Public space should not be left in private hands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2008, 12:00am

There should be no mistaking whether an area is or is not for public use. A garden to relax in, an area in which to have lunch, a jogging track: each should be easily identifiable. Yet the government's policy of giving incentives to developers for providing open spaces in their projects is clearly not working. If it was, there would be no need for authorities to go to the trouble of revealing where such spots are located, as was the case yesterday.

The Lands and Buildings departments published on their websites a list of 433 places for public enjoyment that are tucked into private residential and commercial developments. An outcry earlier this year prompted the drawing up in March of a list half as long. As authorities delve deeper into their files, more will undoubtedly be unearthed. As useful as the addresses, maps and photographs may be, they are proof that this is a system that is flawed.

At the heart of the problem is the developers. They have, in a number of cases, been camouflaging the areas, locating them in out-of-the-way places, restricting access, putting up confusing signs and in some cases chasing away members of the public on the pretext that the zones are for private use only. What should be clearly marked has been blurred, making passers-by unaware that they can make use of the facilities.

The government should have announced yesterday that it had realised its mistake and would rethink the approach. Instead, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor praised it, saying that it provided extra open space for public use. She acknowledged that there were problems, but said the solution lay in management and inspections. Guidelines would be drawn up to help residents and developers manage open spaces.

On paper, the idea makes sense. The government passes on the costs of design and upkeep through making developers responsible. They are compensated with extra gross floor areas. In practice, more often than not, developers have designed and are managing the public spaces as if they were their own. In cases where the areas are in places that are difficult to access or are underused, owners should be able to buy them back from the government. The funds raised should be used to provide facilities elsewhere that would be managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. Mrs Lam made this suggestion yesterday and it is to be applauded. But it is only part of the solution.

Property developers are always going to put their own interests ahead of those of the public. They have profits, shareholders and the people who will buy or rent their buildings to think of first. Only after those needs are satisfied will the people who happen to pass by their development or live or work in the neighbourhood be considered. Putting the general population of Hong Kong last in the equation is not good, but it is what is happening. We live in a pressure-cooker city. Life is stressful and can be difficult. Our flats are often cramped and recreational space in urban areas is limited. To ensure quality of life, we need places to relax, get exercise and socialise. Such spots must be easily accessible and clearly marked. They have to be properly managed.

This is the responsibility of the government, not private property developers. Only with a uniform policy and approach can this be achieved. Private property and public space have to be separate. This is the way to properly provide the public facilities that we so sorely need.