Architecture and Design

Here’s how to retain a little personality in Hong Kong’s concrete jungle

Cohesive city planning to add personality and jazz into the neighbourhood

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 3:41pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 11:56am

It’s no secret that, for the last two decades, Hong Kong has been undergoing somewhat of an identity crisis, one that has filtered down to the very essence of our neighbourhoods.

While older districts such as Wanchai and Sham Shui Po are still generally chock-a-block with personality, with their cluttered array of boutiques and diverse demographic, many of the so-called new towns, built for function over form, are still considered “second-rate.”

That’s according to Bernard Lim, founder of local architectural firm AD+RG.

“Tin Shui Wai is the worst,” said Lim. “Not only is it monolithic, it’s also an incredibly car-driven town.”

The architect, who founded the Institute of Urban Design in 2010, notes that “there aren’t many friendly public spaces [in Tin Shui Wai]. Those living in public housing estates find it hard to venture out to Kingswood Villas – where the only mall in the neighbourhood is. Tin Shui Wai was also developed at a time when it was commonplace to adopt a cookie-cutter model in architecture, so all the housing estates and public schools look the same.”

Shatin is the oldest of the new towns but, ironically, has the most successful design. Built during the 1970s, the neighbourhood was designed with two provisos in mind: walkability and accessibility.

A dense network of pedestrian pathways and bridges connects the subway to the Shatin Town Plaza, as well as to the main residential neighbourhoods.

Cycling and running trails abound, while the integration of private and public housing serves to foster a better sense of community. Shatin is also blessed with the Shing Mun River, which cuts through the middle of the town.

“People have a natural affinity for a body of water,” he said.

According to Lim, building an “interesting neighbourhood” is closely connected to the concept of universal design. In other words, design that caters to the whole population; regardless of age, physical mobility or social status.

“Everything is so siloed in Hong Kong’s current architectural landscape,” he said. ”People build stuff only for a special segment of the population.”

It’s an ethos reflected in the architect’s ambitious master layout plan for the upcoming Hai Tan Street, Kweilin Street and Pei Ho Street Development Scheme, located in Sham Shui Po.

The project, led by the Urban Renewal Authority and due for completion before 2018, will see expansive open spaces surrounding a residential and retail complex that also includes a child care centre and elderly day care centre.

“Neighbourhoods must be built to allow the young and old, and people across professions, to interact. That is what gives a place personality,” Lim said.

The architect has also devised the master plan for the Nga Tsin Wai Village Conservation Park in Kowloon City, a project that advocates not only for a residential complex and club house, but also a conservation park.

“Current clubhouses are designed with the young in mind,” the architect said. “Someone well into their 70s or 80s would hardly be able to play squash like they used to. They need things like parks, barber shops or even foot massage parlours.”

Lim advocates the appointment of neighbourhood or district councillors to initiate meaningful, community-led activities.

“I don’t mean officials who only know how to write and pass memos, but rather those with the vision and courage to take up responsibility for their own district,” he said.

The Energising Kowloon East Project, which the Institute of Urban Design advises on, might be set to change that, with the appointment of a “place maker” team, specifically to help define the neighbourhood’s personality.