#missingseats campaign in Hong Kong, city where there's no place to sit

Students launch social media campaign to highlight lack of public seating, while resourceful Hongkongers take matters into their own hands

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 May, 2015, 7:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 May, 2015, 6:38am

It’s a hot, sticky afternoon in Wan Chai’s Golden Bauhinia Square, and tourists are milling around the gaudy symbol of Hong Kong’s reunification with China. After taking advantage of the photo opportunity, they are rounded up and bussed off again. It’s just as well, because there’s nowhere to sit.

The square, like much public space in Hong Kong, is devoid of seating for people to rest their legs for a moment or just sit and watch the world go by. There are no seats along scenic walkways by the waterfront, in the open areas around shopping malls, or at bus stops.

Where public seating exists, it is often narrow, uncomfortable and difficult to sit on, notes Paul Zimmerman, founder and CEO of Designing Hong Kong.

In April, students studying for a master’s in global communications at Chinese University took a non-elective course developed by Designing Hong Kong, called “Setting the Agenda through Social Media”. From a range of options, the students chose to focus on this issue, and launched a “Missing Seats” campaign.

They are urging the public to post photos illustrating the deficiency on Facebook or Instagram or at www.designinghongkong.com using the hashtag #missingseats. Submissions will be used to lobby the government, district councils, property owners and transport operators to think differently about seating.

Meanwhile, pragmatic Hongkongers are taking matters into their own hands.

Public seating plays an important role in quality of life in a big city, Zimmerman says. Well-placed seats allow people to relax and enjoy chance encounters, which are important for community building. Ironically, it encourages people to walk, because there will be somewhere to rest.

“It also makes the city more accessible for people with disabilities. And when people walk and forgo a vehicular trip, they help reduce congestion and air pollution,” he says.

“If we want people to enjoy walking longer and farther, we have to make sure they can sit along the way, especially given our ageing population and increase in visitors.”

Places which typically do have seating include parks – away from walking routes – and shopping malls, where people are spending money. Yet few malls have seating in their public outdoor space, Zimmerman says.

Almost half the photos submitted to the campaign so far show seatless transport facilities and bus stops, followed by streets, areas in and around shopping malls, and miscellaneous locations such as commercial building lobbies.

Examples of scenic waterfront spots without seats include the long pathway linking Central’s ferry piers, the area outside Maritime Square mall in Tsing Yi, and the Tsuen Wan waterfront. There are also open areas outside the IFC mall and a stretch of Lam Wah Street in Kowloon Bay which lacks seating even though it has been pedestrianised.

Zimmerman says there is no scientific data to show that Hong Kong is worse than any other city in this regard; evidence of the lack of seating is anecdotal and based on observation. This includes the sight of unwanted chairs and sofas left by residents in public spaces to fill the need.

“It makes me smile to see how the community has taken matters in their own hand. You can find discarded office chairs reused along streets, near housing estates and at bus stops, especially along infrequent routes in the New Territories,” he says.

The Highways Department is responsible for building the city’s roads and pavements, while the Transport Department defines the requirements. Neither department employs specialists in pedestrian facilities, Zimmerman says.

“Sitting is seen as something people do at home, in restaurants or in parks.”

The Transport Department’s response to the campaign has so far been poor, he says. He has been informed that seating at bus stops is the responsibility of bus operators.

Zimmerman attributes the problem to an unwillingness to take on the responsibility of maintaining seating, the width of pavements, a desire to prevent people, including the homeless, lingering and sleeping because they might be obstacles to blind people or wheelchair users. They are both real and imaginary obstacles, he says.

“Pavements can be crowded. But with some creativity we can do better. When placing planters, the sides can be wider so people can sit.

“In Southern District, we started to add more seats under our district minor works programme,” says Zimmerman, who is a councillor in the district and led the initiative.

All district councils have such programmes, with funds allotted to small-scale improvement projects, he adds.

In the case of outdoor seating at bars and restaurants, there are licensing and land use issues. For shopping malls, it comes down to costs, he says, and there is no direct return for landlords.

“The campaign has received several reports that tables and chairs have been removed at International Financial Centre (IFC). We will ask the management company why, and when they will provide more seating for shoppers and diners.”