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Urban planning

How Hong Kong’s homeless are kept out of sight by urban design

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2018, 10:51pm

I refer to the article, “Priced out and living above a rubbish dump: where do Hong Kong’s rough sleepers go?” (August 12).

Against the overwhelming daytime cityscape of wealth and prosperity, many vulnerable homeless people in Hong Kong are still sleeping in public spaces at night. They are at the mercy of traffic noise and pollution, as well as the vagaries of the weather, and have to put up with pests such as rats and woodlice.

What makes their situation more uncomfortable and forbidding is a series of pervasive urban homeless deterrence facilities. These include benches in public spaces, including parks, that have bulky armrests and vertical slats between each seat, and backrests that only allow one to lean back but deter lying down.

City dwellers may rarely notice all these unfriendly designs that are incorporated into local public spaces, commonly found in older and poorer districts like Kwun Tong, Sham Shui Po and Yau Ma Tei.

These often-disguised elements are designed to keep homeless people and signs of poverty out of sight. These installations are a strong indication of the silent yet determined attitude of the authorities to dissuade street sleepers and the poor from occupying them.

Watch: Hong Kong’s hostile architecture hurts city’s homeless and poor

Evicted street sleepers with few places to go but back to the streets

With the aid of these real and imaginary borders, the government can effectively and efficiently manipulate society according to its agenda. It can avoid spending resources on hiring extra manpower for constant intervention and surveillance.

Lamentably, Hong Kong distinguishes itself by incorporating top-down rules into urban planning and design. These rigid and cruel designs eliminate the potential for shaping a compassionate, humanised and inclusive public landscape.

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Most passers-by are indifferent to the presence of homeless people in public spaces. But the homeless can never lead a life on a par with other community members, given the lack of dignity and respect in their lives.

Creating clean, orderly and safe public spaces using architectural design is undeniably beneficial to the quality of life of all Hongkongers. However, is driving all uncomfortable reminders of social inequality out of sight and minds through the use of hostile and self-defeating architectural design the only viable way to tackle the issue?

Adrian Lam, Kornhill