Time for the Hong Kong government to take back control of city streets, leading think tank says
Noisy, polluted and narrow, hawkers and performers need to be brought back under control if streets are to be enjoyed by all
Noisy, narrow, disorganised and polluted, walking along Hong Kong’s streets is not always a pleasant experience.
Throw in street hawkers and performers, and something that could be part of the city’s charm very quickly takes on an entirely different feel.
This is especially true of Sai Yeung Choi Street South in Mong Kok, one of Hong Kong’s most iconic pedestrianised zones. An area that is popular with tourists has become the source of conflict between residents, retailers, and the street performers that give the place its unique vibe.
In many ways the street is a victim of its own success, but is also a perfect example of the failure of successive governments to take a coordinated approach to street management, believes Civic Exchange, an independent think tank.
Those failings are still prevalent, with the group pointing to the fact that street management is now being handled by nine departments, and is not a priority for any of them. The result, a disorganised approach to street planning in the city.
In a report released on Wednesday, Civic Exchange called on the government to take back control of Hong Kong’s noisy and polluted streets, while simultaneously promoting the city’s famously vibrant street life.
The group’s report, Managing Vibrant Streets, was produced in direct response to promises made by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, in her Policy Address last year, when she pledged that the government would improve the environment for the city’s pedestrians.
Lam’s promise focused on encouraging walking for journeys over short distances, improving the air quality in the city, and alleviating traffic congestion.
Since the announcement, the Development Bureau has released its Hong Kong 2030+ territorial development strategy, which aims to enhance the uniqueness, diversity and vibrancy of Hong Kong’s districts and streets.
The Transport Department, meanwhile, has also created a Walkability Task Force, with HK$8 billion being set aside under the 2018-19 Budget for proposals from the 18 districts to improve their neighbourhoods, including pedestrian links.
“However, creating walkable and dynamic streets requires not just investment in better pedestrian infrastructure, but also in street management policies that ensure walking is a comfortable, safe, enjoyable and interesting experience,” the Civic Exchange report said.
“This is especially important in a densely populated city like Hong Kong where there is keen competition for urban space.”
For one, the think tank said the government should set up a licensing scheme for street performers in places such as Monk Kok, so as to more easily manage large clusters of street users.
Referencing the approach taken by other cities globally, the report argued that the principles for setting up a licensing scheme would preserve street performers’ rights to free expression, while managing their impact on surrounding areas.
“A location-based approach, rather than one-size-fits-all, is recommended, as different rules may be suitable for different areas,” it said.
The report also criticises the government’s policy on street hawkers, which has focused heavily on relocating the vendors and their inexpensive goods since the 1970s.
“However, this policy no longer aligns with the public’s current aspirations, given community support for the preservation of hawking and the importance of hawker markets to Hong Kong’s tourism industry,” it said.
Civic Exchange has also called on the government to consider updating its approach to the type of commercial activities that should be permitted, calling the ordinances largely outdated.
The actions of salesman who promote gym memberships, mobile phone plans and other commercial interests are only covered by general ordinances concerning street obstruction and unauthorised display of advertising, the group said.
“What type of commercial activities should be encouraged, permitted, or prohibited in public space? What kind of commercial activities are beneficial to the public’s enjoyment of public space, and which are primarily nuisances? These are the questions that the public should be consulted on,” the report said.
The report also pointed out much of the legislation governing street activities is outdated, which causes problems with old definitions that do not fit modern activities.
“[There are] laws that are no longer enforceable or relevant, to fees and fines whose value has been eroded by inflation to the point where they are no longer meaningful,” the report concluded.
The penalties for several nuisance-related offences are also outdated, with some provisions dating back to 1949. As a result there are fines as low as HK$50 for certain offences, an amount the group believes to be no longer meaningful.
Civic Exchange suggested the government reviews the Public Cleansing and Prevention of Nuisances Regulation, and the Waste Disposal Ordinance, to clarify responsibilities for pavement obstructions and fly-tipping.
Such management presently falls under several departments including Home Affairs, Food and Health, Security, Development, Transport, and Housing and the Environment, all of which have different areas of concern.
A City Betterment Commissioner, who has a clear role in leading interdepartmental corporations over street management, should be appointed as a special post under the Chief Executive.
The group also said the government should be more encouraging different activities to promote more vibrant streets? With festivals, farmer’s markets, and car-free days among the group’s suggestions.