Sidewalk City Remapping Public Space in Ho Chi Minh City
by Annette Miae Kim
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Cloth: 978-0-226-11922-9 | Electronic: 978-0-226-11936-6
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.001.0001


For most, the term “public space” conjures up images of large, open areas: community centers for meetings and social events; the ancient Greek agora for political debates; green parks for festivals and recreation. In many of the world’s major cities, however, public spaces like these are not a part of the everyday lives of the public. Rather, business and social lives have always been conducted along main roads and sidewalks. With increasing urban growth and density, primarily from migration and immigration, rights to the sidewalk are being hotly contested among pedestrians, street vendors, property owners, tourists, and governments around the world.

With Sidewalk City, Annette Miae Kim provides the first multidisciplinary case study of sidewalks in a distinctive geographical area. She focuses on Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, a rapidly growing and evolving city that throughout its history, her multicultural residents have built up alternative legitimacies and norms about how the sidewalk should be used. Based on fieldwork over 15 years, Kim developed methods of spatial ethnography to overcome habitual seeing, and recorded both the spatial patterns and the social relations of how the city’s vibrant sidewalk life is practiced.

In Sidewalk City, she transforms this data into an imaginative array of maps, progressing through a primer of critical cartography, to unveil new insights about the importance and potential of this quotidian public space. This richly illustrated and fascinating study of Ho Chi Minh City’s sidewalks shows us that it is possible to have an aesthetic sidewalk life that is inclusive of multiple publics’ aspirations and livelihoods, particularly those of migrant vendors.


Annette Miae Kim is associate professor of public policy and the founding director of SLAB, the Spatial Analysis Lab, at the University of Southern California.


Sidewalk City is an important book which takes a big step forward in our understanding of that key public space—the sidewalk. Mixing urban theory, ethnography, observation, and innovative mapping, Kim has produced a new conceptual and representational paradigm. Both scholarly and readable, Sidewalk City should interest anyone who thinks about cities, public spaces, and people.”
— Margaret Crawford, UC Berkeley

"Using critical cartography and spatial ethnography, Sidewalk City brings to life an unwritten realm of claims and practices. Kim brilliantly persuades us with her theoretical framework which identifies a particular type of rights not associated with shared sidewalks: property rights negotiated in public space."
— Saskia Sassen, author of Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy

Sidewalk City is visually powerful, socially explanatory, and politically revealing. Kim delivers an exceptionally rich contribution to the emerging domain of urban humanities with her multilayered close analysis of a seemingly prosaic socio-spatial environment—the sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City. As such, she provides as much creative clarity to those interested in photography, multi-media art, and critical cartography as she does to those who care about economic development, property rights, urban planning, public policy, and ethnographic method.”
— Lawrence J. Vale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Purging the Poorest

“Opening with an exciting ethnography of sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh City, Kim goes on to unfurl a revolutionary collection of mapping subjects, techniques, and strategies that let her, as she says, map the unmapped. As Kevin Lynch did in 1960, Kim inaugurates an utterly new fork in the history of mapmaking, enabling her to return at book’s end to the sidewalk both reconsidered and reimagined. Sidewalk City is essential reading!”
— Denis Wood, author of Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas

“This just-published work flips our usual understanding of public space—large communal swaths of green in the middle of a cityscape—and focuses on its most humble incarnation: the sidewalk. Sidewalk design isn’t going to win any prizes. In fact, it is scarcely noticed. But more than ever, Kim suggests, in places of rising urban density, this is where people meet, loiter, exchange information, sell wares and stage neighborhood festivals. Sidewalks are also a kind of urban nervous system, wiring connective paths from one corner of the city to another. But this sort of public space also bumps up against property rights. Who ultimately has power over this public-private space? The beautifully designed Sidewalk City examines how this tension is negotiated day to day in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City.”
— Next City

"Sidewalk City is devoted to a part of the urban landscape that is often overlooked. The book details the multiple benefits of seeing a sidewalk as a mixed-use public space.
Kim is interested in calling not just for new analytical lenses, but for ways to apply them to legitimizing sidewalk life. The example inSidewalk City is of the tourist path and map she and her colleagues proposed to local officials. Their idea was to use HCMC’s inevitable tourism to guide recognition of sidewalk street vendors and promote pedestrianism. This tourist pedestrian path is an example of Kim’s approach to scholarship: one that is inseparable from advocacy."
— Environment and Urbanization

"The expose of Kim's proceedings with spatial ethnography and critical cartography can serve as an example and a manual for other researchers who are fascinated by aspects of Asian urban societies. They should certainly read her book, enjoy her careful way of presenting her research in an excellently brought out book."
— New Books Asia

"Sidewalk City takes the reader on a journey throughout the author’s framework analysis of public spaces—namely the sidewalk—from a historical and geopolitical contextualization, to a critical analysis of the results, to visual narratives and further applications. . . . As a final verdict, this book may become an essential reading when analyzing public spaces. Every chapter of the book introduces an important step for their analysis, whether the subject is sidewalk living areas or public spaces at another scale."
— Cartographic Perspectives



- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0001
[public space, maps, critical cartography, Vietnam, spatial ethnography, property rights, urban design, urban planning, sidewalk, street vendors]
This chapter introduces Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s sidewalk life as an exemplar case in the midst of the current global foment where governments and people are searching for new ways to use and govern this important public space. This chapter outlines fundamental epistemological problems that have been hindering our exploration of this terrain of opportunity and conflict: old boundaries between social science, physical space, and urban design disciplines and conceptual dichotomies such as public/private and formal/informal fail to address the conditions of rapid immigration and urbanization while often introducing perilous urban planning interventions. The basis for the rest of the book, the chapter overviews an alternative theoretical framework for understanding public space that integrates both its physicality and social structure: a) a spatialized ethnography is needed to uncover overlooked urban populations and actual, situated spatial practices rather than assumed ones, b) a rehabilitated property rights theory which views public space in terms of socially negotiated and enforced entitlements and liabilities between property owners, police, street vendors, and the general public and c) a critical cartography that maps new knowledge about urban space. (pages 1 - 27)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0002
[Cholon, Saigon, Indochine, urban history, Vietnam, French colonialism, urban planning, Chinese diaspora, immigrant, street vending]
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s history shows us how sidewalk practices have regularly not followed the plan and are not dictated by the built environment. Present-day HCMC started as two distinctly separate towns 300 years ago: Saigon, the headquarters of the French colony Indochine, and Cholon, the larger and thriving Chinese diaspora trading port town. The city has gone through a remarkable succession of political and economic regime changes, particularly in the last 70 years: colonial, post-colonial nationalist, communist, and market transition. Historic photographs and accounts reveal that sidewalk space has always been a recreational and street vending space and not solely a transportation corridor despite the urban planning regulations of various regimes. Its urban history also shows that HCMC has been a city of immigrants from its inception, an unspoken narrative. Furthermore, the fact that both the Haussman-esque boulevards in Saigon and the narrow feng-shui sidewalk designs of Cholon host a vibrant sidewalk life counters behavioural determinism and colonial theory which presume physical space has strong power to control populations. (pages 28 - 55)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0003
[critical cartography, urban planning, urban design, Vietnam, map, critical GIS, visualization]
While maps have a long history with political power, propaganda, and regime operations, the recent explosion in critical cartography shows that maps can also be used to question normalized practices and explore alternative ones. The chapter first reviews the various ways Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam have been mapped. Imperial maps facilitated colonial expansion and operations as well as building political support for the costliness of empire-building back in the motherland. Contemporary Vietnamese land management institutions have invested in increasing its technical capacity with the help of international development aid organizations that has expedited the transfer of property rights and increased public finance. International urban planning and design practices import visions for a future HCMC built for elites with large portions of the population missing in the pictures. The chapter then discusses the new mapping practices of critical cartography and GIS that attempt to reconstruct the connection between power and the map by creating alternative visualizations. It outlines some of the limitations in current practices and an agenda for developing its greater self-reflexivity and social engagement. (pages 56 - 83)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0004
[critical cartography, spatial ethnography, map, GIS, Vietnam, street vending, sidewalk, visual representation, public space]
This chapter presents the core quest of the book: creating a new kind of map that will unveil rather than obscure sidewalk life. The motivation for mapping was to create an alternative set of facts that could help inform the controversies over street vending and the ideal sidewalk. It explains the spatial ethnography fieldwork methods developed that integrate detailed field surveys of space use, hundreds of interviews, the coding of data into GIS, and different sources of visual representation such as photography and difficult to obtain historical, state planning, and private developer maps. The chapter then presents a critical cartography primer that visually discusses through a progression of original maps how cartographic choices and logics veil and unveil phenomenon and knowledge. Seeking alternatives to Euclidean conventions, the maps show phenomena such as sidewalks as social constructs, as space that evolves over the hours of the day and years, the enforcement of micro-properties, and the experiential qualities of HCMC’s sidewalk life. The chapter concludes with the proposition of a mixed-use sidewalk: sidewalk space can be transacted between multiple types of users over the course of the day, expanding the possibilities of public space. (pages 84 - 149)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0005
[property rights, Vietnam, public space, immigration, street vending, regulation, narrative, public opinion, media, police]
This chapter focuses on the most controversial issue about sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and in many cities around the globe: street vending. Legal scholars agree that property rights theory should provide insight but that its application to public spaces is under-developed. The chapter posits that the role and rules of public space are currently being actively contested and re-written given rapid immigration and the developmental objectives to become a “world class city.” This chapter reviews the policies and campaigns by the Vietnamese government to regulate the sidewalk. It also analyses public opinion and debates circulating in current media and social narratives as well as interviews with local police and 270 street vendors. It outlines and critically reviews the battling narratives and counter-narratives about sidewalk clearance and the legitimacy of street vendors to use public space. The chapter emphasizes the importance of street-level state actors who are embedded in local society and their negotiation with neighborhood members in constructing the actual practice of rights to public space. This chapter raises the need to ground general and a-physical scholarly conceptions of “rights to the city” in order to realize real property rights to public property. (pages 150 - 183)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0006
[tourism, pedestrian, transportation, sidewalk, urban planning, Vietnam, social cognition, map, paradigm]
This chapter moves from maps as vehicles of critical analysis to platforms for imagining and discussing new spatial practice. Theories of social cognition offer that institutional change is created through new paradigms becoming normalized through a society-wide process of spreading ideas by seeing the practices of exemplars and those within our social networks. This chapter explores the possibility of using the map as a medium of such social paradigm change. The chapter presents the case of an original proposal that was developed and presented by invitation to the Ho Chi Minh City planning department for a tourist pedestrian path that would incorporate sidewalk vending into the experience. While international tourism has been one of the rationales for sidewalk clearance policies, this chapter shows how visual strategies of data and argumentation were used to engage a surprisingly enthusiastic reception by HCMC’s urban planning, transportation, and tourism bureaus to an alternative paradigm where sidewalk life is conceptualized as an asset to manage rather than as a problem to clear. (pages 184 - 211)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Annette Miae Kim
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226119366.003.0007
[critical cartography, urban planning, urban design, Vietnam, public space, map, inter-disciplinary, spatial analysis methods]
Building upon a review of the main points of each chapter of the book, the concluding chapter also discusses integrative and over-arching issues such as the need for greater inter-disciplinarity in urban planning between the social sciences and urban design which could happen through developing our spatial analysis methods such as critical cartography. The chapter also makes clarifying qualifications about the intention and findings of the book, such as what is generalizable and specific to Vietnam. Sidewalk City is about more than the sidewalk itself; it is an inquiry into how we might become more cognizant of overlooked spaces and the overlooked peoples in them. This book proposed experimenting with alternative mapping as a way to navigate our way to greater urban awareness. (pages 212 - 222)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online