How do you make a city a better place for the people who live there? It’s a deceptively simple question that hides a complicated set of policy and design challenges. And it’s one that a host of town planners, architects and urban designers are tackling in the hope of making Hong Kong’s urban environment greener, happier and more humane. “It’s a matter of mindset,” says architect Chris Law. “It’s about what kind of city you want.”
Law is the founding director of Oval Partnership, an architecture and design firm that has worked on projects like the renovation of public spaces around Star Street, as well as the construction of new mixed-use neighbourhoods in Chengdu and Beijing. More than just designing structures, though, Oval Partnership has been working to develop a new way of designing urban space, one based on close collaboration with the local communities that will actually use that space. It’s an approach called placemaking, which Law recently spoke about at the 25 Years of Design symposium.
“Placemaking is probably the most powerful tool to make something effective happen,” he says. “It allows people to build social and cultural capital. It gives them a sense of identity and a sense of the present, past and future. It is a form of dialogue that is non-confrontational that allows them to plan the city through the resolution of conflicts and the building of consensus. It really helps our city become a better place, one that is more effective at delivering quality of life.”
The concept of placemaking is rooted in the 1960s, when urban thinkers like Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte advocated for a more grassroots approach to managing urban change. They were reacting to the wholesale demolition of neighbourhoods in North America and Europe for expressways, tower blocks and shopping malls – so-called urban renewal schemes that often destroyed the communities they were meant to help.
American city centres were being choked by rings of highways that were meant to make it easier to access downtown shopping areas, only to have the opposite effect of sending urban dwellers out to the suburbs, emptying out once-lively streets. Many European cities had similar ambitions. Town planners in Amsterdam proposed paving over many of the city’s iconic canals to create high-speed roadways, prompting a backlash that eventually produced a very different kind of city, one known for lively, tree-lined streets where the vast majority of people get around by foot and bicycle rather than by car.
That backlash was echoed across the architecture and planning professions in the 1970s. “First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works,” said Danish urban planner Jan Gehl, who spearheaded the revival of Cophenhagen’s dowdy, traffic-clogged city centre by pedestrianising Strøget, a historic shopping area, in 1962. It was a major success and the first of many projects in which Gehl and his wife, psychologist Ingrid Gehl, explored what they call the “human side of architecture,” one situated in the “borderland between sociology, psychology, architecture, and planning.”
The idea of placemaking took a long time to arrive in Hong Kong – and it is still struggling to be accepted. This is a city where new development is dominated by huge blocks of towers built atop of shopping malls, and where entire sections of old, working-class neighbourhoods are still being demolished in the name of urban renewal. Efforts to reclaim more space for pedestrians, like what Cophenhagen did 60 years ago and what the Walk DVRC initiative proposes for Des Voeux Road Central, seem to have stalled.
But even in a difficult environment like Hong Kong, placemaking can make a huge difference. The Blue House project used placemaking techniques to preserve a cluster of historic shophouses in collaboration with the people who lived there; it now functions as a kind of neighbourhood cooperative with a mix of long-time residents, newcomers, businesses, cultural initiatives and social services. (Chris Law is chairman of the steering committee that oversees the Blue House.) The Design Trust is currently building on placemaking principles to redesign playgrounds and sitting-out areas around Hong Kong. Last year, Via North Point laid the groundwork for community-based improvements of the Hong Kong Island neighbourhood under the guise of a festival that included playful interventions in urban space.
None of it has been easy. “Bottom-up is just not in the DNA of how city planning is undertaken in Hong Kong,” says urban planner Ester van Steekelenburg, founder of Urban Discovery, a social enterprise that works on heritage conservation around Asia. Placemaking requires a change in approach. “If you are used to doing things top-down, it means that everybody in an organisation—be it a developer, an NGO or just an ordinary participant—everybody needs to develop a new language. That takes time. And it’s hard because there’s no official procedures for this. Even if you ask residents, they may not necessarily give their opinion. The channels don’t exist.”
Many urban development projects in Hong Kong ask for public input, but van Steekelenburg says it is often treated as a kind of accessory, rather than something integral to the whole process. “Residents have been asked so many times [for their thoughts] but they don’t know what the developers or government do with that information,” she says. “They don’t report back, they don’t see the results so it feels fruitless.”
Placemaking requires a holistic approach to thinking about urban space, one that isn’t just about specific buildings or streets, but instead ties together community, the environment, heritage and more. It requires a certain bureaucratic flexibility and finesse to implement – something that Hong Kong lacks. “There are so many different departments that are in charge of public spaces – sometimes it’s the LCSD [Leisure and Cultural Services Department], sometimes it’s the Highways Department, sometimes it’s the Lands Department. If you want to do something larger, like the Coastal Trail project, it involves multiple departments that almost by default aren’t on the same wavelengths. That’s frustrating.”
Donald Choi, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA) and CEO of property developer Chinachem, says there is another problem that needs to be overcome: a lack of focus on social good in architecture and property development. Every year, HKIA members vote on the best new projects. The very first medal was given in 1965 to Choi Hung, a public housing estate that Choi describes as “a really progressive idea where a community of 7,000 plus flats was put together with a lot of communal spaces.” These days, the HKIA’s awards are mostly reserved for institutional or cultural projects, rather than residential or commercial. In other words, there isn’t as much attention being paid to the everyday spaces where people actually spend the majority of their time.
Choi says this has created a situation where top-notch design and architecture is being reserved for one-of-a-kind projects, rather than ordinary housing estates or neighbourhood commercial spaces. The consequence is that a growing number of Hongkongers are unhappy with the spaces they inhabit, according to the HKIA’s own research. “We need to reinforce the social contract between architecture and the community,” says Choi. “We can’t just be considered to be giving professional services to the real estate developers and the elite.”
The City at Eye Level Asia, a book co-authored by van Steekelenburg and available to download for free, offers a guide to a new way forward. Part of a series of books documenting grassroots urban change, this Asian edition includes 30 case studies from around the region, ranging from urban design interventions in the trendy Seoul neighbourhood of Hongdae to an effort in Mumbai to involve a local community in transforming an outdoor staircase into a public plaza.
There are examples from Hong Kong, too. In one chapter, van Steekelenburg examines how Swire Properties has attempted to turn the footbridges around Quarry Bay into gathering places instead of just passageways. In two other chapters, social worker Benjamin Sin and community engagement advocate Stephanie Cheung look at how community workshops were used in Pok Fu Lam Village and Sai Ying Pun to develop a collaborative vision for the future of both of those urban spaces.
Chris Law—who penned a chapter in the book with van Steekelenburg on their work to develop a new neighbourhood around a historic temple in Chengdu—has been using placemaking exercises to reclaim vacant spaces around Hong Kong. Through its non-profit initiatives Very Hong Kong, Urban Diary and Collaborate HK, Oval Partnership has organised initiatives on education, culture, heritage, sustainability, poverty and youth development in neighbourhoods across Hong Kong. In some cases, they have delivered lectures explaining how the town planning process works, something most ordinary citizens find mystifying. In others, they have tapped into local knowledge to come up with ideas for underused or leftover spaces, like turning the space underneath a flyover in Tin Shui Wai into a library for teenagers.
“We go to the Chinese herbal tea shop at the bottom of a tenement house and gather all the elderly people there in the morning and say, why don’t we do something to make the local park a little bit more friendly to older people,” says Law. “It’s really about having a dialogue with people, allowing them to have a dialogue with each other, and through that people can begin to replan their district. Planning is about how people use the resources in the district. These exercises are really about facilitating their understanding of their legacy, their heritage, what is good about the district that they live in and what they can do to make it a bit better.”
In some cases, the exercises have helped shine a light on previously overlooked communities. When Urban Diary set out to make a video in Shui Hau, a Hakka village on Lantau Island, Law and his colleagues discovered that the women in the village spoke an ancient dialect of Cantonese that predates the area’s settlement by Hakka people. “Together with the Chinese University, we’ve now got a grant to create a storytelling centre in the village,” says Law.
The challenge will be to scale up these kinds of efforts so they can influence Hong Kong’s overall approach to town planning and design. “We understand that infrastructure is important, like roads and pedestrian links between blocks,” says Bryant Lu, architect and vice-chairman of Ronald Lu & Partners, one of Hong Kong’s largest architecture firms. “But how can we make it more human-centric, more user-friendly? That’s something we can work on more – the larger scale urban development.”
There are signs things are already changing. Lu points to the newest generation of harbourfront public spaces as an example. The Belcher Bay Promenade in Kennedy Town features loose furniture and other objects that people can move around, while the new promenade in Wan Chai does away with the fences that have long separated Hongkongers from the harbour. In West Kowloon, people visiting the Art Park are encouraged to bring their pets and spend the afternoon playing on the lawn.
“The landscape design is a lot more contemporary and more user-friendly than the traditional ‘do not step on grass’ mindset,” says Lu. “When I went to West Kowloon on the weekend, people were out with dogs and kids, cycling, picnicking. That was a scene unheard of in Hong Kong 15 or 20 years ago. It’s not as harsh and rigid as it was before. The barriers are getting softer, the edges are getting integrated and people are willing to assume more risk than before.”
It’s a sign that, bit by bit, Hong Kong is changing. But it will take time. “Placemaking is not a crude one-stroke exercise,” says Law. “It’s done by millions. And that’s how it makes the city a better place to live for all of us.”
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