26 October 2016

To build a better HK, urban planners need more public input

It’s been almost a year since the temporary marketplace at Tung Yan Street in Kwun Tong has been open to the public.

However, media reports say the market is a total failure, because very few people come and business is almost at a standstill.

This marketplace is next to a bus and minibus terminus and is only a block away from the crowded and bustling Yue Man Square.

Why does its advantageous geographical position fail to attract any meaningful traffic?

To understand this, one must first take a look at how urban or community planning is done in Hong Kong.

In the government’s city development plan, each district is assigned a specific role, such as providing trade and commercial, residential or industrial premises.

Under Kwun Tong’s renewal program, the area is designated as a trade and commercial zone, in which all the core facilities will be tailor-made for that particular purpose.

As priority is given to the fulfillment of that designated role, all other existing activities in the area, no matter whether they are cultural, artistic or residential, will have to take a backseat, often regardless of the wishes and real needs of the local residents.

Such a rigid mindset regarding urban planning reflects a kind of modernist logic among town planners — each area plays its role so that the entire city will look very orderly.

Following this logic, a residential area must look like a residential area, and an industrial area can only allow industrial activities.

Diversity is often off the table when it comes to urban planning, because it is against the professional doctrines of town planners, sometimes even at the expense of the real needs of the local residents.

Another striking example of town planners’ rigidity and inability to adopt a more practical approach can be found at Yu Suen Lane, a former alley that cuts through How Ming Street and Hung To Road in Kwun Tong

It has been renovated recently and decorated with graffiti in an attempt to add some artistic touches to the area.

While the government had good intentions, it seems, unfortunately, that the officials responsible for this project didn’t do a proper on-site inspection.

Because of its odd location, the lane has very few pedestrians most of the time, so the graffiti there goes almost completely unnoticed, and the lane has now turned into an unofficial parking lot.

Instead of sticking to the top-down approach, the government could do a better job by drawing on the experience of some places overseas where the government engages the public when it comes to urban planning so as to better cater for their needs.

In Tampere, Finland’s second-largest city, the city council is planning to build a public tramway network along Hameenkatu, the main road downtown, by 2019 to serve the city’s population of 300,000.

Unlike the public consultations in Hong Kong, which are often nothing more than a formality, the mayor of Tampere invited all his fellow citizens to take part in a real-life experiment: in summer last year, all private vehicles were banned along the eastern half of the main road, to see how citizens’ daily lives would be affected.

The experiment sparked a heated debate over the pros and cons of the tramway proposal.

Perhaps what Hong Kong needs is a new mindset known as “tactical urbanism”, which allows citizens to change the urban status quo by “hacking the city”, so as to achieve a user-oriented approach in urban planning.

This article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 1.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A member of Shadow Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, a non-governmental organization.

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