Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces

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Talking over dim sum at a busy Wan Chai restaurant, it doesn’t take much prompting for Christopher Law to reel off the failures of Hong Kong’s public spaces. “No matter how small the space is, they try to fence it off,” he says, taking of sip of pu-erh tea. “All the public seating is extremely awkward. And because of maintenance, they use these pink toilet tiles everywhere.”

It’s a subject Law, the director of international architectural practice Oval Partnership, knows well. He points out there are more than 80 small parks and plazas scattered throughout Wan Chai District, but many are so poorly designed they may as well not exist — one “sitting out area” on Queen’s Road East consists of two benches and a patch of concrete surrounded by a tall fence. Recently, though, Law and his firm got a chance to reshape a constellation of public open spaces around Star Street, a quietly fashionable corner of Wan Chai.

“They’re places where you can read a book, eat your rice box or sandwich, have a nap,” says Law. “Most of the public spaces in Hong Kong aren’t designed for that diversity of uses — all those activities are limited or actively discouraged. We wanted to encourage them.”

Hong Kong isn’t the only city in Asia where designers are casting a critical eye over the quality of public space. All over the region, cities ambushed by decades of rapid growth are taking a step back and reconsidering their perfunctory parks, streets and plazas — though in some cases, architects must butt heads against arcane policies, design standards and intransigent officials in order to make a difference.

One of the best-known and most dramatic of these overhauls took place in Seoul, where an ancient waterway known as Cheonggyecheon, long entombed in concrete and covered by an elevated expressway, was reborn in 2005 as a 8.4-kilometre-long stream lined by a promenade and native vegetation. That was one of the inspirations for last year’s transformation of a fenced-off waterway in Singapore’s Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park into a focal point for the surrounding community.

The crux of the project was the conversion of the Kallang River from concrete drainage channel into a natural stream. “Before, there was no relation to the water — it was the backside of the neighbourhood,” says Tobias Baur, a landscape architect with Atelier Dreiseitl, which oversaw the project. “The problem was that it was a concrete channel completely barred to the residents. It was dangerous for people because the water was very fast and it was a dead zone for vegetation. It was a non-usable space.”

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The Kallan River as a drainage canal

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The river after naturalization

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Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park from above

Taming the water was Dreisitl’s first order of business. The channel’s original purpose was to drain stormwater into Marina Bay; the water level could shoot up by two to three metres after a heavy rain. Replacing concrete with rocks and soil reduced the water’s velocity by half, which created sedimentation and encouraged the uptake of nutrients by plants along the river’s edge. That in turn attracted birds and other animals. “We have an increase of 30 percent in biodiversity — a lot of new species are coming in,” says Baur.

Parkgoers have taken note. “People go down to the water now, they get their feet wet, they fish with small nets, the really experience it,” says Baur. “There are stepping stones that are very popular to cross. School groups often go down to educate kids about life in the waterway. There’s no differentiation between the water and the park anymore.”

Providing better access to water was one of the main goals of US-based firm NBBJ’s 2010 restoration of the Bund, the iconic 1.8-kilometre promenade along the Huangpu River in Shanghai. For much of its history, the Bund was Shanghai’s economic heart, a thriving port lined by lavish banks and trading houses built by the foreign powers that ruled the city until 1949. After a series of floods in the 1980s, the local government built a 10-metre-high levee the water to protect against rising waters. In the 1990s, the road adjacent to the riverfront was widened to ten lanes, cutting off pedestrian access to the promenade, except through dingy tunnels and narrow footbridges.

“It was pretty terrible with all the traffic,” says Alex Krieger, who lead the restoration project. “It was especially bad on the side with all the beautiful old customs houses. The sidewalks were so narrow you could barely walk along them.” To facilitate the restoration, six lanes of traffic were removed, along with an elevated expressway that funnelled traffic along the Bund. That opened up a large amount of new public space, which NBBJ filled with mature trees, and provided more access to the riverfront promenade, which was resurfaced with stone paving, instead of the ceramic tiles that had been used before. “Tiles don’t wear very well — you see them all over China because it’s an inexpensive material, but there might be as many as a million people a weekend on the Bund, so you need something as durable as possible.”

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The Bund before renovation

The Bund - Shanghai

The Bund - Shanghai

The Bund after renovation

Materials were a sticking point for the Oval Partnership’s Star Street project, which involved the renovation of three small plazas in a private-public partnership between property developer Swire Pacific and the Hong Kong government. “In a typical public park you have to use standard materials — standard tiles, standard fences, standard lights,” says Law. That leads to a lot of lookalike spaces designed according to a formula rather than the needs of their users. “The benches in these standardized spaces only allow you to sit in one way. You can’t lie down and if you have a group of people you can’t sit around to have a chat.”

Law and the project’s lead designer, James Pierce, decided to scrap the usual benches in favor of curving planters that serve as flexible seating areas. Cloistered gardens were opened up to the street, allowing for clear sightlines and more permeability. Standard lampposts were replaced by soft ground lighting. One of the biggest challenges was dealing with the small list of government-approved materials that could be used, in order to keep maintenance costs down. Luckily, Pierce and Law discovered a kind of textured concrete that had been part of the government’s public space arsenal in the 1950s, which they combined with subtle granite accents to elegant effect. “It’s quite tough and it has a robust feel,” says Pierce.

That kind of careful negotiation between different interests was a common feature in all three projects. “Trying to get through government bureaucracy was not easy,” says Law, but the process was helped forward by support from the community. “We turned a shop into an engagement space with models and discussions,” he says. “We got more than 600 responses. They didn’t want the status quo, but they didn’t want it to turn into another glass and marble shopping centre environment — they wanted to preserve the community feel of the area.”

In Singapore, the success of the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio project hinged on cooperation between two different government departments, the PUB water agency and the National Parks Board. “When we said we would remove the railings and let people go down to the water there was a scare,” says Baur. “So a change in mindset was very important in the design process.” The team ended up creating a 60-metre stream at 1:1 scale to demonstrate how the river could be naturalized without any ill effect. “That helped convince them,” says Baur.

But Law says true change won’t come until cities adopt a more design-forward approach to public space. In Hong Kong, he says, “it’s important the government move away from this standardized open space policy, but these kind of private-public partnerships [like around Star Street] don’t really do it. They’re exceptions. They don’t override the standard practices.”

Instead, he would like to see more public spaces given over to non-profit organizations that could adopt a tailored approach to their design and management. “Hong Kong people like sitting on the grass, flying kites, picnicking, watching a performance in a public square,” says Law. “But in most cases they just don’t have the opportunity to do any of that.”

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Kwong Ming Street Playground, one of the three public spaces around Star Street renovated by Oval Partnership

This story was originally published in the June/July 2013 edition of Surface Asia.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday June 03 2013at 09:06 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Rethinking Asia’s Public Spaces”

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