Make your way through the goose-neck bridge, past the hordes of villain hitters bent over paper effigies on wooden stools, and you’ll arrive at the ground level piazza of Causeway Bay’s Times Square mall, where families gather round the latest exhibitions and buskers serenade the shoppers.

Less than a decade ago, the venue was at the centre of one of Hong Kong’s most notorious public space controversies. Times Square, local media revealed, was restricting access to its supposedly public piazza, because the developer did not want people sitting there all day long and causing the mall’s image to “deteriorate”.

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Open space in Kerry Hotel. Photo: 拓展公共空間 Hong Kong Public Space Initiative.

This infamous incident was just the tip of the iceberg for public spaces owned and managed by private developers. This summer, it was reported that Hung Hom’s newly-minted Kerry Hotel had sealed off its 2/F public landscape deck – which boasts a glorious view of the Victoria Harbour – for “maintenance purposes,” while a plaque indicating its public status was placed in an inconspicuous location. The space has reportedly since reopened.

Similarly, a hidden public space on the 4/F of the Tuen Mun Town Plaza that consists of sports courts remains fenced off despite public outrage a year ago, In-Media reported last month.

The topic of privately-owned public space has been garnering increasing media attention over the past decade, and it has become harder for developers to get away with restricting the public’s access to these spaces.

But a more significant, yet lesser-known problem, a leading researcher told HKFP, is in fact the government’s long-standing policy of asking developers to be providers of open space, whilst counting these wholly private areas towards the overall open space enjoyed by HongKongers.

Public spaces: mismanaged and inaccessible 

Mismanagement of privately owned public spaces is not a new phenomenon. In 2008, the University of Hong Kong released a seven-year study which uncovered a range of problems in relation to privately managed public spaces, such as sites which did not display notices indicating their public status as required, the installation of CCTV systems, a lack of greenery and seating, and partial occupation by restaurants or cafes.

Nor is the problem unique to Hong Kong, according to WYNG Foundation’s Carine Lai, who has conducted extensive research on the topic of open space. In London, for example, a Guardian investigation has shown how public space along the Thames riverfront is inaccessible, with security guards stationed there preventing reporters from carrying out interviews.

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Carine Lai. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

In the 70s in New York City, Lai continued, incentives were given to developers to provide public open space on the ground floor in exchange for more floor area, leading to a wave of open spaces of poor quality. In response, the city came up with a specific set of design guidelines for future projects, which improved the situation.

In Hong Kong, the Development Bureau published a set of design guidelines for privately owned public open spaces in 2011. Lai said the guidelines are nowhere as specific as New York City’s, but “should prevent some of the most egregious cases that have happened in the past.”

However, they are not mandatory guidelines, nor are they legally binding, as is the case with most planning guidelines in Hong Kong.

The only time legal recourse is available is when the land lease dictates the size or opening hours of a space, and the developer violates those conditions such as by installing a restaurant or cafe there; members of the public can then complain to the Lands Department.

But so long as the conditions are complied with and it’s legal, “they can’t really complain that the quality sucks, or the design is stupid, or this is pointless,” Lai said. “And you can’t fix anything that’s already there.”

Canon Wong, deputy secretary-general of Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, echoed the point, saying that the problem is with the grey area where the land lease requires developers to permit the public to have a degree of freedom to enter the public space, but “permit” is a broad term that does not require the accessibility to be high.

The results of this are sites that, for example, require the public to climb 200 steps to reach the podium level, according to a 2014 study by the Audit Commission.

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Photo: 拓展公共空間 Hong Kong Public Space Initiative.

The reason private developers do not wish the public to enter these spaces and deliberately make them less accessible, Wong said, was because of the maintenance cost.

“If you open it up to the public, you need security as well as maintenance and checks to ensure there are no regulation violations. The developer will actively try to avoid these costs – by reducing the chances of the public using it.”

Yet despite this frustrating attitude on the part of developers, Hong Kong remains relatively passive when it came to fighting for public space, Wong mused. He said that the biggest problem in relation to public space in Hong Kong was a lack of general awareness.

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Canon Wong. Photo provided by interviewee.

An example Wong gave was the outdoor area near Snoopy’s World in Shatin’s New Town Plaza, which many believed to be a part of the theme park but is in fact public space. “If you had never realised that this was a place you can go in the first place, then you won’t even ask about accessing the area, because you already assume you can’t.”

To make it easier for the public to recognise what spaces are accessible to them, HKPSI has assembled fragments of information from various government departments and put it all together into a public space directory, which they regularly update.

From walking tours on the history of Kowloon City’s development to initiatives such as Walk DVRC, groups such as HKPSI and think tank Civic Exchange have sought to shift the mentalities of the Hong Kong public in terms of how they see public space.

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Walk DVRC. Photo: Ellie Ng/HKFP.

For Wong, it is important for the public not just to know the limits of their rights, but also that they have a right in the first place. “With privately owned public space, they will think that the private developer is being generous or conscientious is giving them public space. But they won’t know that behind this is perhaps an agreement which enables the developer to ultimately gain more profit in exchange for providing public space during their discussions on the lease.”

“They see it as welfare rather than a matter of rights… if the public can change this perception of theirs, they will naturally pay more attention and be more active in fighting.”

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HKPSI’s public space directory.

Open space – by and for the private sphere

But even if there was increasing awareness on the topic of privately owned public space, Lai calls it merely a “side issue.” Following the Times Square controversy, Lai said, the government in fact no longer requires developers to provide privately owned public space except in special circumstances. Instead, the government asks developers to develop wholly privately owned and managed open space.

Private open space is currently included under “countable open space,” as the definition only requires the space to be attached to an identifiable residential or worker population.

This means that it is considered when the government assesses whether it has met its requirement of 2 square metres of open space per person under the “Planning Standards and Guidelines” — even though only people who can afford memberships in private clubs or who live in private developments can enjoy such spaces. Elsewhere, Lai has argued that “Hongkongers are being cheated out of vital open space.”

According to a report Lai published this year with Civic Exchange following research made possible by a successful crowdfunding campaign – Unopened Space: Mapping Equitable Availability of Open Space in Hong Kong – privately owned public open space makes up a mere two per cent of countable open space. Private open space, on the other hand, makes up nine per cent.

Lai said asking developers to provide open space was a long-standing policy since the 1980s; back then, Hong Kong had just experienced two decades of rapid growth with a huge influxes of immigrants from mainland China. When developers began building huge housing estates, the government realised it could outsource the burden of providing services to these developers.

The logic was that if residents of private estates were entitled to their own open space, there would be less pressure on the government to build public spaces such as parks, Lai said.

There are benefits in requiring private developers to provide open space, such as fostering of communities and relative convenience for residents of private estates. And thankfully, there have been advancements since the 1980s: the government at least no longer counts private golf clubs as part of Hong Kong’s open space as was the practice in the past, according to Lai.

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Mong Kok. Photo: Flickr/David Yan.

Nevertheless, while Lai said she had nothing against the policy itself, she questioned why such private space should be counted towards the per capita open space requirement. For example, Lai said, when new developments are next to old districts, such as Olympic and Mong Kok, there is a clear discrepancy in the amount of open space enjoyed by residents in the two locations.

However, “If you take the whole Yau Tsim Mong district as a whole, it looks like there is more per capita open space than there really is for the people of Mong Kok,” Lai said.

In the government’s proposed plans for city planning – Hong Kong 2030 Planning Vision and Strategy – it has vowed to raise the open space per person standard from 2 to 2.5 square metres.

Hongkongers on average already enjoy 2.7 to 2.8 square metres per person – significantly lower than that enjoyed by residents in its Asian counterparts such as Tokyo and Singapore – but this new target means that the government will strive to improve the open space in poorer and older districts falling below the standard.

In order to do that, Lai said the government is rehabilitating urban streams and developing waterfronts which would improve the open space in various districts such as West Kowloon, Kai Tak, and the reclamation between Central and Wan Chai, where major parks are planned.

Meanwhile, the increasing demand for housing means that the city faces conflicting priorities in its land policies: when new homes are built in an area, the amount of public space per capita in that district also goes down.

Banner at the Cadogan Street Temporary Garden. Photo: Concern Group for Protecting Kennedy Town, via Facebook.

Although such planning policies are largely in the hands of the government, Lai said, this does not mean that there is nothing the public could do. For example, the controversial plans to demolish the Cadogan Street Temporary Garden in Kennedy Town had given rise to petitions and protests, and the Town Planning Board rejected a proposal to develop private housing on the site earlier this year.

“They found out their space was going to be taken away… and they lobbied, and they organised, and they went to the Town Planning Board, and through sustained efforts they basically got the government to leave it alone,” Lai said. “I think that these small community efforts, if they have a rallying point, they can actually make a difference.”

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Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.