Did you wake up last Sunday thinking it was such a nice day, you should really head down to the park and kick the old pigskin around? Probably not. Unlike our neighbors Tokyo and Singapore, park culture is almost non-existent in Hong Kong. And contrary to American sitcoms where hip twenty-somethings hang out at Central Park on the weekends, people of the same age in Hong Kong head straight to the shopping malls. Even if they want some exercise, they pay to work out indoors at air-conditioned gyms. So why don’t we have a park culture? It’s certainly not the high-powered metropolis thing; just look at New York City. Instead, it has to do with these major reasons: Parks? What parks? Problem: There are not enough parks. And what parks we have are barely noticed. Ralph Lerner, dean at the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong, admits he does not even remember passing by any city parks after his first year in Hong Kong. “It’s difficult to say Hong Kong doesn’t have a park culture when there are no parks,” he says. It’s a moot point, in other words. Yet the data suggests otherwise. Right now, most public parks are managed by the Leisure and Cultural Service Department, and according to them, they are managing 1,403 parks, gardens and sitting-out areas, meaning one for roughly every 5,000 people. It’s not a terribly small number of parks, but anyone who has actually been to many of the smaller parks knows they’re not terribly nice either. “(Parks) are a rarity – they are marginal and unloved,” Professor Lerner says. “The park space is underdeveloped, compared to other cities, like Singapore.” The obvious reason is of course the lack of space. With high-rise buildings at every turn and corner, there’s barely land left over for parks. And who would leave a potentially profit-making piece of land as open space that everyone else could use for free? “Whoever made the decision ‘unknowingly’ decided to have buildings instead of parks. After all, building a public park is a luxury,” Professor Lerner says. Solution: When planning an area, equal emphasis should be placed on public open space and buildings. “Public open space should not be leftovers,” Prof. Lerner says. Besides, focusing on short-term benefit from land sale is shortsighted; it’s common knowledge that properties facing parks instead of concrete are pricier. Where’s the fun? Problem: Parks were not designed with enjoyment in mind. Local architect Christopher Law says parks do not fit our needs and desires because the government may not have thought of the public when planning them. “It’s easy to see that the design process of our parks was not thought through seriously – it’s not just about putting a chair here and a bunch of flowers there,” he says. At the moment, most public parks go through a lengthy process of at least a few years of development before they are built. It starts with the Planning Department zoning an area and deciding which parts will be developed into a park or sitting-out area. Then the plan goes into consultation with the district council who must finalize it. Then the Architectural Services Department works on the design, which upon completion is then brought before the district council for consultation again. After judging and picking the winner, the design is finally finalized and the park built. And after all that, the park itself is not even that pleasant. It’s the little things that annoy us and keep people from hanging out in the parks. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department admits that district councils are rarely consulted on the finer details of park design, only the overarching concept. Solution: Get the public involved in the park-planning process. “There are myriad little things that go into making parks pleasant,” says Prof. Lerner. In fact, the government has tried it before; in 2002, Bauhinia Garden, a sitting-out area on Luen Fat Street, Wan Chai, was opened based on a design heavily adjusted by Wan Chai residents. Law spearheaded the residents’ effort then, and finds that the garden was an important first step. “It is successful in the sense that the government realized from (Bauhinia Garden) that this is not a bad idea after all,” he says. A not-so-little problem is litter and general disregard for the state of public property. Law also thinks damage to the parks by area residents would be lessened if they were involved in designing the parks. “When residents know their neighbors may have helped design a park, the park is more acknowledged amongst the group and they are less likely to ruin it, or make it unpleasant,” he says. Not in my backyard, as the aphorism goes. The Leisure and Cultural Services Department isn’t averse to us getting involved either. If you find anything unpleasant in your park, call the government hotline on 1823 and your complaint will be followed up. Your district councilor can also deliver your messages to the government. And apparently it all comes back to us. Take good care of the parks and those annoying NO-this, NO-that signs will be taken off in no time, the department promises. Where’s the green? Problem: It’s not much fun to “relax” in a nice, breezy open space covered in concrete. Take Kowloon Park, a major regional park located between Jordan and Tsim Sha Tsui. Renovated from a British army barrack, the park used to have lots of trees, bunkers and grassland. Then it was re-renovated to become what it is now – a concrete landscape whose original state was altered out of recognition. To add back that touch of “nature,” concrete structures housing flowerbeds, and flowerpots hanging on the concrete walls were added. It’s no surprise that there’s a better tree-lined walk down adjacent Jordan Road than through Kowloon Park. The currrent Planning Department guideline on the percentage of greenery in a park says that at least 20 percent of the land in active open space - this refers to parks with sports and game facilities - should be for soft landscaping, half of which must be for planting large trees. With passive open space, which are mostly areas for repose (or sitting out), 85 percent of the land should be used for soft landscaping, of which 60 percent must be used for planting large trees. But this clause follows: “In some cases, these percentages may need to be adjusted to take into account practical circumstances and pedestrian volume.” Suitably hazy; to see the clause in action, head to the many sitting-out areas in Wan Chai which feature around 10 chairs and two flowerbeds each; trees nowhere to be found. Doubtless, “practical circumstances” have forced it so. Solution: Bring in more green. Victoria Park is a good example – its renovation involved removing the fences around the park, widening paths but retaining the trees, and thank God, keeping the grassy bits. We also need a better park system to manage and plan the parks in Hong Kong, argues Lerner. Right now the Planning Department decides which area should go to parks; Architectural Services plans and builds them; and Leisure and Cultural Services manages them, making the process more complicated than it needs to be. For example, Singapore consolidates the park effort with a single National Parks Board, managing all 300 parks and gardens in the city-state with but one aim: to turn Singapore into a garden city as well as a green city. What, no central park? Problem: We have no giant, fun-filled park so great it could become a symbol of Hong Kong, like New York City’s Central Park. Lerner says it is never a bad idea for a city to have a central park, but Hong Kong simply lacks the space to build a great one. Solution: We don’t need one! “There is no need for any grand plans,” Law says. “Just build 100 parks today and the society can be regenerated immediately. Diversify them and make them excellent – it’s as simple as that.” Here are some reasons why visitors get turned off whenever they go to our parks but that is not to say there is a lack of great parks in Hong Kong, here are a few options you can take note of.