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Something old, something new in Pleiku

As Pleiku expands in all directions, its residents hold tight to the characteristic traditional architechture and green spaces. Cao Nguyen and Viet Thang report.

Many people who visit Pleiku City are seduced by its beauty and the harmony that exists between its architecture and greenery, the harmony between man and nature.

Situated in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai, 600km from HCM City and 200km from Buon Ma Thuot, the 70-year-old city is considered to be a young one.

Pleiku is different from other cities and townships in the Tay Nguyen (Central Highlands), lying on rolling hills and webbed with long streets, and scattered with houses that defy modern architecture, traditional stilt-houses with bamboo roofs, built into slopes over-looking rivers and springs.

However, with a new renovation policy, economic improvement, and developing commerce, Pleiku’s characteristically charming architecture is in danger of fading as the city undergoes a construction boom changing its traditional facade daily.

Most of the traditional architectural designs that originated from Ba Na and Gia Rai ethnic groups have been demolished and rebuilt as concrete, 3 or 4 storey, deep and narrow "tunnel houses," painted in chaotic colours.

In ethnic minority villages, make-shift and tunnel houses surrounded by barbed wire barriers have replaced the traditional stilt-houses and communal houses resting in the shade of big trees.

Now, the trees that used to tower over some Pleiku roads no longer cast shadows, and it seems almost like travelling through a desert.

"In the old days we rushed to expand the city. Private houses and public buildings only aimed to accommodate people and meet daily demand while the urban aesthetic in Central Highlands had been ignored," says Hong Ha director of the Gia Lai Construction Department.

The city does not have a comprehensive scheme for development that includes the planting of trees. Many pine trees were cut and replaced with tropical almond and Pulai trees.

Many century-old trees have been cleared for land development and tunnel houses. Local residents fear the city is in danger of becoming just like other cities. Meanwhile, in other cities, authorities are trying to plant trees and preserve old styles of architecture, Ha said.

Le Loi Street is known for its lush panorama along the road, however now, land along the both sides of the street has been divided into many 4m by 13m plots.

Pleiku’s beauty has gradually faded, yet in spite of the alterations and construction, the city continues to represent a precious legacy, which is why the city government is studying a master urban planning scheme to develop the city by 2020.

They agree that the development of a modern Pleiku must connect back to its traditional architecture style, in order to make the young city charming and splendid.

Under the scheme, the city will be expanded to cover 13,000ha with designated space for green trees that will harmonise with infrastructural development.

According to director Hong Ha, the top priority of the city’s planning scheme is to protect the environment and maintain farm land as well as preserve and develop traditional architecture.

The city authorities will be prohibited from levelling land and cutting down trees. The zigzagging roads sloping down the hills will be preserved, he added.

They will also create airy spaces around lakes and springs such as Dien Hong, Tra Da and Hoi Phu.

Houses on stilts and communal houses will be developed in conjunction with nature. The reconstruction of several ethnic minority villages will be developed in combination with modern cultural styles.

City developers are now initially recovering the original beauty of green spaces by replanting pine trees. Architectural styles of administrative offices and private houses have been gradually returned to traditional styles.

Pham Duy Du, deputy director of the Gia Lai province’s Natural Resources and Environment Department, said much attention should be paid to sustainable development. The city’s planning scheme should be made available to the public in order to generate and gather opinions.

Yet the need to develop more and better infrastructure, to protect the environment and conserve the original beauty of Pleiku architecture are important and difficult tasks that must be fulfilled by all branches and levels of the city administration as well as the public, Du continued.

In the old quarters, urban planners are aiming to replace obsolete houses, public works and one-storied houses with dense, new and modern urban centres that will meet the requirements of including airy and green spaces and will be equipped with modern public services.

In an effort to modernise the city, appropriate and realistic policies and regulations will be made and investment mobilisation that includes the whole public will be encouraged.

To create an urban environment conducive to the daily lives of residents, a system of modern urban and rural architecture will inherit long-standing traditional styles and maintain sustainable development.

Under the city’s master plan, Pleiku’s administration aims to turn the city into a "second-class" city, Du added.

Pleiku in numbers

Pleiku covers 26,060ha in the north of the central highlands and is home to 200,000 people living in 14 communes.

It has 28 ethnic groups, with Kinh accounting for 87.5 per cent. The city now consists of 10 districts and 9 communes.

The Government issued a decision to establish Pleiku City in April 1999 and the city recently held the anniversary of its founding day (December 3, 1929 - December 3, 2004).

Between 1999-2004, the city has maintained an annual economic growth of 14.65 per cent. The average income per capita increase 13.47 per cent annually and this year, GDP per capita is estimated to reach VND10.2 million (US$636) per person. The number of households living in poverty is 550 or 1.45 per cent compared to 8.16 in 2000.

Over the last five years, total public investment in infrastructure development reached over VND1.2 trillion ($80 million). Of the figure, the city has spent more than VND110 billion ($7 million) on developing urban infrastructure.

The city now has a total 734km of road, 105km made of concrete and asphalt. Some 86 per cent of local residents have access to clean water with a supply of 128 litres per capita per day.

More than 99 per cent of households have access to electricity and about 19 subscribe to telephone access.

VNS - (04/01/2005)

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