sweeping view of valley near Tam Son shows sharp, steep mountains and a lush valley with houses

The Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark is in the province of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam. The valley along the road entering Tam Son Town is pictured. Image credit: James H. Spencer

The Vietnam Urban Planning and Development Association has awarded its 2019 Bronze Medal for Regional Plans to a project led by James H. Spencer, associate dean of research and graduate studies in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities.

Spencer and an international team worked in partnership with the Vietnam Institute for Urban and Rural Planning (VIUP) to study the potential for tourism and economic development in the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, and to design a development strategy and urban plan consistent with this potential.

One of the UNESCO Global Geoparks, Dong Van is distinguished by dramatic mountains and valleys in an area populated by many separate ethnic groups. It also features diverse flora and fauna, a rich array of fossils and a colony of extremely rare Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys.

Women converse on the street of a village in the province of Ha Giang in Vietnam .

A planning team member works with a local official and a member of the community in the Dong Van district. Image credit: James H. Spencer

The Dong Van plan was one of only 12 projects honored by the office of the Vietnamese prime minister in 2019. In Vietnam, a country of 95 million people and more than 200 cities, thousands of master plans, regional plans, urban design plans and zoning plans are commissioned by the government each year.

“It is a tremendous honor to be recognized as part of an international collaboration between planners in Vietnam and the United States,” Spencer said. “This project is, in many ways, a recognition of Vietnam’s growth over the past 20 years into a leader in sustainable development as it develops new ways to approach the rapid urbanization and growth that has begun to affect even the most remote regions such as Dong Van. I would like to thank my U.S.-based project team, our Vietnamese partners at the VIUP, and all the local government and community supporters who helped us understand the history, culture and aspirations of the region’s richly diverse population.”

International teamwork

James H. Spencer came to Clemson University in 2013.

Over the course of two years, Spencer’s international team formulated urban development and design plans for four town centers in the province of Ha Giang in northern Vietnam. The team’s recommendations were based on qualitative and quantitative community input and extensive analysis of infrastructure needs, sustainability, economic forecasts and the region’s rich natural and cultural resources. Of particular interest to the local governments and their communities was the leveraging of local heritage as an engine of development that equitably serves the community’s local population.

In addition to Spencer, the Clemson professors involved in the collaboration were Timothy Green, an assistant professor of City and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, and Robert Powell, the George B. Hartzog Jr. Endowed Professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. They worked with Mai Nguyen, an associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Luong Thu Thao, a lecturer and consultant at Hanoi Architectural University.

Spencer and the team also worked with the provincial governor and his department directors on their development strategy, which was approved in 2017 by Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, the prime minister of Vietnam. Their award-winning regional plan emphasized gradual development and prioritized local, culture-based industries that draw upon community-level knowledge and expertise.

Because the Dong Van area is home to 17 distinct minority groups, it was deemed essential that tourism not develop so rapidly that it overwhelmed communities or only benefitted outside developers. The team also noted the economic potential of traditional medicines and the mountainous region’s customary architectural and building techniques.

The Don Cao French fort offers a sweeping view of a green valley in Dong Van

The Don Cao colonial French fort in the Dong Van town center offers a sweeping view of the valley below. Image credit: James H. Spencer

In January, the Vietnamese government approved a museum of science and nature for the Dong Van Geopark, a partnership between the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology and the Ha Giang Provincial People’s Committee.

The prime minister wants to boost community-based tourism in the Ha Giang province by restoring and promoting traditional festivals and cultural values. He also wishes to foster organic and high-tech agricultural production, especially with regional specialties like oranges, honey, tea and medicinal plants.

From 2017 to January 2019, the Ha Giang province attracted more than $700 million in investments and pledges to 26 projects.

Globalization expert

Spencer joined the Clemson University faculty in 2013 as professor of city and regional planning, and served as a department chair before becoming an associate dean in 2016.

He previously taught urban and regional planning and political science at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Spencer received his undergraduate degree in social anthropology from Amherst College before earning a Master of Environmental Management from Yale University and a Ph.D. in urban planning from The University of California, Los Angeles.

Spencer also serves as an adjunct senior fellow with the East West Center’s Program on Environmental Change, Vulnerability and Governance. He led an exploratory project by the Stern School of Business at New York University to develop an Indonesia Urban Expansion Initiative.

His past books include “Globalization and Urbanization: The Global Urban Ecosystem” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014) and his upcoming book is titled “Urbanization and Local Governance: Building Resilient Public Water Works in Southeast Asian Cities.”