Why Did Hong Kong Turn Its Back On Its Streets?

Chris Law thinks there are two Hong Kongs: one with streets and one without. He can even pinpoint the exact year when these two Hong Kongs began to diverge. “We started forgetting about the street in 1972,” says the architect and urbanist. That was the year the colony’s then-governor, Murray MacLehose, launched a ten-year plan to develop more public housing in response to the overcrowded and precarious living conditions experienced by many Hongkongers, who were crammed into tenements or stuck in wooden shantytowns perched dangerously on landslide-prone hillsides. 

MacLehose’s plan led to a new generation of high-quality, affordable housing – a programme so successful that just over 50 percent of Hong Kong’s population now lives in some form of public housing. But it also fundamentally reshaped the nature of Hong Kong’s urban space, transforming it from a city oriented around streets — which were not just corridors of transport but places where people gathered for commerce, culture and social interaction — to one defined by superblocks of air-conditioned shopping malls and gated housing estates. 

Law has devoted a large part of his career to placemaking, the process of transforming urban spaces into places that reflect and enhance the communities that use them. And a big part of what motivates him is the streetlife he experienced as a child in the 1960s. “I was living on the first floor of a tenement building in Happy Valley – a truly diverse multi-family environment with a lot of things happening on the streets,” he says. There were people on their way to the shops, hawkers selling food, neighbours running into each other and grousing about this or that; the ding-ding of tram bells echoed through the streets. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the street is the window to the inner life of the city. 

As an architect, Law learned to think about it more analytically. “It was the experience of seeing how a street-based neighbourhood is capable of responding to constant changes and the evolution of different uses,” he says. “And most importantly, facilitating people knowing each other – technically building social capital and all that.”

Since co-founding his architecture and design firm, Oval Partnership, in 1992, Law has tried to understand how these traditional street-oriented neighbourhoods can be not only conserved, but how they can guide future development to create neighbourhoods that are as rich and lively as the one Law grew up in. It’s a question that is particularly relevant as Hong Kong embarks on a new round of mega-developments like the East Lantau Metropolis and Northern Metropolis, which will create entirely new mini-cities over the next couple of decades.

“We are at the beginning of some really big building activities – trying to build an entire city for three and a half million people,” says Law, referring to the projected total population of those two massive new developments. (By comparison, Hong Kong’s current population is 7.4 million.) “We should not forget to learn what is good about all these street neighbourhoods in Hong Kong like Kennedy Town, Mongkok, Happy Valley, Kowloon City. That is where all the creativity and innovation in the city comes from – those older street neighbourhoods.”

It’s worth stopping here to consider what exactly a street is. More than just a thoroughfare, it’s a destination in and of itself. In her 1951 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities — a seminal work that paved the way for placemaking — urban theorist Jane Jacobs outlined the essence of a successful street: 

A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighbourhoods always do, must have three main qualities: 

First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects [housing estates].

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind. 

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

Jacobs’ observations were rooted in the working-class life of postwar Greenwich Village, the bustling New York City neighbourhood where she lived, but with a few variations in detail they could be applied to streets going as far back in history as Rome, Guangzhou or any other ancient city.

Not to mention Hong Kong. For the first century of its life as a city, Hong Kong’s streets were sometimes overcrowded and sometimes insalubrious, but always lively. Hawkers clustered together in street markets selling fresh food, dried seafood, clothes and any other item you might need. Other businesses made their homes in shophouses whose densely-populated upper floors reached out over the sidewalk, creating arcades that sheltered passersby from the scorching sun and torrential rains of the summer months. 

None of this was planned, except in the broadest of senses. Hong Kong’s first streets were an attempt to negotiate difficult terrain: Queen’s Road followed the curves of the shoreline while other streets made the difficult climb uphill, either through sinewy switchbacks or, in the case of the many ladder streets, ploughing straight up the mountain. In the late 19th century, as the city expanded beyond the urban core known as Victoria City, a more orderly grid of streets was imposed on areas like Sai Ying Pun, Kennedy Town, Wan Chai and on the Kowloon peninsula. 

These grids have lent themselves to particularly fine-grained urban life. The blocks are small, about 40 by 50 metres in the case of Yau Ma Tei. That creates a preponderance of possible routes for getting from one place to another, making it easy to walk around. (Jane Jacobs was particularly fond of short blocks for this very reason.) And each block is divided by a narrow laneway, a feature initially introduced for fire safety (each building now had two points of access, one in the front and another in the back) and hygiene – no more night waste piling up in the street, because it could now be collected from the back. Streetlife began to spill into these service lanes — alleyway barbershops, dai pai dong, watch repair kiosks, fruit stalls — creating a thriving ecosystem documented by architects Caroline Wuthrich and Geraldine Borio in their 2015 book Hong Kong In-Between. 

Though its particular brand of streetlife may have been unique, Hong Kong was not alone in having such a robust world of activity in its streets. In cities big and small all over the world, this was the norm. But in the early 20th century, a new generation of thinkers began to associate it with the pollution and inequality of the industrial era. This perception only deepened as streets began to fill up with loud, exhaust-belching motor vehicles – machines that dominate any space they’re in, and which have a tendency of turning their masters into servants. 

One architect who began to develop a new vision of the city was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret — better known as Le Corbusier — whose concept La Ville radieuse (The Radiant City), first published in 1935, proposed a new kind of urban development based around streamlined modern towers in a parklike setting, with strict separation between businesses and residences. (A decade earlier, Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin had proposed demolishing a large section of central Paris to replace it with a collection of identical skyscrapers linked by expressways.) 

As scholars Xavier Monteys Roig and Pere Fuertes Perez note in a 2016 paper for the Journal of Architecture and Urbanism, Le Corbusier had a “complex and sometimes contradictory” relationship with the street. He struggled with the unpredictability and disorder embodied by lively streets, and his various plans proposed new iterations of the street that were calmer and more highly regulated, with a distinct separation between uses: aerial pedestrian corridors connecting the upper levels of buildings, picturesque curving roads lined only by houses, “interior streets” that were essentially apartment building corridors with added public spaces. All in all, they could best be summed up by an expression he first employed in 1934: “la mort de la rue” – the death of the street. 

Le Corbusier’s ideas resonated with urban planners and administrators like Robert Moses, who demolished entire swathes of New York to build public housing estates modelled on La Ville radieuse. (Jane Jacobs wrote Death and Life in response to the upheaval of Moses’ urban renewal programme.) But they didn’t find immediate traction in Hong Kong. Even as the government and private developers built large Modernist housing estates like Choi Hung and Mei Foo, they still employed a certain urban logic, with internal streets lined by shops and markets. 

But everything changed with the opening of Wah Fu Estate in 1967. Perched atop Waterfall Bay on the southwest corner of Hong Kong Island, with glorious views of the sunset over Lamma Island, it was the first local housing estate that made an effort to rigorously segregate all of its different uses. Most blocks were purely residential, with landscaped plazas at their base; shops and other services were concentrated in two shopping centres. “The government planners really looked to what was happening in Europe, especially the UK, with slab blocks and tower blocks around a shopping centre,” says Chris Law. “Wah Fu was really the first [development] that forgot about the street.”

(Incidentally, Wah Fu is slated for redevelopment, the first phase of which is now underway. Plans call for a street-less layout not unlike that of the original.)

Others followed. Most public housing estates built since the 1970s have followed the Wah Fu model. In the private sector, developers looking to maximise space pioneered the podium tower block, with residential or office towers built atop a single large block containing a shopping mall, community facilities and other services such as a bus depot or MTR station. 

The culmination of this model of development is Tseung Kwan O, an area built on land reclaimed from Junk Bay in the eastern New Territories. Planned in the 1980s and developed starting in the 1990s, it is a city without any streets in the traditional sense. Each block is enormous and occupied by a single development, usually linked to its neighbours by footbridge. Roads run between the superblocks, lined mostly by blank walls and service entrances; they exist solely to move cars, trucks and buses, along with the occasional sun-battered pedestrian who somehow took a wrong turn. One thinks of Jacobs’ warning against buildings turning their back to the street and leaving it blind.

Though many people seem perfectly content to live in such environments, others find them wanting. “Tseung Kwan O is a city of dead streets,” wrote Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist Frank Chen in a 2016 article on the district. “If you look for a detour you will find that there’s none; if you descend the footbridges or walkways, you will reach the ground level of nothingness: streets have no names, no shops, no pedestrians, just highways and wire fences that keep you away from an otherwise walkable waterfront area. Parents even warn kids not to go to the ground level as there’s no one down there and it probably isn’t safe. Mom and pop shops, cha chaan tengs, grocery stores, and all other quintessential elements that give life and variety to the city’s old neighbourhoods are scarce in Tseung Kwan O.”

Parts of the old neighbourhoods have come to resemble Tseung Kwan O, thanks to urban renewal projects that erased entire streets and replaced them with superblock developments. The latest is the Kwun Tong town centre, a formerly bustling collection of streets, alleys and markets, first developed in the early 1950s, demolished a decade ago and now the site of a podium tower complex called Grand Central. 

And there aren’t quite as many street markets, eateries and hawker stalls as there used to be: thanks to a 1970s policy that is still largely in place, the number of hawker, dai pai dong and fixed-pitch market stall licences has been frozen, with the goal of ultimately eliminating them. The situation became such that even the normally stodgy editorial board of the South China Morning Post took notice: “Hong Kong long ago declared war on street life,” it wrote in 2009, calling for a “street-level revival.”  

Even some property developers agree. Donald Choi, an architect by training who is now CEO of real estate giant Chinachem Group, says Hong Kong needs to recognise the value of street-oriented urban development. “The previous model where we have the podium and the housing estate on top, and the podium is very inward looking, it’s killing street life,” he says. “We should introduce street patterns into our cities rather than superblocks. The street is something everyone can enjoy. When we talk about public good, this is part of it.”

Is the tide finally turning? Over the past ten years, old neighbourhoods like Sham Shui Po and Sheung Wan have become fashionable hangouts for young people who eschew the tower block malls they have grown up with. Some of the new developments on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport have a more traditional street layout. The West Kowloon Cultural District’s master plan, developed by Norman Foster’s studio, calls for streets lined by mixed-use buildings in between the cultural venues. 

Even Tseung Kwan O is getting a taste of streetlife: in its newest developments along the waterfront, retail is located on the ground level, facing the street rather than an enclosed shopping centre. It could be that, in at least some way, Hong Kong is finally rediscovering the value of its streets.

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