Hijacking Public Spaces

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Bench at Times Square. Photo by Ox Lee

It was a balmy, late March evening in Hong Kong. Times Square, tourist hot-spot and the island city’s largest shopping mall, thronged as usual with people basking in the artificial daylight of the surrounding billboards and video screens. But something was different.

I looked closely: the “railings” that normally stood in the square—awkwardly-shaped seats designed to give people the illusion that they had a place to rest, but so uncomfortable that few bothered to sit in them—had been replaced by real benches. The “No Lingering” signs normally seen on the square’s flower planters now had a friendlier message: “Love the Plants.”

Although the open area around Times Square is legally considered public space, it is privately managed by the shopping mall’s owners, who will rent it out to promotional events and commercial activities for up to $19,000 CAD per day. Security guards often shoo away undesirables, such as the Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers who gather in Hong Kong’s parks and squares every weekend.

But in public debates about these practices, questions emerged about whether the mall’s management actually had the right to exert this level of control over its open space. Turns out it didn’t. When Times Square was first proposed in 1987, the government awarded its developers extra density in exchange for the construction of a plaza that would be used exclusively for public, non-commercial activities. After Times Square opened, the government failed to enforce those requirements. This essentially gave the mall’s management free reign to do with the space as it wished, a situation that ended only when Hong Kong’s media broke the story at the beginning of last year. In March, angry citizens staged a protest, demanding access to Times Square. The following week, it was goodbye uncomfortable railings disappeared, hello “Love the Plants.”

The Times Square controversy is part of a much greater debate raging over Hong Kong’s public spaces, the redevelopment of old neighbourhoods, loss of heritage and the health of the city’s cultural life.

But Hong Kong is far from alone in this regard. Public space issues are being debated across the world as more and more attention is paid to the quality of urban life. One of the best-articulated visions of public space comes from Toronto, where artists, political activists and citizens have cast a critical eye on the city’s urban environment. In 2001, the Toronto Public Space Committee began fighting against corporate encroachment on public land. 2004 saw the launch of Spacing, a lively and passionate journal of everything related to Toronto’s urban landscape.

Shawn Micallef, one of the editors of Spacing, is the movement’s philosopher-muse. A flâneur in the classic sense of the term, he writes regularly for Toronto media on the city’s streets and culture.

“My definition of [public space] is pretty broad,” he says. “It’s anywhere civic life is lived out – places that define what a city means to us. In public spaces we overhear conversations and smell food and perhaps make eye contact at funny moments. Other people stop being a mystery, and the city becomes known. When I go to a city that doesn’t have a really good public life—that is, active and populated public spaces—I feel really uneasy. I have no idea what the city is about or what’s going on.”

A city’s drama unfolds in its public spaces. What shapes that drama is the local culture of a place and the way its public life is regulated. That’s why the streets of Paris feel like an enormous living room, with friends and couples picnicking next to the Seine at sunset and the Luxembourg Gardens filled with happy layabouts on a weekday afternoon. In Bangkok, a sprawling city dominated by cars, entire neighbourhoods consist of nothing more than makeshift outdoor restaurants, buzzing motorcycle taxis and tiny laundry-and-potted-plant-filled lanes.

And Hong Kong? “It’s entrepreneurial,” says Paul Zimmerman, one of the co-founders of the urban development watchdog Designing Hong Kong. “The streets are a market everywhere, the shops are open and people trade. You have that everywhere, in Europe and the States, but a lot of it has disappeared. Here you still have that, the Chinese mentality is really trade- and small-business-oriented. But that’s disappearing as we develop new buildings that lack interface between the property and the street.”

Hong Kong is in relentless redevelopment, a condition created not so much by a booming economy as by a political and economic system that relies heavily on perpetual turnover: the government makes a large part of its money by leasing land to developers, and high property values benefit both developers and the home-owning middle class. Combine this with a small land area and rugged topography, it creates constant pressure on established areas, many of which are threatened by massive new construction projects. Small streets, markets and traditional businesses give way to malls and privately-managed open space.

Convincing the Hong Kong government about the wisdom of maintaining a healthy public sphere should be easy. Unfortunately, most benefits of public space are unquantifiable. How can you attach a dollar value to social interaction and a vibrant culture? So, instead of nurturing street markets and improving streetscapes, the government builds new highways, reclaims more land from the harbour and encourages the construction of vast, self-contained housing estates, where everything that ought to be public (swimming pools, parks, shopping areas) is made private.

Attitudes are slowly changing. Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, followed by the SARS crisis in 2003, gave pause to many who had taken Hong Kong’s prosperity for granted. As a consequence, more thought has been given to cultural quirks that make Hong Kong unique.

But even as Hong Kongers take issue with the consequences of bad development, they have yet to attack the very process that leads to such mistakes.

“For things to come to an outburst, it’s going to take a bit more time and more extravagant situations that people will get angry about,” says Zimmerman. “In the meantime the government just keeps on putting plasters [band-aids] everywhere.”

But at least public space is on the agenda. You could see it in legislative council election campaign, when several candidates were barred from campaigning in privately-managed open areas, including Times Square. You can also read about it in the pages of the local English newspapers, which have scrutinized public access to privately-managed open space. And the public space debate has been enthusiastically adopted as a theme by the city’s burgeoning arts scene.

The Hong Kong Art School’s student art gallery recently showcased public space interventions. “Hong Kong needs hijacking,” declared the curator’s statement, which went on to explain that “hijacking is an activity that goes from the bottom to the top, and challenges the right to interpret the use of a space.” One student tied a disposable camera to a fence at a popular tourist site, encouraging passersby to shoot their own pictures; another student turned a public volleyball court into an open-air laundry room; and still another made free souvenir magnets depicting the paving stones on Pottinger Street—known in Chinese as “stone slab street”—in response to the government’s renovation and rebranding of the street as a tourist attraction.

Last summer, Andrew So, an eccentric street performer and former amusement park clown, performed a similar intervention when he stood in the Times Square plaza dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

“Despite being an imitative international landmark, Times Square lacks international vision,” he told a local alt-weekly. “I was once surrounded by 11 security guards by just standing there! That’s why I dress as another international landmark. I’d like the government to realize that opening more public spaces and encouraging street performers have a positive effect on tourism, and a minimal impact on taxpayers.”

Meanwhile, the square’s new benches are so popular that it is often impossible to find a free seat. With every passing day, the plaza looks less like the front end of a shopping mall. People now relax on the plaza’s planters and marble ledges – and for once, security guards don’t shoo them away.

This article appears in the Winter 2008 edition of Maisonneuve, available on newsstands across Canada.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday December 23 2008at 12:12 am , filed under Politics, Public Space and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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