Hong Kong needs to ensure any underground urban development isn’t another hell on Earth
N. Balakrishnan says the city needs farsighted laws so the profit motive doesn’t rule future underground developments which, with imaginative handling, could be welcome urban sanctuaries for its space-starved populace
Whenever I hear about expanding urban space below ground, as a study regarding better utilisation of some of our most popular recreational grounds intends to do, I think about a 600-year-old Turkish spa or hamam, located in a basement in one of the oldest city squares of Istanbul.
Emerging from the hamam onto a crowded but spotlessly clean square, I wondered how the square could be kept so clean with just a few small garbage cans, tastefully sculpted in an old Turkish style.
The mystery was solved when I saw big trucks pull in at night to yank out the small garbage cans with a big pulley, revealing that the cans had a huge 10-foot square bucket entirely underground.
Garbage thrown into the small cans went through a chute into the big underground box. I realised the Ottomans had long been placing spas and garbage cans below ground in a imaginative way.
Contrast this with the unimaginative stance of Hong Kong bureaucrats in introducing garbage bins with smaller openings, in the vain hope that this will persuade people to produce less waste.
So, when I hear Hong Kong’s “planners” talk about expanding urban space underground, I worry not so much about the concept itself but the way it will be implemented.
I fear that officials who have forced the city’s population to live in subdivided, high-rise shoe boxes are more likely to come up with rabbit holes underground, rather than the well-lit, pleasant multi-purpose spaces one sees in parts of Japan, Singapore or New York.
I fear that, in the name of “urban space” underground, the city may end up giving land bank “rights” underground to the same real estate cartels which have made life miserable above ground.
The same Hong Kong bureaucrats who gave us the waterfront “Cultural Centre”, close to stunning views of Victoria Harbour, or the garbage cans with small openings, can only be expected to create claustrophobic, concrete underground rabbit hutches whose aim would be to maximise plot ratios, rather than human interaction and spatial enjoyment.
So, before the dead hand of the bureaucracy moves in and before it is too late, it is important to pass some sort of omnibus legislation to govern the future development of “underground urban space”.
This would require the eventual developers to install all the requisite support, safety and visually pleasing facilities that would make life below ground no less enjoyable than above it.
The comfort of underground users rather than the property developers’ potential to maximise profit should be spelled out with utmost clarity.
We should aim to create heaven and not hell underground, and it is important that we get this right from the very start.
If we can precede this new urban development initiative with farsighted and comprehensive legislation that puts first the needs of the people of this very crowded and ageing city, then we have some hope that the newly developed underground spaces will become a welcome sanctuary for our residents, an escape from the traffic, noise and pollution at ground level.
But if we replicate the “underground” experiment in a piecemeal fashion without a framework for the future, then Hong Kong will merely be creating an urban dystopia , inhabited by pallid, fresh-air-starved citizens who will long to escape to the limited sunlight and air above ground.
N. Balakrishnan is a former foreign correspondent and a successful entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India