In my backyard: The importance of open space for Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer has happy memories of growing up with a backyard in Australia and says the Hong Kong government has done its citizens a disservice by failing to provide enough outdoor areas for basic human interaction

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 3:14pm

Hongkongers who have not lived abroad have trouble getting their heads around the concept of a backyard. It is something only the wealthy in our city have – a patch of ground behind their house to call their own. It may contain a swimming pool, perhaps a tennis court, maybe a vegetable patch or barbecue. The one I had when I was growing up in Australia had the latter two, plus a clothes line, a dozen chickens, a dog, orange and lemon trees and a grape vine.

Some of my fondest childhood memories and lessons in life involve the family backyard

But backyards are less about what they contain than what they mean. They are a place to bond with family, catch up with friends and learn about the wider world. There’s grass and dirt and chats over the fence with neighbours. Perhaps most important of all, there’s every chance to get sun and fresh air.

Some of my fondest childhood memories and lessons in life involve the family backyard. There, my father, recovering from an accident that broke both his ankles, struggled to teach me how to play cricket; even as a seven-year-old, I understood that adversity was no reason to give up on living.

READ MORE: Hong Kong real estate chamber pushing for more public space to rebuild lost neighbourhoods

A family barbecue at which my left-leaning grandfather clashed with my conservative-minded uncle over government policy taught the sensitivities of political opinion. Lessons in responsibility came from mowing the lawn and splitting logs for firewood. After-school football games with friends were instrumental when it came to building team spirit and defining that most Australian of notions, mateship. Without a backyard, I would have never known the joy of hanging out the washing on a sunny day, growing a lettuce from seed to being plucked for a salad, or the calls of birds at sunrise, sunset and before storms.

All these things can be done in Hong Kong, of course; the opportunity is there if you go looking for it. Unlike with a backyard, though, it’s not as easy as stepping through a back door, nor does it so readily present itself at will. A flat often offers no public space and when it does, it is restricted by club membership and booking by the hour. It is why anyone with a village house, balcony or access to a rooftop makes such a big deal about it.

This is inevitable when space is considered so valuable. But it is the government, greedy for the revenue from selling land that has made it that way. It has determined that the average area per person in public rental housing should be 140 square feet, a paltry size from which the private sector takes its queue. Surprisingly, when it comes to learning about life and living, children in public housing probably get a better deal: they are at least provided with playing areas and facilities that make interacting with others easy.

READ MORE: Government to produce 97,100 public housing units in Hong Kong over next five years, says chief executive

The government’s planning department understands the need for space to be set aside for recreation, which it describes as “a basic human need for activities which are essential to the mental and physical well-being of the individual and community”. It has set 2 square metres as the standard for the provision of open space in urban areas. That is far from generous compared to other cities, but it has to be acknowledged that space is tight and country parks and nature reserves already make up 40 per cent of the land area. But such figures are no excuse for setting guidelines rather than rules, pouring concrete instead of growing grass, cutting down trees with the excuse that they pose a danger or closing off urban parks with fairs and attractions.

We need space to move, but we also need it for exercise, relaxation, learning and basic human interaction. What our flats can’t provide, our public space must – and the closer to home that is, the more rounded our society will be.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post