Who Benefits from HK’s Urban Green Spaces?

The wide-open green spaces of Hong Kong’s expansive Country Parks can seem a world away to residents within the oppressive concrete jungle. 7.3 million inhabitants occupy ‘a built-up area of only 24% of its total territory of 1100 square kilometres’, making for one of the most densely populated built environments in the world (Tang, 2017: 81). Space is at a premium, and green spaces within the confines of built-up parts of the territory offer approximately 3 square metres per person, compared to an average of 25 square metres per person in European cities (McCay and Lai, 2018). Such open space within the confines of the city is distributed relatively unevenly, offering another telling insight into the government’s prioritisation of the city’s image as an international destination, with characteristic disregard for the well-being of poorer residents.

A pavilion in Kowloon Park, with the 484m ICC skyscraper in the background, 2016, Author

Stumbling upon a green space within the dense confines of the city feels like discovering an oasis within an otherwise barren urban environment. In the bustling Tsim Sha Tsui district, steps lead up from the heavily polluted Nathan Road to the elevated and surprisingly quiet Kowloon Park. Paths weave through dense greenery, leading visitors past serene ponds. The 13.3 hectare park provides ample space for running loops, feels less oppressively hot than the surrounding streets in summer, and undoubtedly helps filter often hazardous air. The park is a hub for biodiversity in both flora and fauna, and even boasts a flamboyance of flamingos which frolic freely in a large pond, with other rare bird species visible in large zoo-style enclosures. Cornered in by high-rise shopping malls, the park is an invaluable space for local people, and an evident draw for visitors. However, such parks, as is the case with Hong Kong Park and Victoria Park, are largely located in commercial and tourist hotspots.

Parks located in less prominent residential neighbourhoods are much smaller and contain far less greenery, instead focusing on providing outdoor seating for socialising or eating lunch. Around the corner from the small apartment I stayed in whilst working in Hong Kong is the Yau Ma Tei Community Centre park, appropriately named a ‘rest garden’, and particularly popular with elderly locals. A survey of the locations of open spaces ranging from larger parks to ‘rest gardens’ found that only half of these spaces are located in the vicinity of ‘high-density residential zones’, despite the fact that these zones accommodate a large ‘majority of the Hong Kong people in mass housing units’ (Tang, 2017: 88).

The Yau Ma Tei ‘Rest Garden’, popular with elderly residents

With this in mind, it becomes easier to recognise the warped patterns of distribution of open spaces in the city. Open spaces are often concentrated around ‘expensive housing zones’, and ‘especially to commercial and business zones in the main urban core’ (Tang, 2017: 88). The local government has channelled resources into the development of tourist hotspots, but Hong Kong’s infatuation with capitalism means that the planning of green spaces is increasingly being bundled up with private commercial developments. The Kowloon’s harbour-front Avenue of Stars is a flagship public space for the city. Overlooking the iconic skyline, the space has been extended and rejuvenated as part of a 2.6 billion HKD mixed-use development. A sure-fire hit with tourists, the space is likely to boost ‘place-marketing and city promotion’ in image-conscious Hong Kong (Tang, 2017: 88). Hong Kong’s eternal focus on image has resulted in a contemporary proliferation of green-veneer public spaces, which have even been termed ‘blots on the landscape’.

An artist’s impression of the Avenue of Stars, with a striking array of greenery, Jing Travel
Back to reality – a classic ‘green-veneer’ public space, The Standard

Such privatised public spaces fail to implement biodiversity strategies and fall short of offering benefits to the working people of Hong Kong, housed in far-off mass housing and cage homes. Even more concerningly, commercial developments which purport to offer public space are often attached to large land-reclamation projects which can cause untold damage on marine ecosystems – notably invisible to the tourist’s naked eye.

The waterfront ‘Art Park’ of the newly reclaimed West Kowloon Cultural District can feel eerily quiet, bordered only by the luxury shopping mall ‘Elements’, luxury investment-residential apartment buildings and newly completed cultural venues which will again cater for Hong Kong’s elite. These trends in commercial development, in West Kowloon under the guise of cultural regeneration, reassert concerns that Hong Kong’s new green spaces will actually serve to ‘deprive underprivileged communities of the right to conveniently access public space’ (Tang, 2017: 80).

A quiet – and bougie – Art Park

Sources:

McCay, L., Lai, L., ‘Urban design and mental health in Hong Kong: a city case study’, Journal of Urban Design and Mental Health, 2018: 4: 9, accessed at: https://www.urbandesignmentalhealth.com/journal4-hk-case-study.html

Tang, Bo-Sin, ‘Is the distribution of public open space in Hong Kong equitable, why not?’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 161, 2017, p.80-89

Feature Image: Green space squeezed into the dense Mong Kok district of Kowloon, 2018, Author

An artist’s impression of the Avenue of Stars, with a striking array of greenery, Jing Travel: https://jingtravel.com/hong-kong-avenue-of-stars-reopens/

Back to reality – a classic ‘green-veneer’ public space, The Standard: https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/4/120991/Eco-friendly-revival-for-Avenue-of-Stars

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