Our open space that is anything but public

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2008, 12:00am

Times Square's renting out of the piazza for private gain, Cheung Kong's policing of its pond, the lack of seating in Pacific Place's Park Court, the encroachment by bars on the roof of Two IFC, Henderson's failure to provide 24-hour access to the podium of the Metro Harbourview. These are all mere symptoms of the real problem: these spaces should never have been classified as public open space in the first place.

The government happily counts these areas within private developments as 'public open space' in an attempt to meet the required minimum provision of 2 sq metres of open space per person, as set out in Hong Kong's Planning Standards and Guidelines. The motivation? Pure greed in the form of land premiums, rates and rentals. By including these spaces in private developments, other land is freed up for sale. And the cost of the design and upkeep of public space is transferred to the private sector.

Developers happily oblige, as they are compensated with extra floor area. They can also design and manage these spaces in line with their interests, rather than suffer the overmanagement by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department or the abysmal undermanagement by the Highways Department.

By exploiting every possibility to increase revenue by selling land - but refusing to create new street-level space for pedestrians - Hong Kong has failed to keep pace with its increasing density. The city now has a shortfall of open space, circulation space and pedestrian connections in all urban areas. We should be raising the minimum amount of open space required to cater for an ageing population, a doubling of leisure time (with Saturdays off), increasing tourist arrivals, and the general call for a better quality of life.

Not only does the public suffer, but the 'open space' within private developments is a substandard replacement. After all, how 'open' is a podium garden? How 'public' is space managed by private interests?

The solutions are quite straightforward. First, more land must be freed up for true public open space at street level. Oversized lots on the land sales list should be split up.

Second, the Lands Department must be called to task to implement set-back rules governing the space between buildings and roads for all redevelopment, including those announced by the Urban Renewal Authority, to create more circulation space at street level. When smaller buildings are replaced with larger ones, there are more people and more traffic. Set-backs are simple solutions that the Lands Department refuses to accept; they are deemed 'too expensive' (read: can't maximise land premiums).

Third, we need a new classification system for open space within private developments, which can't be counted against the requirement for 'public open space'. The Times Square piazza should be 'circulation space' to cope with pedestrian traffic. The Two IFC rooftop should be 'retail open space' so it can be properly used for outdoor dining. Housing estate podium gardens should be 'residential open space'.

Finally, the government must lead by example with its own developments, in particular the Tamar site. Following a rezoning approval, a large park in front of the new offices at Tamar is to be broken up into smaller gardens, surrounding the different buildings and forming a 'green carpet'.

In recent communication, the administration has said that the public open space on Tamar will be 'open' when security and operational requirements allow. If so, officials should act responsibly and declare these to be private gardens that will only be open when convenient. That involves rezoning them, so that they will not be counted against the minimum provision of open space. The government must ensure that the two hectares of open space at Tamar are accessible 24 hours a day. Otherwise, it is no better than the private developers it is now pursuing, under public pressure.

Paul Zimmerman is a founding member of Designing Hong Kong