PLAN 76: Article
In Celebration Of Sidewalk Life

Using Critical Cartography as a Tool for Urban Intervention

A new research project led by Annette Kim, Ford International Career Development Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, is setting out to celebrate and legitimize the sidewalk life of Ho Chi Minh City by mapping what it does and what it contributes to the life of the city. The effort bridges urban design and social science research while also aiming to make a practical intervention in the city’s landscape.

In spite of the fact that street vendors provide 30% of the city’s food and account for 30% of its employment, a series of recent decisions by the Vietnamese government is attempting to clear the sidewalks of vendors in a move to modernize the city and appeal to tourists. Based on conventions of traffic engineering that see anything on the sidewalk as an impediment to flow, planners are of the opinion that tourists don’t want these crowded sidewalks. But research shows that the lively sidewalk life of Ho Chi Minh City is a vital part of the city’s appeal and represents an amenity many westerners strive to create at home.

While the Vietnamese are a highly literate people, for instance, they also have an elaborate and colorful language of non-verbal symbols that enlivens the culture of their streets: crumpled paper in a brick means someone nearby can sell you gas for your moped; someone rattling a wooden snake is saying s/he could give you a massage; someone tapping a ceramic bowl with chopsticks is saying s/he can sell you a noodle dish; and a freestanding sculpture of tire wheels means you can get your moped repaired close by. The symbols change from year to year but people are so chatty you can always get the latest interpretation.

While the city’s indigenous public views sidewalk activity as a longstanding part of their culture and appreciates the low-cost goods and services street vendors provide, so far they seem unsure how to react to the new rules except to find marginal ways to work around them. And because the vendors’ claim to sidewalk space never appears on planners’ maps, it’s easy for them to be simply cleared rather than recognized and managed.

This research aims to develop a cartography to celebrate and advocate for sidewalk life. During a trip to Vietnam in January as part of Independent Activities Period, a team of MIT students mapped 4000 data points showing the locations of vendors, parking, leisure space and beggars and, importantly, street symbols. Students from the SMArchS and MCP programs are now experimenting with different kinds of map typologies that will reveal that sidewalk life, including some animated maps to show the migration of vendors to the city and within its neighborhoods.

The effort makes use of a growing trend in architecture, art and geography known as critical cartography, a set of new mapping practices that links geographic knowledge with political power. Whereas standard cartography would obscure sidewalk life because it only measures space, critical cartography aims to reduce the gap between a technically-oriented map design and a theoretical analysis of power in society.

According to Kim, there is little in the planning literature to suggest there’s anything good going on in the cities of developing countries. The tendency is to view them as a cut-and-paste list of problems to fix – rapid urbanization, migration, housing, traffic, pollution, corruption. While these are clearly important issues, she says, the solutions that are proposed as a result of such framing are often as homogenous as the framing itself, and all too often end up demolishing what is unique to each city, reducing them to engines of the economy rather than neighborhoods and cultural bases.

In an effort to intervene in the destruction of the city’s sidewalk life, Kim is preparing a presentation to the Ho Chi Minh City planning department to propose an alternative tourist map, similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail, by which people can discover and enjoy the fabric of the city. She is also working on a book to detail the effort.

The student team of photographers included Tiffany Chu, Holly Bellocchio Durso, Minh Huynh-Le and Courtney Sung. Their photos are on exhibit in SA+P’s Rotch Library through September 10.

Kim is part of the International Development Group in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and associated with the City Design and Development Group. She holds a Master of Visual Studies and a PhD in Urban Planning, both from UC Berkeley.

The work was funded in part by MIT‘s Director’s Art Fund and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. For more information, contact Kim at