As I mentioned in my previous article on Hong Kong town planning, it's curious -- in a wonderful way, of course -- that Hong Kong's extreme population density, coupled with 'Radiant City' town planning that's produced mostly urban hellholes in other countries, has resulted in a very livable city that's among the world's safest.
In response to my article, reader SKMama offered a number of possible reasons for why this might be the case. I'll just recap them here:
- Excellent & relatively inexpensive transportation -- most people can go from where they live to another section of town quickly and easily.
- These high density developments are not necessarily associated with poverty.
- Amenities are nearby? Most big developments in new towns have amenities which function - schools and markets there or nearby, libraries, etc.
- Cultural expectations -- Even in villages in Guangdong, people for the most part lived very densely (walled village w/ narrow alleys and small rooms). So, living densely is not so "foreign" to the cultural roots of many people?
I think SKMama is pretty much right on target, with maybe two minor quibbles, which I'll get out of the way first.
So, quibblingly, on point 1, although it's likely true that isolation breeds problems, I'm not sure how important this factor was historically in Hong Kong. That is, in many parts of Hong Kong extreme density preceded good transport (e.g. areas in Kowloon east such as Kwun Tong before the MTR was built). But then these areas were not designed along Radiant City lines, so maybe I'm making a moot point. In any case, it's now surely true that even denizens of Radiant Outposts like Tseung Kwan O (i.e. me) can get 'into town' very quickly, so there's no real sense of being cut off from the rest of the city at all.
In point 3, SKMama notes that HK's highly-planned 'Radiant City'-type estates have amenities provided. That's true, and it surely would be a problem if they didn't, but according to Jane Jacobs, the provision of such 'planned' amenities is no guarantee of urban vitality, and in fact often is counterproductive. How so? Well, to ensure the success of the businesses stipulated in a Radiant Plan, the possibility of others spontaneously developing is often explicitly excluded by zoning, space limitations, etc. I think that's the case in many of HK's developments, i.e. there's not much room for shops, restaurants, and other amenities to 'spring up' once the estate's allotted spaces are occupied. Little 'neighborhood monopolies' are thus encouraged, to the benefit of no one but a few lucky shop owners and restaurateurs.
Now I'd like to pick up on a couple of SKMama's points that I think are right on the mark, and maybe try to add a bit in support of them.
Point 2 is a very good one. At one point, over half of HK's population was publicly-housed, although that's now dropped to around a third as the city gets richer. And even though no one here equates public with private housing -- i.e. pretty much everyone knows right off if your address is a public or private development -- there really isn't that much of a stigma against living in public housing. This may be changing, of course, as the percentage of the population that's grown up in private housing increases.
Point 4 is also much-supported by academic studies, and from common-sense evidence. Chinese villages are closely-built, and Hong Kong itself has been infamous for its crowding and population density right from the 1840s onward. On a related note, it's important to realize how grateful many new immigrants to HK in the post-war years were when they received a government-provided flat. Many had lived in squatter huts in incredibly bad conditions -- so bad that even a small concrete box seemed luxurious. That's another sentiment that's likely to be far less salient these days, of course.
This ability to deal with cramped living conditions is the essence of the book SKMama mentions, Nuala Rooney's At Home with Density. (To keep from cluttering things up here, I'll include a short review of this book in the comments following this article.) Rooney interviewed 15 families in Hong Kong public housing flats, and catalogs their tactics for living in cramped conditions. What's amazing is how little griping she gets from her interviewees: they see living at high density to be inherent to Hong Kong life, and they don't waste much energy wishing things were different.
So all of these factors surely do make Hong Kong work. But I think that one factor overrides the rest: pure population density. Hong Kong's 'planned' environments, no matter how ignorantly conceived and ineptly executed, are redeemed by sheer force of numbers. A flood of people out on the street (or the development's podium) cures all manner of ills, from rotten configurations of public spaces to inadequate provision for businesses and restaurants to inconvenient location and access.
Paradoxically, of course, this density is the result of no one's choice. If you asked most Hong Kong people, they wish there were more space for building less dense housing and amenities. But the simple lack of cheap land, and hence the necessity for crowding, has overpowered numerous problems inherent to high-rise living in other cities. For example, there's no need to build massive parking lots or garages that mar large stretches of the city, as HK's population density makes public transport efficient and feasible. There are few problems with 'grey areas' of wasted land at the boundaries of developments and public areas such as parks, because if there's any such space available, it's surely going to be built on. And so on.
In other words, Hong Kong really is unique. It's the exception to many of the rules of urban planning and, for this very reason, endlessly fascinating if you're willing to try to understand it.
Here are some links to some websites that deal with urban planning, population density, and so on.
This article is a good summary of Jane Jacobs' thought.
And this article is a helpful review and assessment of Jacobs' influence.
This is the first installment of a five-part interview with Nikos Salingaros, a contemporary critic of the 'Radiant City'. It's excellent throughout. Also, here at the end of part I, be sure to scroll down into the comments and read Michael Blowhard's comment posted on May 2 at 11:16 AM. It's a bit USA-centric, but it's also one of the best short tutorials on the ills of modernist urban planning you're ever going to find.
Should a city be a 'common work of praise'? If you want a very different perspective on how cities go both right and wrong, this article on the 'liturgical' aspects of urban design is thought-provoking and maybe even profound.
This site is devoted to the vision and work of Leon Krier, a contemporary architect who's trying to realize Jane Jacobs' new urbanism. In this interview, Krier singles out Hong Kong as essentially the exception to planning rules.
This video clip gives you a rundown of the Hong Kong town planners' current thinking on how to further develop my own neighborhood, Tseung Kwan O. It's very interesting indeed.
This discussion board thread is a poll/debate on whether Hong Kong's population density and high-rise living makes it a 'heaven' or a 'hell'. It's long, but fascinating to read the sheer revulsion many people (even those who frequent a website dedicated to skyscrapers!) express at the thought of living Hong Kong-style.
If you would like a humorous look at the UK's twelve most hated examples of 'Radiant City' style architecture, check here.