Planning for future urbanism by looking back to the past

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Housing development is not all about quantity. As shiny new tower blocks pop up across the city, districts are becoming lifeless and sterile machines resulting from over-indulgence in branding and marketing, and neglect of residents’ actual needs.

Photo credit: Chris Lusher

Across from the old tenement buildings of Tai Kok Tsui and Mong Kok is one of the most revolting displays of bad taste in the history of architecture. The 200-metre-tall residential tower shares the same name as the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, but does not contain any of Catherine the Great’s impressive collection of paintings. Instead, it is an utter mismatch of architectural styles and typologies. A half-hearted copy of a classical palace hosts a modern shopping arcade, above which sits a typical wall-like skyscraper, no different from the ones in Tseung Kwan O, Tung Chung, Tuen Mun etc. As a result of this monstrosity, neighbours of this monstrosity are deprived of wind and sunlight.

The aforementioned is not an exception—everywhere in the city, one can find advertisements selling real estate developments with cheesy, cringe-worthy names. It seems like property developers have played into the minds of consumers by selling what is essentially a tiny apartment copy-and-pasted from a template of “designs”, packaged as an opulent European palace. This desire to be “royal” comes at the expense of ruining entire neighbourhoods as they lose their characteristics and heritage trying to imitate another culture.

Freedom of architectural expression is good, but an anarchical exposition of conflicting and selfish designs would end up wrecking the city, especially when they are driven solely by commercial interests. Developers and architects have to take into account the fact that their buildings are not merely investment opportunities or show-offs of wealth, but also actual places people call home.

A look back into history offers the answer to how future developments should be designed. As bad as Hong Kong may be in preserving historic buildings, evidence of how urban planning in the past have shaped our lives today can still be seen. The growing trend of gentrification shows how the modern models of satellite town developments are beginning to fail.

Older districts such as Central—Sheung Wan, Wanchai and Kennedy Town have become magnets for young professionals to move into and creative entrepreneurs to start their businesses. Many are opting for traditional tong laus rather than shiny new tower blocks devoid of character.

What differentiates these neighbourhoods from new towns is that they have a sense of place. Though this is by no means a quantifiable measure, a place with authentic human attachment and belonging fosters a happier community. This means being in touch with local history, identity and culture; more importantly, allowing room for the public to create their own space—something that is increasingly difficult to achieve as chain retail stores are taking over the city.

As the government reveals its plans to build a new town east of Lantau, it should not simply be a quick and easy fix for the housing crisis. It needs to work with property developers to pay more attention to realising good urban design that considers the needs of inhabitants and the environment.