FLIPPING THROUGH a magazine and enjoying a welcome breeze under a sunshade, Landy Tse feels her mood lift. The nurse says she's delighted to have a 'secluded paradise' away from the hustle and bustle of Wan Chai.
Tse, who works in the area, is referring to a new outdoor area on Star Street that's attracted office workers and residents seeking a tranquil spot, as well as passers-by simply wanting to rest their feet. 'The street used to be messy and congested, and no one would want to linger,' she says.
But the scene began to change after the completion of the StarCrest residential complex and, later, Three Pacific Place, Tse says. To complement its properties, the developer, Swire, had cleaned up the surrounding grounds and introduced garden features, including a pergola for shade, bamboo and other greenery, and limestone seating. Public footpaths outside the new building have also been paved with greyish-blue granite, lined with contemporary lamps and steel railing moulded in soft flowing curves.
'The improvement is very impressive. With the new footpaths, and a clean and tidy lane, the environment has become a lot more pleasant,' Tse says.
The nurse's response illustrates how much streetscape upgrades can change the quality of life in a neighbourhood. The area is now a stark contrast to the run-down alleyways on the other side of Queen's Road East.
'Minor but incremental changes can make significant differences,' says Michael Siu Kin-wai, an associate professor of design at Polytechnic University.
For example, the paving done by the Highways Department outside Langham Place on Nelson Street and Portland Street has made the area more tidy and modern.
Although officials have started to become more aware of the importance of street features, Siu says the pace remains too slow and improvements are generally limited to areas frequented by tourists. And while functional, upgrades often neglect the aesthetics.
Private developers, however, have been quicker to see the benefits of better-looking streetscapes. Robert Lam Ping-hong, an architect in the design team for Three Pacific Place, says the developer was keen to improve the outlook and the amenities of Wan Chai.
'Even little changes can make the environment more livable,' Lam says. Hence the construction of a shaded sitting area in the space outside Three Pacific Place. Swire wanted to invite the local community as well as its office tenants to share the amenity, and therefore made it more welcoming by excluding features such as railings.
All the street furniture - including the signage - were designed to match the sleek, modern look of the office tower. 'While the [street furniture] designs need to be functional and timeless - something that would not easily become out-of-date - they do have to be durable since they're for public use,' he says.
Sun Hung Kai Properties is another company investing in improving public space. It's turned an area outside The Arch, a residential development in West Kowloon, into a pleasant garden, with patterned granite paths and a bronze sculpture at the entrance.
According to Sun Hung Kai senior project manager Tim Mak Mang-tim, the garden area was constructed as part of its project agreement with the government. But the effort 'was quite expensive because we insisted on using the same material and design as that used for The Arch', he says. 'We didn't want to segregate the public and private zones.'
Such public works by developers aren't primarily altruistic. While sprucing up the surroundings helps boost the corporate image, they reap a return in enhanced property values.
Still, local leaders appreciate the refurbished neighbourhoods. 'I'm impressed by the new look,' Wan Chai district councillor Steve Chan Yiu-fai says of the Star Street makeover. He regards it as slightly anomalous to see the mix of modern street furniture next to old-fashioned styles, but says that's common in old districts undergoing modernisation.
Chan, who's also an architect and surveyor, says each neighbourhood should have a look that reflects its character. But the government uses the same street furniture across the city which gives the districts a similar look.
Departmental dithering tends to hamper the pace to improve streetscapes, he says. Although officials should thoroughly consider new proposals, especially over safety concerns and maintenance costs, he says it would be more helpful to actively seek views from both professionals and users of public facilities.
'Streetscapes can be improved in a more co-ordinated and harmonious way if the government could be more open to different views from residents and new designs by professionals,' Chan says.
Bureaucratic red tape has also drawn scathing comments from such professionals as Hong Kong Institute of Planners vice-president Pong Yuen-yee, who described the city's street furniture as 'appalling'.
For instance, it took Siu and his team at the Polytechnic University two years of discussion before officials agreed to a minor change to the design of the city's rubbish bins: including a lid on the inset ashtray to stop ash blowing away. But even then, it's limited to about 10 bins which were being tested in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui last month.
'Introducing better designed street fixtures is sometimes more effective in changing people's behaviour than putting up posters or carrying out public education,' says Chan, whose team spent three years studying how people dispose of their rubbish. Hence his proposal to introduce rubbish bins with rounded lids: it would discourage the public from leaving wrappers and food containers on the flat top.
And to encourage people to donate to charities, the Polytechnic team has come up with a street lamp installed with an Octopus device that can make the appropriate deductions. 'It offers a convenient way for busy city people to make donations. Flag sales don't really work nowadays as most people don't want to be stopped to search for coins,' he says.
As in other areas of life, however, better streetscapes involve trade-offs. As the new-look Star Street attracts different pedestrian traffic, more high-end restaurants and galleries are moving in. But older businesses may be forced out by an accompanying rise in rents.
Florist OvoGarden is among the businesses opening on nearby Wing Fung Street, because of the stylish environment of the area and the proximity to its parent firm, Ovo, the furniture shop and lifestyle shop on Queen's Road East.
'We know the area is going to be developed into an artistic and trendy area that matches the style of our shop as we target upper middle-class families,' says Ovo director Thomas Ma Man-lung.
However, Yim Chun-wing, who works in Hing Tai Furniture on Queen's Road East, takes a dim view of the changes: the streamlined look doesn't blend in with the character of old Wan Chai.
'Only a small area is modern and tidy, and the rest is still disorganised. Meanwhile, rents continue to go up,' Yim says.
'Two shops next to ours were forced to move six months ago after the landlords nearly doubled rents from about $40,000 a month to $70,000. But the lots remain vacant.'
Nearby, Hing Wah garage is also bracing for closure. 'I'm prepared to shut down my shop if the landlord raises the rent,' says the owner, who declined to be named. 'I worry, but nothing can be done.'