When a gorgeous historic reservoir was uncovered under the summit of Bishop Hill Hong Kong, it set off a debate on what should be done with the 19th century stone structure. Should it be preserved as is? Turned into a historical interpretive centre? Given over to arts and cultural uses?
One thing was often overlooked in those discussions: how people were using Bishops Hill before anyone knew the abandoned structure underground was so beautiful. For decades, ever since a squatter village was cleared from the hill in the 1980s, residents of the jam-packed tenements and public housing estates nearby had been using the green space as an informal recreational area. They built bamboo railings to help elderly people climb the slope, fashioned benches out of leftover construction materials, erected a mahjong shack near the summit and installed makeshift exercise equipment in the woods.
“For a long time, the community has been using that hill as a de facto backyard,” said heritage conservation architect Fredo Cheung when we spoke to him about the hill in 2021. “It has an immense social value to that community because it’s their only open space.”
Hong Kong is a city where the concept of a backyard is foreign to most people. Even where they do exist, like in the townhouses of Fairview Park, they tend to be little patches of concrete. And so thousands of people across the city have turned leftover green spaces into communal backyards where they can exercise, gather, garden and linger in a way they can’t in their tiny high-rise flats or in public spaces that tend to be rule-bound and restrictive.
“Hongkongers are inventive,” says Carine Lai, a researcher who has spent years studying the city’s urban space for Civic Exchange and other organisations. Now she is embarking on a new effort to document Hong Kong’s informal recreational spaces. With support from TrailWatch, the WYNG Foundation (a social welfare NGO) and Parks and Trails (a country park watchdog), Lai and co-author Yeung Ha-chi have published a 100-page report on these areas, part of a new initiative called the Backyard Trails Pilot Project.
The goal is not to provide a guide to these spaces, but instead to raise awareness about them and outline a path forward for their management. In the past, they have often been the subject of a cat-and-mouse game between the kaifong (neighbours) who use them and government officials who see them as a nuisance. Lai wants to prove that with the right framework in place, they can be maintained in a spirit of collaboration between citizens and the government. “These leftover spaces become spaces where people have the opportunity to placemake spontaneously, on their own, and it really showcases the skills of these people and their care for their community,” she says. “Communities build up around these facilities.”
In her preface to the report, Lai situates these backyard trails in the larger context of Hong Kong’s urban environment. “I have always had a soft spot for the leftover spaces in cities that people use in unexpected ways – the plastic chairs on street corners, the gaps under flyovers where old men play cards, the railings with drying laundry draped over them,” she writes. “Hongkongers live in an aggressively utilitarian environment with little greenery and even less space to call their own. So everyday life spills out into the nooks and crannies, and people make creative use of whatever they can find to humanise their surroundings.”
She first became interested in the backyard trails about a decade ago when she spotted a nondescript concrete staircase near where she lives. “I must have passed it hundreds of times without giving it a second thought, but that day, I decided to climb it, and it was like entering another world,” she writes. Someone had installed hundreds of religious figurines under the shade of a huge banyan tree. As she pressed on, the concrete stairs gave way to a dirt trail that eventually led to a clearing filled with handmade exercise equipment. It dawned on her that this was an entirely do-it-yourself community space. “I figured there had to be other places in Hong Kong like this; most urban areas backed up onto hills, after all.”
For a city that is as densely populated in Hong Kong, there is a surprising amount of leftover space. In the case of Bishops Hill, this is the result of a protected green space established around the old reservoir, but in many areas, this leftover space is a kind of no-man’s-land that exists between urban areas and the vast network of country parks set up by the Murray MacLehose administration in the 1970s. Lai says there was a government proposal in the early 1990s to turn these buffer zones into something called urban fringe parks. “They were supposed to be more accessible than country parks but also bigger and more natural than the overcrowded urban parks,” she explains. But no government departments at the time were interested in actually implementing and managing these parks, so the idea fell by the wayside.
Hongkongers ended up building their own kind of parks in these spaces. TrailWatch has identified 40 backyard trails around Hong Kong; for the pilot project, Lai and Yeung narrowed their focus to 11, from Mount Davis near Kennedy Town to Hammer Hill in Kowloon to Fu Yung Shan in Tsuen Wan. In the winter and spring of 2022, TrailWatch interns and staff visited these trails with a GPS tracker, mapping as many of them as they could while taking photographs and jotting down observations. They paid particular attention to the condition of each trail, any historical or natural features, the mix of official and unofficial facilities, and how people were using the spaces beyond simply walking.
Lai says many of the grassroots facilities built along these trails are simply making up for the shortcomings of the government’s cookie-cutter approach to infrastructure. “They respond very closely to the environment whereas the government installations are more standardised,” she says.
“Typically you’ll find [government-installed] benches along the steep sections of paths, and rain shelters at the top of the hills. But sometimes they don’t really match what people are doing. You’ll see that people put informal seating areas in clusters, because people like to have spaces where they can sit and gather. They’ll often take government spaces and build onto them. If it’s not really shielding them from the rain or sun, they’ll built a whole tent over it. There’s some places where there’s a mahjong table where people sit and play. Sometimes there will be a natural lookout point where people have put a couple of seats there.” There’s even a koi pond along one trail in Tuen Mun. “It’s been maintained by the same group of hikers over the past 30 or 40 years,” says Lai.
Every so often, the government will clear some of the informal structures, only to have them quickly rebuilt by kaifong. But there can be legitimate concerns around these DIY spaces. “There are potential safety and environmental hazards,” says Parks and Trails partnership and communications head Kwong Sum-yin. “And currently the maintenance is sporadic and the responsibility is not clear. The neglect of these backyard trails may lead to the loss of our cultural heritage, with the wartime ruins on Mount Davis and the defunct service reservoir under [Bishop Hill] as examples.”
In other words, these are sensitive places, both because of the way they have been transformed by the community and their underlying environmental and historical conditions. Kwong says that calls for a new approach to management. “The Home Affairs Department should conduct public engagement with trail users to ensure that future facilities can reflect their real needs,” she says. “For some trails that are especially popular with retirees, the government should contact site visits and talk to them directly. In the medium term, local organisations or green groups should be offered an ‘adopt-a-trail’ mode of management. The government can make use of existing mechanisms such as short-term tenancies for nonprofit organisations or government land allocations to regularise informal structures for community use in certain places, ensure that they are adequately maintained, and prevent further uncontrolled construction.”
Lai says that, when it comes to backyard trails, less is more. “Basically, we would like to see relatively minimal intervention by the government. But also a more collaborative approach with green groups or community groups rather than this antagonistic one.”
There is a precedent for such an approach. Some country parks have officially enshrined backyard trails and informal recreational structures as Morning Walker Gardens, with rain shelters and facilities for boiling tea. In the Lung Fu Shan Country Park, a man who maintained one of those gardens ended up collaborating with the Agricultural, Fisheries and Conservation Department to build an herb garden that is now maintained by a not-for-profit organisation.
That kind of generous approach could benefit a huge number of people. Lai and Yeung note that 1.5 million people live within a short distance of the 11 backyard trails studied in their report. When you consider that these are just a fraction of all the informal recreational spaces that exist, it’s likely that a majority of people in Hong Kong are within walking distance of backyard trails and the communities they sustain.
“These places are a form of self-expression in some ways, but they’re very pragmatic as well,” says Lai. “[The people who build them] are working with what they have in their community and they know what is missing so they use it as an opportunity to add what wasn’t there. They are active participants in these spaces rather than just passive recipients of what the government has built. These spaces are a leading indicator of what people want. They’re very meaningful.”