June 19th, 2011

The Over-Regulated Street

Posted in Asia Pacific, Public Space, Transportation by Christopher DeWolf

佐敦 - 庇利金街、寶靈街 交界 c.1970's

Top: 1970s. Bottom: 2011. Photo by Lee Chi-man

It’s always easy to depict a city’s changes through the broadest of strokes. Buildings fall so that others may rise; new roads are built; shops come and go. But the most important transformations are often the most subtle.

This new photo compilation by Lee Chi-man is an example of what I mean. The first image was taken at the Kowloon corner of Pilkem and Bowring nearly 40 years ago. Today, all of the same buildings remain standing, but the essence of the corner has changed beyond recognition.

Kam Wah, the clothing store seen in the 1970s photo, has been replaced by a 7-Eleven. The hand-painted sign advertising a dance hall on the first floor has been replaced by one announcing the presence of a “nightclub”; the Japanese lettering has disappeared, reflecting some profound economic changes, including the de-industrialization of Hong Kong — in the 70s and 80s, the city was flooded by Japanese factory owners and businessmen — and the relative decline of Japan’s economic influence.

Those kinds of economic changes are to be expected. What makes this compilation interesting is how the streetscape itself has changed. Where there was once a cluster of itinerant street hawkers, there are now fences meant to prevent people from straying off the sidewalk. The solitary “Do Not Enter” sign seen in the 70s photo has spawned three offspring. Painted lines regulating vehicular behaviour have proliferated.

In other words, it’s an illustration of how Hong Kong’s streets have become fussy, cluttered, over-regulated places, where grassroots entrepreneurship is frowned upon and different modes of transport are segregated with a heavy but ineffective hand. The streets have lost their spontaneity and pedestrians their freedom.

If you ask the relevant government departments why hawkers have been banished, why every sidewalk is now lined by fences and why there are so many road signs everywhere, they’ll tell you that it’s all meant to make Hong Kong’s streets safer and more orderly. After all, hawkers take up too much space, jaywalking is dangerous and drivers need to know where to go.

But this micromanagement of behaviour hasn’t improved anything; if anything, it has made things worse, because many of Hong Kong’s streets are more crowded, more traffic-clogged and more unpleasant than ever before. The city’s natural ebullience is going flat.


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