An exhibition and publication at Hong Kong Polytechnic University highlight the city's urban space problems. Tamsin Bradshaw reports.
How do we create urban spaces that genuinely meet the needs of local communities in Hong Kong? This is a contentious issue in our city, as demonstrated by The People of Duckling Hill, an exhibition that ran from 8 to 13 September at Jockey Club Innovation Tower at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Organised by Parallel Lab, a multidisciplinary design studio headed by Géraldine Borio and Caroline Wuethrich, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design, the exhibition was intended to make the public aware of the disjunction between the public’s use of this hill in Tseung Kwan O and the government’s typical approach to outdoor areas.
“Alongside the construction of Tseung Kwan O’s new town in the 1980s, more and more people started to use this hill as their space for exercising, contemplating or meeting their friends in a natural outdoor environment,” explains Borio, who says that many locals still come here to practice tai chi between 5 and 9am each day. “In the 1980s, there was no public infrastructure on the hill to accommodate these activities, so some of the walkers implemented their own shelters, flattening the ground for exercising and even building stairs themselves.”
This creative use of public space faced government opposition, however, as the construction was considered illegal, and so it was regularly cleared away. “Arguing a lack of security, the government keeps replacing the handmade constructions with standards facilities that neither fit the needs of the community or the particularity of the site – little protection from sun, wind and rain,” says Wuethrich. “The consequence [of the government approach] is that it limits the feeling of identity to a place and the sense of belonging to a community.”
The authorities didn’t initially respond to complaints; however “some Sai Kung district authorities have started to see the value of these [local and creative] initiatives, and they are ready for more collaboration,” says Borio. “But as the propositions differ considerably from standard procedure, they have faced a lot of opposition from the more conservative members.”
The exhibition showcased the plight of the local community, and both this and the publication are designed to raise public awareness of the plight facing Duckling Hill and its organic community. “Duckling Hill needs the support of the people of Hong Kong. Once people here recognise the value of such a phenomenon, we believe it will encourage the government to take things a step further,” says Borio.
As well as raising public awareness, Parallel Lab and Hong Kong Polytechnic University School of Design have come up with possible solutions to the issue of Duckling Hill. “We have proposed a pilot project that involves the government, the people of the hill and professional designers. We believe that Duckling Hill doesn’t just need a punctual solution but that the whole hill has to be rethought as a new model for public space in Hong Kong,” says Wuethrich. “Duckling Hill needs a more creative and integrated design, a well thought-out vision that will give the hill the status of a real experimental public space.”
The designers see this as an opportunity for Hong Kong to set an example to the world; one that motivates the community to care for and maintain outdoor areas. “The government should not be afraid to leave more freedom to people in the way they use public space,” says Borio. “Rather than creating chaos, it will improve mutual understanding and encourage civic responsibility.”
Hong Kong Polytechnic University