Focus on finding space to make old areas more liveable

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 May, 2009, 12:00am

In the second of a three-part series on the review of the urban renewal strategy, Olga Wong and Joyce Ng look at how old areas like To Kwa Wan and Kwun Tong can become more vibrant

For the elderly lingering outside the Cattle Depot Arts Village in To Kwa Wan, musical chairs is not so much a game as part of their daily routine. They watch and wait, hoping for one of the few public benches there to become free so they can sit down.

Urban renewal projects that have aimed to replace old buildings with high density high-rises have left the city with limited open space. However, the chance to change the current approach - formed in 2001 - may have arrived as the review of the renewal strategy will be opened to public discussion this month, government advisers said.

The government is already studying To Kwa Wan to see if industrial zones and old tenement buildings could become arts communities, a source close to the government said. But as in other old parts of the city, lack of open space remains a pressing issue, especially for the elderly.

The four seats outside the Cattle Depot Arts Village were the closest thing to open space residents had, 70-year-old resident Yeung Chi-kan said. He lives in 'Thirteen Streets' - a dilapidated area in To Kwa Wan named for its 13 parallel streets.

The arts village, which opens at noon, is closed to its neighbours unless they are friends of artists or an exhibition is on. The nearest park, on Ma Tau Chung Road, is too far for most elderly people to walk, Mr Yeung said.

Disillusioned by the slow pace of the renewal process, Mr Yeung said the 83 buildings in Thirteen Streets were too shabby and small for the elderly. The ground floors are occupied by garages. Pavements are blocked by parked cars. Chemicals sprayed in the garages hang in the air.

The area does have a small waterfront with a few benches, but few people know they are there. 'I've never gone near them, it's so messy here with the garages and the trucks going around,' Mr Yeung said.

Dwarfed by new high-rises, To Kwa Wan is little more than a collection of rundown buildings and empty industrial structures. More than 2,300 residents are over 70 and close to a third of its population is already of retirement age.

Mr Yeung's neighbour, 78-year-old Wong Pak-yuen, said the high-rises had disrupted television and mobile phone receptions. Refurbishment of the old blocks is complicated due to a lack co-operation from the owners. Some residents are too old or too poor or do not have close contact with their neighbours.

Architect Ng Wing-shun, a member of the government steering committee reviewing the renewal strategy, said the current strategy - confined to a few buildings in a few streets for each project - was too small in scope to address the sort of problems endemic in To Kwa Wan.

'A larger site will allow more flexible designs. If we need a park, floor areas can be transferred to somewhere else in the same district,' he said. 'Then a project will still look financially sustainable.'

Another steering committee member, Ho Hei-wah, said redevelopment projects had become less profitable because people favoured a less dense environment. 'But we can't just refurbish old blocks. Social problems like urban poverty will still not disappear because a building gets a facelift,' he said.

It was worth studying whether the Urban Renewal Authority could acquire the old blocks and rent them back to tenants after renovation, he said. 'In that way, the overall living environment can be improved and will be maintained in the long run,' he said.