Can Vietnam develop economically without losing the sense of community now missing in some advanced countries? Look to where the community gathers: sidewalks. By Lien Hoang.

In the near future, people walking in Ho Chi Minh City could find a strange new decoration on the sidewalks: a red stripe.

The idea is to create a path — painted in red or otherwise marked — that would take tourists and other pedestrians through portions of the city they may not usually see. Traditional travellers might sit in a tour bus, hop off to take a photo of the Post Office, hop back on, ride to the Independence Palace, and so on. But with the red-lined route, they would see Vietnamese life up close and on foot, like hem and hardware shops, besides just the usual landmark buildings.

Annette Kim proposed the idea as part of a larger push, happening in a variety of cities across the globe, to reclaim public spaces — and the sense of community that comes with them.

“The level of humanity, inclusion is much higher here,” compared with the United States and Europe, Kim said during a talk at the American Centre in January. Kim is a professor of urban design and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She said Vietnam is “a very valuable case for the world to understand public space better”.

She returned to Ho Chi Minh City last month to launch an exhibit of photos about local city life, taken by Kim and a group of students. The exhibit had already been shown in Massachusetts, with an eggroll truck to draw visitors and plastic stools to create a Vietnamese experience. It explores a concept more important than photography and tourism, that is: how can we design 21st-century cities to be advanced yet egalitarian, to welcome and mix all people?

Kim believes one overlooked solution is the sidewalk.

“It’s a very humble space, but it’s spread throughout like a network bringing people together,” she said.

Sidewalks belong to everyone, she added, whereas most buildings restrict access.

Urban planners tend to make their designs from a birds’-eye perspective, Kim said, without going to the street level where real people live. Planners see sidewalks as yet another form of transportation, rather than a place where communities gather, eat, work, or park their motorbikes. But that is precisely what happens in Ho Chi Minh City, for now. “What’s really remarkable is all incomes interact,” Kim said.

Cities risk losing that diversity as they develop. Families grow richer, withdrawing into their gated compounds and leaving the open-air markets or public parks. Private developers, of course, have no incentive to build promenades or public squares because, unlike with luxury condos, they can’t charge for them. It’s up to city planners to have the foresight to work communal spaces into blueprints.

And that comes down to a question of what residents want their city to look like. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are struggling with this question, best symbolised by their approach to transportation: both are barreling forward with metro train construction, yet an influx of private cars seems inevitable after import tariffs dropped by as much as half in January.

Kim also shared images from the Freedom Trail in Boston, which inspired her “red line” proposal for Ho Chi Minh City. The Trail guides tourists through 16 historic sites from the town’s colonial days.

Ho Chi Minh City has accepted Kim’s recommendation to create the red line, though it’s unclear when it’ll go online. She charted two routes, one in District 1, the other in Cho Lon.

“What was really wonderful was, when I did the proposal, it really had unanimous support from different departments,” Kim said. “You can’t pay for this line. Everyone can enjoy it.”

The featured is taken from a video installation that rotates through various photos of the same hem in Ho Chi Minh City, to show how an outdoor community changes over time. Photo courtesy of Annette Kim