Stories from the field Author: Pakamas Thinphanga Comments
ASIA: Laos

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to accompany Daniel Hayward, a researcher based out of the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at Chiang Mai University, on a trip to the capital of Lao PDR, Vientiane. Our goal for the trip was to meet with several potential research partners in the hopes of collaborating on an Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia (URCSEA) research project on urban land governance in Vientiane.

To date, there is a gap in research about urbanization in Lao PDR. Most research and NGO work in Lao PDR has focused on rural issues as Lao PDR is still a predominantly rural society.

However, Vientiane has been urbanizing rapidly in the last several years, and now many researchers, civil society organizations, and even government officials are keenly interested in developing their knowledge of urban issues and connecting with others with similar interests.

The first afternoon in Vientiane, I set off to explore the city. Vientiane is the smallest capital city in the Mekong Region in one of the poorest countries in the region. Near the city center, the view from Chao Anouvong Park exemplifies some of Vientiane’s mixed elements. Standing on the edge of the road looking out towards the Mekong river, I could see a wide expanse of unused land (unusual in a capital city), the Chao Fa Ngum statue celebrating a 14th century king, and also a high-rise hotel. The Don Chan Palace hotel is over a decade old, but it is currently being incorporated into Vientiane New World Center, a luxury shopping and resort development backed by Chinese investment. These different spaces, unused land, national monument, large tourism/shopping centers, all in close proximity, represent the evolving face of Vientiane.

During this trip, Mr. Hayward, on the behalf of UCRSEA, was able to set up three different meetings with a variety of stakeholders who were all interested in moving into urban issues.

  • The first meeting was with a researcher from the government’s National Economic Research Institute (NERI) at the Ministry of Planning and Investment. This department is concerned with economic growth, including promoting foreign investments.
  • The second meeting was a mini-seminar with representatives of the Land Issues Working group (a civil society group), several professors from the Department of Urban Planning and the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute at the National University of Lao PDR. By bringing these various parties together, we were able to establish some common interest in studying urban land usage and the effects of urbanization on Vientiane.
  • The third was with Oxfam Laos, an international NGO whose Laos branch is currently trying to establish a better understanding of how urbanization affects livelihoods and poverty.

These three meetings exemplified the multiple stakeholders who are all taking an interest in Vientiane’s urbanization, including stakeholders that often have conflicting objectives, such as the university’s department of urban planning and the government’s ministry of planning and investment.

Considering the perspectives of all these diverse parties will allow the research project to build a more rounded picture of the actors in Vientiane. Bringing these multiple actors together in the space of a collaborative research project provides the opportunity for the development of shared goals and increased understanding from all sides.

Driving back from the meeting at the National University, Mr. Hayward and I saw the construction site of a skyscraper ahead of us.

This struck both of us as unusual in Vientiane, since what little literature there is on the city makes the point that it is very low-profile with few buildings over three stories. Later in the trip, a PhD student studying Chinese investments in Vientiane confirmed that what we had seen was one of the Chinese investment sites, and currently stalled due to lack of funds. This type of site struck us as exactly the type of urban land development that would be fascinating to explore through a case study research project.

As of now, little is known about the state of urbanization in Vientiane. Research to fill this gap is crucial and climate change must be counted as part of the equation. In addition to the changes that climate change brings to weather patterns, Vientiane sits on the banks of the Mekong river and changes in the river due to climate change have already been noticed by residents. As the city continues to grow, how will it consider, or ignore, the realities of climate change? How will those choices Vientiane’s most vulnerable residents? As Vientiane urbanizes, will multiple stakeholders be able to work together to create concrete actions that can make Vientiane a more resilient city to climate change?

The collaborative research project in Vientiane hopes to tackle questions like these. This project has the potential to generate knowledge to fill a crucial gap in the urbanization literature of the Mekong region. Utilizing networks such as UCRSEA and ACCCRN, this project and its participants can contribute new knowledge about the urban climate issues in Lao PDR to the broader community of urban climate resilience practitioners throughout Southeast Asia.