares were, the greater the density was, but the lower the percentage of children under 15 years old was. However, the coefficients were weaker and almost all correlations were not significant at the 500-m threshold.
When combining these indicators with urbanization periods, whether these accessibility measurements are weighted by total population or population of children under the age of 15, accessibility was much better in wards during the period between 1976 and 1996 (Table 7
Lastly, the boxplots in Figure 6
show that the population density of wards was higher in the wards developed during the 1976–1996 period than in the last two periods. In addition, the network distance to the closest park in the wards of this period was shorter. This is explained by the fact that those wards are located in central neighborhoods and they have more parks than in the periphery (as shown in Table 5
, Table 6
and Table 7
6. Discussions and Conclusions
Our results show that there are considerable variations in the accessibility to different types of parks along the urban–peripheral axis and, hence, periods of urbanization. The minimum distances to parks become greater as we move away from the downtown core (with the exception of the wealthiest Phu My Hung neighborhood in District 7). Moreover, park types differ by period of urbanization. In fact, wards in the 1976–1996 period had large proportions of Type D and E parks (medium- and large-sized, well-equipped, and of good quality) while the latest periods of urbanization featured more Type A and B parks (small parks). Type C parks (poorly equipped and deteriorated), for their part, are mostly located in wards of the last period.
Spatial variations of park accessibility in HCMC corroborate what was documented in other cities. For example, in Hanoi, Pham and Labbé [16
] have shown that newly established parks on the outskirts of the city are often far from residential areas. In Seoul, Oh and Jeong [47
] highlighted that most of the parks are situated on the periphery, far from dense residential neighborhoods, thus limiting their use. In Hangzhou, Wei [54
] showed complex changes of park accessibility between 2000 and 2010, in 41 subdistricts. While half of the subdistricts benefited from an increase of park accessibility, the other half suffered from inaccessibility to parks (within the 400-m radius) and they were mainly located in the outer city.
Such spatial patterns are explained by urban planning models and social–political transformations in Vietnamese cities. Recall that green spaces and parks are public facilities that were not always considered a high priority in planning before 2000 [16
]. Between 1975 and 2000, under the influence of the Soviet urban-planning style, some large cultural parks were set up on lots previously used for other purposes (cemeteries, train stations) and often on abandoned sites (former dump sites, quarries, etc.,) in central areas of the city. The creation of such large parks in the center accentuated the big difference between the center and the periphery.
After 1997, and notably since 2003, urban planning and the creation of parks has been influenced by two main factors, explaining the disparities between the center and the periphery of HCMC. The first factor is the recognition of the importance of parks in planning documents. Parks as open and green public spaces have become a mandatory element in certain urban-planning principles in Vietnam [61
]—for example, as part of the obligation to create services (parks, schools, cultural centers) for everyday use located within a reasonable walking distance. Although the recognition is supposed to improve the provision of parks, it has been undermined by other broader socio-political processes which constitutes the second factor. The most important process in the second factor is privatization and the growing involvement of the private sector and foreign companies in the construction of new urban areas [63
], which have been causing negative impacts on the provision and the quality of parks in the periphery. More specifically, the private sector’s role in urban production is fostered by the socialization policy (xã hội hóa
, in Vietnamese) that aims at increasing private investments in the construction of urban projects, including new urban areas (Ibid.). Numerous new urban areas on the outskirts of HCMC were developed by private or semi-public companies during this period, which is also common in other Vietnamese large cities, such as Hanoi [64
]. The major problem with privatization, as also documented in other Southeastern Asian cities, is that the profit objectives of private investors, are, for the most part, at odds with benefits for the public [64
]. Services in new neighborhoods are created with the objective of making as much profit as possible. It is also common that investors are not able to carry out the projects [13
]. These result in the fact that neighborhood parks are often small, poorly equipped, of moderate quality, and sometimes poorly maintained. This explains the important presence of Type B and C parks in peripheral areas and their overall poor accessibility.
It is important to note some limitations of our study. Several recent studies, mostly carried out in the U.S. [66
], showed that the potential saturation of parks is an important factor to consider. In other words, these parks may have a large number of users, which may lead to a more rapid deterioration of equipment and cleanliness. Hence, given the high population density and lack of parks in HCMC, it would be a clear research area in the future.
As is the case in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital [16
], there is a desperate need for parks in HCMC. However, given the city’s high population density and compactly built form, the strategies used for creating new parks in the city, especially in central areas, must remain flexible. For example, any vacant lot, yard, or playground in public buildings could be redesigned by the government and managed by the local community. According to Pham and Labbé [16
], such an approach would require consideration of the property’s status and the management of park facilities to ensure that these are in keeping with local regulatory frameworks. In new districts located in peripheral areas, where spatial accessibility to parks is poor, parks should be quickly added, before built-up density becomes too high. In addition, the quality of existing parks should also be improved, as the latter are generally deteriorated or poorly equipped. In new planned urban areas, we can imagine new ways of creating open and green spaces, for example land reserved for parks can be designed into vegetable gardens and managed by local residents, as urban food growing is increasingly popular in Vietnamese cities because of food safety concerns [69
HCMC could also use the canals and rivers, which are evenly distributed throughout the city, to compensate for its lack of parks. Applying this particular strategy, however, would require active measures to stop the filling of canals and other forms of encroachment upon these spaces. Although public spatial policies in Vietnam have experienced positive change over the last few years [16
], it is clear that there are many lessons to learn from the existing urban park system in HCMC.