24 October 2016
The loss of Lee Tung Street is a painful reminder of how a conventional top-down approach to urban planning can ruin our cultural heritage. Photo: HKEJ
The loss of Lee Tung Street is a painful reminder of how a conventional top-down approach to urban planning can ruin our cultural heritage. Photo: HKEJ

Urban renewal: A Dutch experience

Recently I went to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to see some of the community cultural spaces there. The operational model of those facilities has offered me a lot of insight into how the power and aspirations of local residents can help shape the development of a community.

First I paid a visit to a bookstore known as the “Het Fort Van Sjakoo” and located in Jodenbreestraat in downtown Amsterdam. This bookstore, which is roughly of the same size as any chain bookstore in Hong Kong, was at the ground floor of an old building named Titushuis.

Even though the store had a collection of a wide variety of books — some of them were very rare, and the shop is regarded by many book-lovers around the world as a treasure island — I wasn’t actually there for the books. Instead, it is the story behind the founding of the bookstore that captivated me.

In the 1960s when the local authorities were planning to rebuild the neighborhood of Jodenbreestraat, big real-estate developers were throwing their weight around and trying to talk the government into giving the entire district a facelift by removing all the old buildings along its main road and building a motorway that would cut through the neighborhood.

However, the ambitious proposal drew a backlash from the residents and small business owners in the district, who were overwhelmingly in favor of preserving the historical and cultural heritage of their neighborhood. In order to make their voices heard and stop their historical buildings from being demolished, they even took to the street and mounted a popular campaign against the redevelopment program.

It was at the height of their campaign that this bookstore was opened and was used as their headquarters, where they were printing flyers and posters to rally public support for their cause. In the end they prevailed and the redevelopment program was abandoned.

Unfortunately, in 2001 the bookstore was on the brink of being put out of business in face of skyrocketing rent. In order to save his store, the shop owner called on his fellow residents in the neighborhood to help him out. Much to his surprise, his appeal for help immediately drew a lot of media and public attention, and tens of thousands of people whom he didn’t know quickly rallied to his support and made donations.

As a result, he was able to raise enough money to buy the premises in which the bookshop was located. Today the shop is being run as a co-op store with the help of a dozen of volunteers.

The triumph of the residents in the Jodenbreestraat district over big developers is a striking example of how ordinary citizens can take the future of their community into their own hands by influencing government decision on urban development and shaping their neighborhood according to their wishes through unified efforts and dogged perseverance.

A few days’ trip to Amsterdam has allowed me to reflect on the issue of urban renewal in Hong Kong.

In the recent District Council election, several young candidates, often dubbed the “paratroopers”, pulled off some major upsets and won. Among them, some had put forward a “bottom-up” approach to urban redevelopment even before they were elected.

Under the approach, members of the community were urged to be more vocal and pro-active when it comes to the development of their neighborhood, so that the authorities can have a better understanding of their needs when planning new facilities.

By playing a more active role in community planning, ordinary citizens can also develop a stronger sense of belonging to their neighborhoods.

The approach they proposed is revolutionary, as for decades our government has been adopting a “top-down” approach to urban planning, and most citizens have got so used to it that they wouldn’t even doubt whether it is the best way to build the community.

As a result, the citizens often don’t have much say in the planning and development of their neighborhoods, and billions of dollars in public money have been wasted on facilities that people just don’t need, since most of them were drafted and designed by bureaucrats behind closed doors.

I sincerely hope that the young paratroopers who were elected with a mandate from their constituents to improve their living environment can truly fulfill their roles and make good use of the public resources at their disposal to adopt a new mindset and bring real changes to the neighborhoods they represent.

That will help the people of Hong Kong to reshape their sense of identity and have a say in building their communities.

Let’s not forget the painful lesson from Wan Chai’s Lee Tung Street which is barely recognizable now after its redevelopment.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 11.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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