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Urban planning

How poor regulation is killing the vibe on Hong Kong’s streets

Carine Lai says bureaucratic inefficiencies and outdated rules are to blame for our poorly managed streets. The government is failing at the two main tasks: encouraging vibrant activities and mitigating the nuisances

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 11:33am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 April, 2018, 6:48pm

Imagine that, on your way home one evening, you stop at the neighbourhood fruit stall – the stallholder recommends the strawberries. You pass the outdoor cafe where you sometimes eat lunch, squeeze past a row of mobile phone subscription salesmen, and make your way down the street, dodging delivery trolleys.

Finding a stack of beauty salon pamphlets suddenly shoved into your hands, you locate an overflowing bin and carefully deposit them inside. To your surprise as you reach the MTR station, a busker is performing. This one has a decent singing voice, so you drop a few coins in her guitar case.

Which of these encounters add to your experience of the city, and which detract from it? Which activities are unpleasant but necessary, and how should we best accommodate them? What activities shouldn’t happen on the street? What is a fair allocation of space? Should those using public space for commercial purposes have to pay for it? Street management is about all these issues.

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A plethora of competing activities takes place on Hong Kong’s crowded streets. If we simply left it to chance or to the market, what took place would result in a tragedy of the commons. This means some degree of street management is necessary. Yet overmanagement would destroy the vibrant street life that makes Hong Kong unique.

This is the main argument of “Managing Vibrant Streets”, a Civic Exchange report published this month. Ideally, street management policies should encourage vibrant activities while mitigating the nuisances, but, as the report finds, Hong Kong struggles with both ends of the bargain. 

Hong Kong’s regulatory regime is not effective at encouraging vibrancy. Licences for outdoor dining take months or years to obtain, while our hawker trade is steadily declining as the government has, with some exceptions, stopped issuing new licences since the 1970s.

Multimedia: How Hong Kong’s hawkers face a struggle to survive

Government-led efforts to promote vibrancy, such as the food truck scheme, end up watered down in implementation, while bottom-up initiatives like community bazaars face complicated bureaucratic hurdles.

Yet, for all the rules and regulations, Hong Kong is also not efficient at putting a stop to nuisances. Street management is divided between at least nine government departments, but is not a high priority for any of them. There are many examples of bureaucratic silos getting in the way of action and enforcement procedures that are so unwieldy they border on the absurd.

This is not entirely the fault of our civil servants – they are constrained by outdated regulations, legal gaps and insufficient resources. Our rules were not the product of a cohesive vision, but a historical hodgepodge of hygiene regulations and petty offences that have not kept up with the times.

Nowhere are the gaps as evident as in the Mong Kok pedestrian precinct, whose hours of operation were cut short by the district council in 2013 due to complaints of loud noise and chaos. In a widely reported incident last October, one retailer resorted to erecting a makeshift noise barrier against the street performers stationed outside their shop.

Watch: Street performers in Mong Kok 

The government has understandably been reluctant to regulate street performers due to freedom of expression concerns. Yet, while freedom of expression must be protected, the right to speak in public should be distinguished from the ability to do so at 100 decibels. Outdated regulations do not take into account modern realities, like amplifiers, and very few of those creating excessive noise are actually penalised.

We are forced to use cars as a crude form of crowd control, which is nobody’s idea of a liveable city

Large areas of the pedestrian zone are also occupied by telecommunications salespeople. But, under a 1960 ordinance, these cashless sales of intangible services do not qualify as “hawking”. So while hawkers are being slowly regulated out of existence, commercial promoters operate quite freely. Fines that are given out for blocking the street or illegally displaying advertising materials frequently fall on easily replaceable contract staff, not their employers.

During its research, Civic Exchange spoke to a Mong Kok district councillor who led the campaign to roll back the pedestrian scheme. Far from being a “Nimby”, he said he did not want to kill off the street’s vibrancy, but was forced to act when elderly people and pregnant women kept going to him with complaints of sleeplessness and psychological distress caused by noise.

The problem was that government departments lacked effective tools to manage the street. When asked if he would support bringing back the pedestrianisation scheme if the government introduced better policies, he replied, “Of course!”

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This gets to the heart of why effective street management is so important. Without it, political and public support for improvements to pedestrian schemes cannot be sustained. We are forced to use cars as a crude form of crowd control, which is nobody’s idea of a liveable city.

The government should rethink street management policies with the aim of promoting walkable, vibrant streets. There is a need for joined-up government to address bureaucratic silos, review outdated laws, and engage the public to devise local solutions. The priority should be to address the twin loopholes of street performance noise and commercial promotion.

To ensure that it is someone’s job to care about Hong Kong’s public spaces, a “city betterment commissioner” could be appointed to guide the process. It’s about time we paid sufficient attention to the quality of our streets.

Carine Lai is co-author of the Civic Exchange report “Managing Vibrant Streets”