By Lai-Chong Au

The use of public spaces has become an increasingly hot topic in Hong Kong. It has raised great public awareness subsequent to the conflicts and controversy over the use of the open space at Times Square in Causeway Bay.

Typically, public spaces include parks, plazas, streets, sidewalks or any outdoor or indoor areas that are used by the public. Conceptually it would be an area where everyone can access, gather and enjoy without prerequisites. So what exactly is an ideal public space?

A public space, seen at Langham Place Mall.
A public space at Mong Kok’s Langham Place Mall. Photo: Wikicommons.

Open space planning is a subject that has been well researched and studied in other parts of the world. William “Holly” Whyte (1917-1999) was a well-respected and legendary urbanist, organisational analyst, journalist and people-watcher in America. In the 70’s, William Whyte started “The Street Life Project” to look into the dynamics of urban spaces. His team studied parks, plazas and other recreational areas of New York City in details. Their findings and analysis were collected and presented in a book and a 55-minute film named “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.”

“The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces” provided a good foundation for our understanding of urban planning today. To continue and expand on Whyte’s work, a NGO “Project for Public Spaces” was formed. The group assisted communities to create sustainable public spaces that serve the public’s needs and to transform them into vibrant community places. Since the group started in 1975, it has completed projects in 3,000 communities in 43 countries and all 50 US states.

Whyte once said, “It’s hard to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.” Does this sound familiar?

Public space at shopping mall IFC's rooftop. Photo: Wikicommons.
The rooftop public space at shopping mall IFC. Photo: Wikicommons.

In Hong Kong, our main problem is not the lack of open spaces, but rather they were not planned, designed and created to fulfill local needs, as very often these spaces are designed “top-down” by the government or by property developers who consider public spaces as “public facilities in private developments.” The main problem with “top-down” planning is its lack of humanity and compassion. Community involvement is necessary as actual users in the neighbourhood are able to provide insights on what works best and what is important for the community.

According to Whyte, “triangulation” is another key to good public space design. It is the choice of arrangement of external stimuli that link people together, for example sculptures in a park, street stalls or street performers. These features would help engage public interest, bring people closer and create opportunities for social interactions. In Hong Kong, a good example of public space is our traditional wet markets where locals do their grocery shopping and meet and greet others in the community.

Public space sustainability is a dynamic and ongoing process and this is what makes it interesting. Usage and functions of public spaces would change over time as they are closely impacted by the developments and demands of our society.