Sign, sign, everywhere a sign…………(name that band.  and don’t use google.)

Part of the urban experience in Hong Kong is being constantly bombarded by the visual stimulation created by shopowners and companies hawking their wares.  There is apparantly no regulation on signage but the city is none the worse for wear.  In fact, the result is one of unintentional beauty instead of visual clutter.  The signage becomes as much a part of the street life as the people who inhabit it. 

Here are a few examples………no deep thoughts here……..just really liked it.

Then there are also the ubiquitous pleas for sustainabilty and common sense…….. 

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The Public Realm

One of the things that struck me most about Hong Kong is just how active and vibrant the public realm was.  Everywhere you went, there were people out and about.  Meals were eaten in open air cafes, business was conducted in the streets, commercial activity spilled out of shop fronts onto sidewalks and streets, and all of this contributed to a feeling of vibrancy that is all too often absent from U.S. city streets.

It seems like the public realm is where most people in Hong Kong spend the majority of their time.   Not just using the public realm to move from point A to point B, but being in the public realm. Unlike in the States, where we more often than not use the public realm to move between destinations, in Hong Kong, the public realm seemed to be the destination. 

Maybe that’s simply a result of people not having as much individual or personal space as we do in the west, or maybe there’s a deeper cultural meaning associated with valuing the collective over the individual.  Whatever the reason, it sure makes for a wonderful urban experience…….one that leaves me feeling that the streets of Seattle are pretty boring by comparison. 

That being said, amidst the bustling often-chaotic city life, there are also beautiful, unassuming moments of quiet and serenity.  Evidence of people carving out a bit of the private in the public realm.  My favorite is this picture of someone looking for – and presumably finding – a bit of respite in one of the congested utility-filled back alleys of Wan Chai:

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Where To Find Hong Kong’s Single Family Homes

Our group had a few conversations throughout the trip about Hong Kong’s famously tiny, sky-high and dense living spaces. As we rode out to the New Territories to visit the Ching Ho Public Housing Estate, mesmerized by the sight of tower after enormous residential tower whizzing by on the skyline so foreign to our own Western living experiences, it occurred to me to consider our lens in reverse. What percentage of Hong Kong’s population, I wondered, has ever set foot inside a single family home?

One answer to this question popped up later in our meeting with Stefan Krummeck, at the Hong Kong office of Terry Farrell & Partners, a global architecture firm. There is a highly coveted crop of single family homes, Krummeck told us, located in Hong Kong’s New Territories. This exception to Hong Kong’s high-density rule owes its existence to a government provision from the early 1970s, called the Small House Policy.

The policy, enacted in 1972 as a concession to indigenous families who lost their land when the British claimed control of the New Territories in 1898, awards qualifying male descendants of these original families the right to build a “small house” in his original village within his lifetime. The policy grants building permits that are otherwise difficult to obtain; villagers build either on private (leased) land, which is easier and more valuable, or wait in line for a land grant from the government. These homes can be up to three stories high, with a footprint no bigger than 700 SF per floor.

Unlike the Housing Authority’s “homeownership scheme,” which prevents owners of government-subsidized housing from selling their units, the Small House Policy allows the indigenous owners to sell their homes to any buyer (there are some penalty fees in place to hamper speculation, but they are not high enough to discourage those determined to sell). With land in such extremely short supply, these well-situated, spacious homes are a rare find, and now command a dizzying premium … particularly, Krummeck mentioned, among Western ex-patriots who seek the comforts of their home country in a setting where this kind of development almost never happens.

This New York Times article, published last April, profiles one luxurious small house and the American/Scottish couple who owns it and lives in it with their two children and four dogs. The couple purchased their home for $1.3 million (US dollars) in 1999; brokers ballparked the current market value between $40 and $50 million.

In some areas, developers have been able to assemble several plots and small house building permits, building small communities of detached homes.

At least 30,000 of these homes have been built in the New Territories. I found reports online indicating that thousands more permit applications have been filed and are waiting to be filled. Generations later, the descendants of the indigenous inhabitants are far more numerous than the original population.

The New York Times article and other accounts available online indicate that the future of the Small House Policy is a controversial issue in Hong Kong. It seems logical to conclude that the policy is inherently unsustainable, given the ever-growing demand for property and these coveted detached homes and the scarcity of available land.

Links for further reading:

The New York Times: A Village Getaway from Busy Hong Kong

China Daily: Small House Policy Needs Revision

Hong Kong Lands Dept: How to Apply for a Small House Grant

HKU Theses Online: Evaluation of the Small House Policy in Hong Kong

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Juxtaposition in Hong Kong

As I now have had time to reflect on my time in Hong Kong (and take a step back from the awe I was experiencing in the density of the city), I thought back to one of the terms a few of us were mentioning as we continued through our trip: juxtaposition. No matter where you look or go there is a strong contrast between old and new, rich and poor. You can see this everywhere no matter whether you are looking at buildings, people, or food. The biggest example of this ying and yan I experienced was the first day I had in Hong Kong and took a couple of walking tours to get a grounds eye view of the area.

When I started the first of two walks, I initially felt like I was in a city similar to San Francisco. I was immersed in skyscrapers and other large buildings. There were numerous taxis and buses moving people around. But once I got a little further from the train station, I started to notice little nuggets of past architecture that were sprinkled around Hong Kong island. After leaving the massive buildings, I found myself in front of the Flagstaff House. This was the first glaring example of old British influence on the area. It is the oldest example of British style architecture remaining in Hong Kong.  Built in 1846, it was for many years the residence of the Commander of the British forces in Hong Kong during colonial times.  Today it houses the Museum of Tea Wares.

After continuing to see some of the most iconic building on Hong Kong island (Bank of China, HSBC), I decided to hop on the train and go out to the New Territories to get a glimpse of Hong Kong settlements long before British influence.

Ping Shan in Tin Shui Wai was settled in the 12th century by the Tang clan, one of the five great indigenous families of Hong Kong. The Ping Shan Heritage Trail links a number of the clan’s original structures in a meandering one-kilometer walk that contrasts new with old.

The Tang ancestral hall, built seven centuries ago, is well worth a visit. The monument is located halfway along the trail and features three halls with two courtyards. Elaborately carved motifs can be seen on wooden beams and brackets, while the hall is notable for its lack of an entrance threshold.

Towards the end of the trail is the oldest surviving pagoda in Hong Kong, the trail’s most impressive structure.  This was the most glaring example of old vs new that I felt.  As I was looking at the pagoda, I couldn’t help fixate on the large housing complexes just beyond the MTR station.  It was amazing to see how within a couple minutes walk of each other, the stark contrast between periods in Hong Kong’s history.

My main takeaway from Hong Kong is the how the pure contrasts seem to work harmoniously to make a wonderful city. Hong Kong. An island. A dense mass. Many varied landscapes. It certainly is an urban beauty.

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Transit Oriented Commercial Development

During our 4-hour layover in Hong Kong on the way home from Vietnam, Katlin and I decided to squeeze in one last look at the city. We bought round-trip tickets on the Airport Express train ($90 HK/about $11 US) and visited Kowloon Station. The Elements shopping mall atop the transit hub is an often-mentioned example of large-podium private development that turns an impenetrable wall on the streetscape.

Here’s some of what we saw:

The transit station is capped with a private development that includes an upscale shopping mall, a hotel and numerous massive housing towers rising out of the retail base.

We also checked out the public plaza that the developer was required to provide. Located on the third floor above street level, it was quiet and sterile, and for the most part unpopulated.

Katlin remarked that its quietness could be an asset by providing a respite from the street chaos, but we agreed it would first need to be activated with uses to attract pedestrians and keep them there. A good place for a community garden, maybe? A public performance square? Even a coffee or tea shop with outdoor seating would generate some interest.

It was somewhat confounding to find street entrances from inside the mall, so we only had time to locate and visit one of them: the North Entrance.

We had intended to walk around outside to view the podium as passersby see it, but quickly found that what little pedestrian environment was available ended right at the edge of the development’s circular driveway:

Katlin stands where the sidewalk ends.

Flipping back through my notes, I found a reference to a qualified term that Dr. Sujata Govada shared with us last week: Transit Oriented Commercial Development. TOD like the Kowloon station seems to be designed to bring people effectively in and out of a commercial environment, and to retain them there as long as possible.

Great transit goes a long way. However, great Transit Oriented Development ensures that riders are given an environment they can activate and interact with. Done well, it becomes the centerpiece of a neighborhood. Done with less sensitivity, the exterior can become a void to the streetfront, and the street life can seem alien to the sterile interior.

Govada also told us that block-style megadevelopments — particularly those that swallow up existing portions of granular street grid — have been a major cause of the Hong Kong population’s awakening interest in planning and urban design. Activists in this realm are seeking a middle ground that allows the private sector flexibility to innovate, and generates the land rents needed to support transit station development below, while still maintaining a minimum standard to preserve the life at the neighborhood level.

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Land Policy in Hong Kong and GDP

One of the most striking observations of  Hong Kong is how such a fiercely capitalistic real estate market can co-exist with nearly complete government ownership of the underlying land base.  As discussed in prior posts, the land “business model” is for government to sell development rights on a long-term lease basis with both up-front and ongoing revenue streams.  This model of development has existed in Hong Kong relatively intact, with only some modification to the length of lease terms, since the mid-1800s under British colonialism.

In fact this hybrid socialist/capitalist model of land ownership so effectively generated wealth for both parties to the land lease transaction over the last two centuries, that it has had a significant effect on China’s urban land policies in general since the late 1970’s when Deng XiaoPing instituted a series of land reforms across China.  During the twenty-year period leading up to the eventual handover of Hong Kong by the British Government, China created the new city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.  With an ownership scheme modeled on the government lease of land and coinciding sale of development rights, combined with a market-based socialism approach to capital formation and economic growth, the city of Shenzhen exploded from a town of 20,000 to a megapolitan area of over 14 million people today.

We learned from the leadership team at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks that the regional aspiration of the local governments in Shenzhen and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is to create a globally competitive marketplace for science, technology, manufacturing, finance and trade. With a combined regional metropolitan GDP of US$886 Billion (2009), this Shenzhen-Hong Kong economic region is third in the world, only behind Tokyo and New York.

Impressive results by any measure in just over 30 years.

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Conservation via Facebook

In Hong Kong there is an abundance of buildings, concrete, and neon flashy lights.  It is a case study in extreme urbanism.   In order to care about our planet, the environment, and a sustainable built environment, one has to know nature, to understand what is worth being protected.  So, I have been wondering how much people in Hong Kong really care about sustainability as an effort to protect the environment.  After all, this is the city that gave up significant portions of their natural harbor in order to create more land to build more concrete buildings.

In our meeting with Paul Zimmerman (Designing Hong Kong), Christine Loh, and Andrew Larson (Civic Exchange) I learned about a project in Hong Kong that illustrates the point that knowing nature leads to caring about nature.  There is a beach north of the city called Tai Long Sai Wan.  The beach is one of the few large accessible waterfront public natural spaces in Hong Kong, and people have come to enjoy recreating in this area.  We were told that this beach drew lots of people from different walks of life who liked to hike and recreate on the property, even the super-rich would bring their yachts to this area of beach.  So, when a big developer bought this piece of ground from the government and planned to develop residences and privatize the space, Hong Kong residents were up in arms.  A Facebook petition was signed by those who wanted to stop the development of this public natural amenity, and had over 80,000 Facebook “likes” by those who have come to appreciate the area, or wish to see it preserved for their use in the future.  This impressive act of grass roots public organizing was enough to convince the government to halt the development of this piece of property.  The use of the land is set to be reevaluated in a few years, and the fate after that remains unknown.  But, for now, Hong Kong activists have come together to make a strong statement about the importance of conserving the natural environment for public use.  The developer is currently gardening on the site.

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