Urban planning

How to put the fun back into Hong Kong’s parks, with a flexible approach and a little imagination

  • Carine Lai says Hongkongers have conflicted ideas about what they want from parks, including more safety but also more relaxed rules
  • The solution, as indicated by the West Kowloon Cultural District Park and Kwun Tong Waterfront Promenade, is to be more creative with the rules
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 11:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2018, 6:30pm

Go to just about any park in Hong Kong, and you will find a long list of banned activities listed outside. No bicycles, no skateboards, no ball games, no dogs, and don’t even think about walking on the grass. These rules are easy to mock – “no fun allowed!” – but the public’s attitudes may have something to do with it.

In a poll we conducted earlier this year, people were asked which, if any, of nine frequently banned activities they thought could be allowed in most open spaces. About half the respondents (48 per cent) thought at least one of the rules could be relaxed, but there was little agreement on precisely which ones. The most popular activity, walking dogs, was chosen by only 23 per cent. The other half of the respondents thought that none of the rules should be relaxed.

In focus groups we also organised, some people said having a lot of rules gave them a sense of security in case of an accident or a dispute. One man argued that, for the sake of consistency, even three-year-olds should not be allowed to kick a ball outside a football pitch. Adults acknowledged that things were very different when they were children; they used to ride their bikes everywhere and it was fine!

They did perceive Hong Kong as an increasingly overcrowded and contentious society, making open space a scarce resource to be jealously guarded against rival visitors. Such attitudes are especially prevalent among older people: while over 70 per cent of respondents aged 60 and over felt that none of the rules should be relaxed, less than a quarter of respondents aged 18-29 agreed.

Yet, such levels of risk-aversion get in the way of their own enjoyment. In a classic case of wanting to have their cake and eat it, only 16 per cent of survey respondents thought cycling should be allowed in most open spaces, yet 47 per cent wanted to have shared jogging and cycling paths in their communities. Only 8 per cent of respondents thought people should be allowed to walk on the grass, but 45 per cent asked for more lawns to sit on. Even the man who wanted to stop toddlers kicking a ball around said he preferred going to parks with fewer restrictions. He just didn’t want to live near one.

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

This leaves the government with a tricky needle to thread. For years, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) has taken the cautious route, segregating activities to provide safe but bland public open spaces. While the public is mildly satisfied with this, giving a median score of 6/10, this is hardly a ringing endorsement (parents’ satisfaction with children’s play facilities had a slightly less inspiring median of 5/10).

If Hong Kong truly aspires to be a world city, we will have to up our game. We have less than half the open space per capita of other Asian cities; 2.7 square metres per person to  Singapore’s 7.4 square metres and Tokyo’s 5.8. Since we cannot compete on quantity, we must do so on quality. The smallness of our homes pushes us to spend time outside; 85 per cent of Hong Kong residents visit open spaces once a month at the very minimum, around 60 per cent go more than five times a month and a quarter go more than 15 times a month. This means our relative shortage of open space makes it even more critical that the spaces we do have are comfortable, inclusive and vibrant.

More adventure activities wanted, but no big changes for country parks

This is possible. We already have proof of concept, right here in Hong Kong. The West Kowloon Cultural District Park, which is under the jurisdiction of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, is managed under a much more liberal set of rules and allows everything from roller-skating to kite flying. It has off-leash areas for dogs, a cycle path and a waterfront promenade with a low wall that can be sat on along the water’s edge instead of the usual railings.

Its visitors seem to have little trouble navigating around each other, even during events when it is crowded. In the wintertime, there is programming for all ages – its “Freespace Happening” events featuring live music, craft stalls and food trucks, and all manner of children’s workshops are dynamic and well-attended.

In East Kowloon, the LCSD is testing a shared pedestrian and bicycle path with a bike rental service along the Kwun Tong Waterfront Promenade, with plans to extend it to Kai Tak if things go well. The promenade also uniquely includes an area run by a non-profit organisation (HKALPS) that hosts exhibitions, festivals and workshops, and houses cafes, event spaces and an urban farm. People can bring their dogs, play one of the free pianos dotted around the space or take a book from the community bookshelf.

Kwun Tong Promenade establishes Hong Kong as one of the world's best waterfront cities

The lesson is that where different management approaches have been tried, successful public spaces have resulted. We could experiment with activity zoning in our larger parks, for example by designating certain lawns for ball games and frisbees while reserving quiet corners for people who not wish to be disturbed. In smaller open spaces, we could try implementing time-based rules in keeping with natural patterns of activity throughout the day and week.

Diversification would also be helpful – different spaces could adopt different rules depending on local circumstances, demographics and needs. While it may not be possible for every open space to suit everyone, within a wider neighbourhood, there should be something for everyone. This isn’t rocket science. What is needed is a little more imagination and flexibility.

Carine Lai is senior researcher at the think tank Civic Exchange