Town planning in Hong Kong

I've recently read a classic book on town planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs burst on to the town planning scene with this book in the early 1960s, and has been the sage of what's been termed 'New Urbanism' ever since. She unfortunately passed away recently. (You can find a fairly recent interview with her here if you're interested.)

Jacobs' vision of optimal urban life was profoundly shaped by her years living in New York City's Greenwich Village. She returns to her own neighborhood for illustrations over and over in Death and Life, inspired by its lively mixture of uses and people, the active life on its streets and sidewalks, and its compact 'walkability' -- cars aren't anathema, but they shouldn't dictate the conduct of life's day-to-day practicalities, either.

Underlying her vision is the concept of 'diversity', in the original sense of the word, i.e. a mixture of people, building types, businesses, civic amenities and visual effects.

But an evil empire is staring down Jacobs' plucky little urban village: the 'Radiant City', an amalgam dreamed up by professional architects and town planners from Le Corbusier onward. The Radiant City is highly modernist, with clean, form-follows-function architecture and layout. Acres of smooth grass (i.e. 'open space') are punctuated by severe tower blocks.

As Jacobs was writing, the Radiant City was being made manifest in American cities as rundown but still vital 'slums' were cleared wholesale and replaced with huge new public housing projects financed by waves of government money.

The Radiant City provides Jacobs with the perfect foil. Forty years later, few would consider US public housing policy anything but a disaster. Public housing projects, no matter how shiny, clean and promising, decayed rapidly into crime, blight and often outright chaos.

So many people were ready to listen to Jacobs, who counterproposed four principles for the economic and social rehabilitation of urban neighborhoods, which Death and Life develops in detail. I'll sum them up quickly:

  1. Mixed uses. Vital urban neighborhoods should combine residential, commercial, civic and even industrial uses. Zoning should not set rigid barriers.
  2. Short city blocks. Jacobs believes neighborhoods cannot mesh and cross-fertilize if long blocks funnel people relentlessly to just a few streets that end up being overdeveloped commercially.
  3. A mix of old and new buildings. Jacobs has nothing against new buildings, but believes any neighborhood must have many old buildings, too, not just to provide visual variety, but because renting space in old buildings is generally cheaper than in new. This allows for the incubation of small businesses, restaurants, and other quirky uses that are priced out of new buildings, but nevertheless add much interest.
  4. A sufficient concentration of people. Contra the Radiant City planners, Jacobs believes a relatively high population density is not just desirable, but crucial to a living city. Lowering population density below a certain point (which varies from city to city) makes true urban development impossible.

By the time I finished reading Jacobs' book -- which I recommend highly, by the way; it's a true classic and highly readable -- I simply could not avoid thinking about how well Hong Kong's urban planners have followed her criteria, so let's do just that.

First, do most HK neighborhoods mix their uses well? Certainly there's a pretty good dose of commercial use mixed into just about every Hong Kong residential neighborhood, so that's fine. But otherwise I'd argue we do quite badly. Industrial areas are strictly zoned off, although they're increasingly infused with commercial redevelopment, as in Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong, for example. Civic areas -- e.g. the Cultural Center/Art Museum waterfront area, and the History/Science Museum complex -- are set off consciously and sharply from the surrounding commercial development. Most new housing developments are shielded from 'the street', with their common areas isolated on raised podiums.

Second, do Hong Kong planners employ the use of short city blocks? If all you saw of Hong Kong was Mongkok, you'd surely say yes, and with astonishing effect! But if you look around one of HK's highly-planned new towns such as Tseung Kwan O, you'd see just the opposite. 'Blocks' are barely recognizable, with long, long stretches of land with no cross streets through them at all.

Third, is there a conscious effort to mix old and new buildings? Parts of HK Island and some older Kowloon neighborhoods such as Tsim Sha Tsui now offer a reasonable mix, although there are of course very few genuinely old buildings left in the whole city. But this is not a result of planning. Much of Hong Kong was built up in the years right after World War II, so there are long stretches with buildings of generally similar age. And redevelopment of these post-war buildings on the Kowloon peninsula was suppressed for decades by the height limitations necessitated by Kai Tak airport. In new towns, buildings were by definition built almost simultaneously, so it's a moot point. So I don't think we can give HK's planners any credit in this category at all.

And now we come to point 4, population density. Full marks here, Hong Kong boys and girls! Hong Kong's lack of land for development has necessitated some of the world's highest population densities, whether the town planners here have liked it or not.

In sum, then, although Hong Kong's planners have now had over 40 years to absorb Jacobs' insights, one look around my own neighborhood at the clusters of brand-new residential towers with large empty lots in between has me thinking 'Hmmmm. We're still right here in Raaadiant City!!' And yet! My neighborhood is not an urban hellhole. It's not crime-ridden. It's not inconvenient. I don't have a car, so I either walk or use public transport wherever I go. And I don't think it's ugly.

So how can this be? How can Hong Kong's town planners have followed a blueprint that brought only misery to US cities, and yet come up with a city that's both famous for its vitality and, I would argue, highly livable? I'll try to find some answers to this question in Part II of this story.


thoughts on the question...

Hi Mr. T,

I think that there are a number of factors that may account for why most of the high rises "Radiant City" type develpoment has not made high crime urban hell-holes of much of HK.

1) Excellent & relatively inexpensive transporatation - most people can go from where they live to another section of town quickly and easily. The main exception to HK's "Radiant Cities" not being angst-ridden pockets of poverty and crime is Tin Shui Wai. Far from urban center and more importantly, expensive to get to more developed urban areas where better paying jobs are.

2)These high density developments are not necessarilly associated with poverty. The private development of Tai Koo Shing is not substantially different from the Housing Authority flats in Tseung Kwan O, for example.

3)Amenities are nearby? Most big developments in new towns have amenities which function - schools and markets there or nearby, libraries, etc.

4)?Cultural expectations - Even in villages in Guangdong, people for the most part lived very densly (walled village w/ narrow alleys and small rooms). So, living densely is not so "foreign" to the cultural roots of many people??

It is an interesting question. Some answers may also be found in Nuala Rooney's book At Home with Density which I keep meaning to read soon.

Density, etc.

Thanks for your interesting comments, skmama. I will be taking up some of them in my next installment on this topic! I think number 4 is a big deal, and will say quite a bit about that.

By the way, don't go looking for that Rooney book at the Kowloon Central Library, because I've got it!! When I first saw the title, I thought, 'Hey, I didn't realize Mrs Tall had already published a volume of memoirs', but then I saw that it was about housing in HK . . . .

I've read the first couple of chapters, and have found it just okay so far. If one didn't know much about HK and its history of immigration, and had never been inside a HK public housing flat, the historical precis she does would be quite the bombshell, but if you've had some exposure to these, there's not a lot that's new so far.

Anyway, I should hold off on making too harsh a review, since I'm not that far into it yet. I'm hoping the upcoming chapters, which recount Rooney's actual research, will be much better.

Oh, and speaking of density, when I checked the book out, I forgot to pick up the copy of the VCD that accompanies the book; it's a documentary whose description looks very interesting indeed. I'll have to go back and get it!