The unpleasant truth of Hong Kong’s anti-homeless urban design

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Some people are less equal than others when it comes to Hong Kong’s not-so-public public space.

(Photo credit: Chris Lusher)

Coming to Hong Kong for the first time, my expectation was that this dense city characterised by its heavy commuter population would be strategically dotted by benches or other forms of public seating to accommodate its pedestrians.

This is surprisingly not the case. Instead, in areas most congested by local and tourist street walkers alike, there are hardly any convenient resting places to be found. Surfaces that can be sat on are likely to be uncomfortable, which defeats the benefits of public seating such as community building and the overall enjoyability of the city’s environment.

This flaw in Hong Kong’s streets is not a matter of thoughtlessness or bad design; in fact, it is quite the opposite. Hong Kong’s urban design purposely manufactures a city that is hostile to certain groups who rely on public structures, such as the homeless, successfully disenfranchising the population and proving counterproductive to combatting homelessness in the city.

This phenomenon is known as unpleasant design, also referred to as “hostile architecture” or “defensive architecture”, which is when the design of an object is made so that it is difficult to use. Instead of properly addressing the issue with a long-term solution, unpleasant design is an elitist method of pushing out those who do not have the power or agency to fight back to farther corners of society’s periphery.

This approach is indicative of the classist attitudes behind those who are responsible for the city’s architecture. Unpleasant design is a top-down approach that negatively affects those who do not have a voice in the decision-making processes that go into the creation of Hong Kong’s public spaces. According to Hong Kong architect Bernard Lim Wan-fung, those in charge of public space design are those who manage properties and spaces. Their ultimate goal is to keep Hong Kong a sanitised environment, which includes creating spaces that are deliberately unfriendly to the poor and homeless living on the streets.

The effects of unpleasant design take on a sinister nature, which contribute to the other forces in place that make the lives of the homeless all the more difficult. More than 60% of the homeless are employed, and yet are still unable to afford Hong Kong’s high rent or acquire access to public housing. The strategic attempts to keep the homeless out of the city spaces create a scenario in which the creation of a sanitary environment further disenfranchises this already-marginalised group.

In Hong Kong, urban design is sadly a small problem in comparison to the much larger ones at play. From having their belongings hosed down by public cleaners to the gross stigma surrounding the homeless (such as the idea that they choose to live on the streets), these people receive abysmal treatment from all sectors of the public sphere. In a world where street sleepers are left without options, unpleasant design simply adds to all the harmful forces working against efforts to combat the issue.

Unpleasant design, like most other strategies to exclude the homeless from society, simply makes matters worse for the suffering and does nothing but continue to sweep this pertinent problem under the rug. According to an article from the SCMP published early January 2016, the number of homeless people in the city tripled over the past decade, going from 600 in 2004 to 1,614 by October 2015. Social workers are overloaded with cases and counselling spaces are limited, painting overall image illustrating that the institutions in place are failing both the staff and those that they serve.

It is challenging to raise awareness for an issue such as unpleasant design, because it is difficult to convince the public of a problem that cleverly disguises itself in its surroundings. The motives behind the architectural design of the city is so subtle that it goes unnoticed, as its integration is done inconspicuously enough that the purpose of those designs goes unquestioned by the general public. In the words of Serbian architect and researcher Selena Savic, “We simply wake up every day to new unpleasant installations around us and, quite often, we don’t even understand the ways in which they can be unpleasant to some people.” Further, gathering support amongst the general public for a marginalised population such as the homeless is no easy task. Unfortunately, the homeless often do not have the means to take up action themselves, given the limited resources they have to get by on a day-to-day basis.

Despite these setbacks, a significant way in which Hong Kong’s public can raise awareness and promote democracy in the decision making of the city’s urban design is through the use of social media. On Twitter, its users are reportedly contributing their opinions on matters of urban design to Hong Kong’s architects, which opens up the potential for members of all social classes and backgrounds to have their say on the matter. While not directly targeting the issue of homelessness, the #missingseats campaign is a movement that aims to address an aspect of this Hong Kong’s urban design. It began as a class project by global communications students at Chinese University, who encouraged the public to share photos that demonstrated the lack of public seating on Facebook, Instagram, or at with the hashtag #missingseats.

Although there are many more factors outside of urban design that affect the lives of street sleepers, Hong Kong’s authorities need to seriously consider homelessness as a major factor affecting the city’s design in the upcoming years. But if they continue with this inhumane treatment of the poor, they will continue to set a poor example for those who look to Hong Kong as Asia’s World City.

(Printer – R&R Publishing Limited, Suite 705, 7/F, Cheong K. Building, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, HK)