Space age

Lamenting the absence of a nice, leafy park in Hong Kong with grass to sit on is pointless (aside from a patch in Victoria Park and perhaps Grass Island, scattered among the cow patties). But where the SAR’s urban jungle of a cityscape was once cool and futuristic, attitudes have changed and the concrete has lost its lustre. A big green park is a luxury, but as more and more cities around the world—including regional rivals like Shanghai and Singapore—put more effort into their public realm it might be time for Hong Kong to do likewise. “On many levels Hong Kong has made a lot of progress in the last 10 to 15 years,” argues Chris Law, founding director of Oval Partnership. Additionally, “the realisation that heritage is an important asset for the city has helped, and climate change and pollution have brought awareness and consensus that these issues must be tackled.”

Defining Space

Think carefully: Is there a pleasant public social space in Hong Kong that you regularly stroll through just because? The promenades at TST and near Kowloon Station are on the water, and there are a few coffee shops dotting the areas, but they’re disconnected from the rest of the city by massive hotels or highways, and dominated by unwelcoming and uncomfortable concrete. They’re great for a jog or a walk, but not much else. This raises the question of what good public space is.

The “issue” of a public realm is not new. The city as we know it has existed as far back as 7000BCE. Everyone wants a beautiful city, claims industrial designer Ronan Bouroullec of Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec Design. “Recently I was in Syracuse, in Sicily. What a beautiful city—and it’s from the 15th century,” he notes of its stonework, fountains, proportioning, and generous public space that got people out on the streets together. The world is urbanising, making the need for public space even more crucial. “As we live more and more independently, we also need to find interesting solutions to stay out and stay together,” adds Bouroullec, who started designing for the public realm several years ago. Bouroullec’s creative public options range from simple rings around trees to geometric shading structures in city centres to make them better.

“I see public space as space that is accessible and doesn’t have to be defined by ownership; streets, roads, parks and squares, but also retail, restaurants and theatres,” theorises Anna Bond, portfolio director for developer Grosvenor’s London estate and executive director for Grosvenor Britain and Ireland. In Hong Kong for a symposium on public and private spaces, Bond defines public space as somewhere you don’t need to be invited, and more importantly, “it’s the public spaces that give a place its identity.”

Identity—which includes heritage and greenspace—is now considered part of what makes a liveable city, and for whatever reason, Hong Kong currently lacks public spaces when compared to other regional and global locations. Part of that shortfall can be chalked up to management and delivery, according to Law. True public space is managed by the LCSD, which adheres to very rigid regulations that prevent walking on grass or running food trucks. Privately owned public realms in a city where every square foot is assigned a dollar value, “tends to have a have profit-motivated management regime. So a Christmas fair is great, a concert is fine, but they wouldn’t want busking, for example. They’d prefer things to be closely monitored and controlled. It sounds strange but there’s a lack of public participation in public space,” notes Law.

Making Space

It’s easy to talk about how well-designed London or Stockholm or Santiago are, but urban space in Asia is a very different beast. Typhoons, humidity and pollution are factors that can have a negative impact on public spaces in this part of the world, but to suggest it’s the only place with heavy weather or dirty air is nonsense. Bringing public space inside is part of the solution, as is better bureaucratic communication. As Law notes, regulation of public spaces in Hong Kong is spread among three, four or five departments (Highways, FEHD, police) who don’t always talk. Local district officers who know their constituents need to be consulted. Management strategy needs to change first, as does overall urban planning to better take a long view to allow entire areas to develop—not just one tower.

“We have similar challenges in London. We think the government—the vision they set and the policies they put in place—should be dictating the outcome of the place,” says Bond. “You talk about the lack of interconnectivity of places, we had that all along the Thames until all the local authorities got together and decided they wanted people to be able to walk the length of the river. You need a bold public sector vision.”

Law and Bond agree one thing is a given: social trends are changing and our cities need to respond to that. Bond points to everyday tech that is already having an influence on how the public realm is used and impacted (think idling Deliveroo mopeds under your bedroom window), and Law to consumer patterns that are shifting away from regimented shopping centres to the authenticity of open streets and independent vendors, as evidenced by the success of SoHo and Lan Kwai Fong. “The purely indoor shopping centre is facing challenges in terms of e-commerce, and it’s not just about convenience and comfort. Those who seek experience will head to streets and neighbourhoods.” That said, not every street can be about artisan coffee and vintage clothing. Variety is key when millennials, the elderly and toddlers have different demands. “There is no one-size-fits-all [solution],” says Law.

Hong Kong isn’t doomed to having zero or poor public spaces, but it will demand creativity and collaboration. Tai Kwun is slowly proving the point, and like London’s wildly popular and successful Borough Market, it could become a vanguard. “Tai Kwun points to a viable way forward. The Jockey Club is doing this but it could be any other charity. St James runs the Blue House Project, so it is worth developing that line of thought because the charities are not looking for profit,” Law argues.

In the meantime, Hong Kong can continue with its baby placemaking steps in the right direction: Tai Kwun, Swire’s One Taikoo Place, Wing Tai’s Landmark East. “For me, if something didn’t grow out of the ground, it’s designed,” finishes Bouroullec. “Design is something you share with people, it’s something that tries to find solutions to make life easier or better. Walking in public spaces is no different.”