Saving our public spaces
There’s scarce recreational space in Hong Kong, and what little we have needs to be better planned and protected, says Lucy Davis
Living as we do in one of the most densely packed cities in the world, recreational space is increasingly hard to come by. But when the management of Times Square was called to account recently for not giving the public proper access to its outdoor piazza, activists lauded a step in the right direction.
Shopping the Causeway Bay mall at the weekend, it was a pleasure to see a number of new stainless-steel benches in place. What’s more, those who couldn’t find a seat were free to perch where they could without being moved on by officious security guards. There was even some eating, drinking and public displays of affection going on.
Public discussions on urban planning have raised concerns about dwindling public space in recent months, and the government now plans to release a list specifying all those under private management. It’s hoped that these will be returned to the public – as places to walk through, rest up and maybe take in the occasional exhibition.
Owners will no longer be able to lease public space out to commercial tenants as Wharf (Holdings) is said to have done at Times Square – for HK$124,000 a day.
But when it comes to usage of public space, another issue of contention is our parks, says Maggie Brooke, chief executive officer of Professional Property Services Ltd. While the creation of new parks is clearly a good thing, Brooke agrees with Fred Kent, the founder and president of the Project For Public Spaces (PPS), when he says that there has to be a reason for any park’s existence, whether that’s to provide teenagers with recreational facilities, or elderly residents with a place to chat.
“It’s about ‘placemaking’ – creating a space that people want to visit,’” Brooke argues. “New parks are being built in Hong Kong, but too many are made of concrete, and there are no grass and flowers for people to enjoy. Plus, the parks are not always created to cater to the needs of local residents.”
How can the government improve the situation? “They need to recognise that it’s no good having an open space if it’s not conducive to enjoyment – there needs to be shade and space, and it needs to be purposeful. If they’re targeting families, for example, then they need to provide a playground and other recreational facilities, but if their target audience is older residents, then they don’t need to provide so many facilities – just a shady area for them to sit in, and some bathrooms, maybe a cafe.”
Hong Kong can look to other parks for inspiration when planning its new waterfront green space. Thanks to its tree-lined streets, bustling weekend markets, and thriving plaza area, The Plaza Hidalgo in Mexico is the best park in the world according to the PPS. Admittedly, Hong Kong will always be constrained by space, but success stories such as Hong Kong Park (ranked number 24 of the world’s best parks on the PPS website) prove that the city can create welcoming public spaces.
Even cities with such beautiful spaces as Barcelona’s Gaudi-designed Park Guell, however, don’t always get it right, as the city’s Parc Diagonal Mar is considered (by the PPS) the worst park in the world, an embarrassment to the mayor and an urban-development disaster. “There are few people on the streets and public space, shops or bar terraces are little used by the neighbours. The only pedestrian oriented area is inside a large, blank-walled, suburban-style mall with a retail plaza on the roof,” the PPS notes. Let’s hope we can prevent our city’s parks from ending up this way.