Archive for the Environment category

October 22nd, 2014

The Urban Space of Occupied Hong Kong

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What surprised me most was the silence. Here I was, standing on what is normally an eight-lane funnel of angry traffic, and the only sounds I could hear were footsteps and the soft murmur of voices. Free of diesel exhaust, the briny scent of the harbour lingered in the air, and a warm breeze ruffled the nylon shells of tents laid out in tidy rows along the sides of the road.

I’ve been away from Hong Kong for six weeks. It seemed like a good time to get away, as the muggy heat of summer dragged on interminably, but two weeks after my departure, a student strike was met with tear gas and suddenly the city was occupied. This wasn’t just Occupy Central, the campaign of civil disobedience that had been promised for a year if Beijing and the local government failed to institute reforms that would allow free elections for Chief Executive in 2017. That campaign had become more of a bogeyman than anything else, a cudgel wielded by autocratic, unaccountable leaders whose box of governance tools consists of fear and intimidation and little else. I had doubts it would even happen. Instead, a much larger and more unwieldy phenomenon occurred: students and their supporters erected barricades in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok, effectively wresting control of these important neighbourhoods from the government and placing them in the hands of a loosely affiliated band of citizens.

If you’ve been following the news, you know what happened next: a remarkably peaceful occupation was later attacked by bands of organized thugs, who beat protesters and destroyed their shelters as police shamefully stood by. The next day, protesters rebuilt their encampments and carried on. Each time the occupation seems to be waning, something comes along to jolt it back to life, be it triad attacks, police bullying or the spectacularly tone-deaf leadership of Chief Executive CY Leung, a Beijing puppet who recently told international media that Hong Kong can’t have real democracy because it would give too much power to the city’s many poor people.

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July 23rd, 2014

Hong Kong’s Guerrilla Gardeners

It’s not easy to find the Mango King. “Do you want to go the safe way? Or the quick way?” asks Michael Leung, a designer and urban farming advocate, as we walk past the wholesale fruit market in Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei district, halfway up the Kowloon Peninsula. We opt for the quick way, which takes us through a tangled web of highway off-ramps and access roads. Two decades ago, this area was open water, but land reclamation and infrastructure works have turned it into an uninviting no-man’s-land next to one of Hong Kong’s most crowded neighborhoods.

Somewhere in this mess of traffic is a leftover parcel of land that has been turned into an illegal farm.

“We call him the Mango King because he loves mangoes so much,” Leung says after we dodge an oncoming taxi. “He’s a real urban farmer, making maximum use of space that would otherwise go unnoticed. He has 700 square feet of sweet potatoes, 45 papaya trees, five mango trees, three banana trees, two lychee trees. It’s amazing.”

Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, famous for its skyscraper canyons and gritty, neon-lit streets. But most of its 1,100-square-kilometre territory is actually undeveloped — country parks alone account for more than half of the city’s land area. Instead of fostering a close connection between city-dwellers and nature, though, the opposite has happened: Hong Kong today is a city largely devoid of greenery, surrounded by an often spectacular procession of green mountains and craggy shorelines.

The city’s disconnect with nature has broad implications. In the early 1990s, a full third of Hong Kong’s fruits and vegetables were produced locally in the New Territories, the hinterland that stretches from urban Kowloon to the border with mainland China. Today, that number has plummeted to 2.3 percent, with nearly everything imported from mainland China and beyond: apples from the United States, kiwis from Italy, oranges from South Africa. Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in local organic agriculture among young people born in the 1980s and 90s, but with a steady supply of cheap, imported produce arriving daily in Hong Kong’s port, changing the attitudes of the broader populace has been a struggle.

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October 31st, 2013

Before Sandy

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The sun was burning through morning fog as I walked down Hoyt Street to the subway, the Williamsburg Savings Bank half-shrouded like in some imaginary Gotham. By the time I reached Beach 59th Street, the sky was a deep blue. It was late October, but it felt like summer. I took off my sweater and put it in my backpack.

It took more than an hour to get to the Rockaways. Train service over Jamaica Bay was suspended for track repairs, so anyone travelling past Rockaway Boulevard had to get off and transfer to a shuttle bus that rumbled at its own pace around the perimeter of JFK Airport. The detour seemed to put everyone off kilter. “No, I’m not on the subway, I’m on a bus,” said a woman on her cell phone, as if she couldn’t quite believe it.

Once the bus arrived at Mott Avenue in Far Rockaway, we had to transfer again, this time to the orphaned stretch of A train that runs along the Rockaway Peninsula, a stubborn eleven-mile finger of land that juts into the Atlantic from the far reaches of Queens. I was there to meet my friend Rossana, who was studying a piece of vacant land along the Rockaway boardwalk for her master’s course in urban planning. She’d invited me to take part in a bike tour of the boardwalk that was being run by a few members of the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, a community group that is trying to reconnect Rockaway residents to their waterfront.

We met at a former fire hall the Waterfront Alliance calls home. There’s a small community garden next door, and a group of teenagers were busy putting up decorations for a Halloween party that would be held that evening. Our group assembled — me, Rossana, her classmate Jon, two local teenagers, a man who said he worked for the city water department, “bringing down water from the Catskills,” and our guide, Mark Hoffacker — and we got on our beach cruisers and rode down a potholed Beach 59th Street to the boardwalk. The wooden planks of the boardwalk drummed a steady beat as we rode past grassy sand dunes. Hoffacker pointed to a fenced-off portion of the dunes, a refuge for migrating birds, and said people often trespassed there, leaving behind garbage. For several blocks, there was nothing but scrubland marked by broken strips of asphalt, along which beach bungalows had once stood. Hoffacker told us the vacant land was now used for dumping cars and refrigerators, though the problem wasn’t as bad as it used to be. (A magazine article from 1992 describes a “Third World” scene of decaying houses, mosquito-infested sloughs and dozens of mafia-run dump trucks unloading toxic waste.) In the distance, the elevated subway tracks loomed incongruously over the bush, its concrete arches streaked with rust.

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July 26th, 2013

How to Ruin a Wonderful Space

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The Devonian Gardens in 2007. Photo by norrix

The Devonian Gardens were a wonderland. Located on the top floor of the TD Centre mall in downtown Calgary, the gardens were a fully-enclosed greenhouse of tropical plants and — best of all for a kid — a million nooks and crannies to explore. It seemed like every path led to something fascinating: a hidden alcove surrounded by palms, a wood-framed playground teeming with children, a pond filled with turtles and goldfish, ringed by little coin-operated dispensers that spat out fish food instead of candy. There was an outdoor terrace, too, and in the winter it was exhilarating to emerge from the warm, soupy air of the gardens into the stingingly dry cold.

Built in the late 1970s and donated to the City of Calgary by the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, the gardens were operated as an indoor public park, open without restriction for most of the day. It was a popular spot for office workers to eat their lunch, munching on sandwiches as nannies and mothers pushed their babies down the brick paths. Men gathered in the afternoon to play chess near the gardens’ front entrance. There were more than 135 species of plants, many of them tropical, and in a dry prairie city that is brown for most of the year, the gardens felt almost surreal in their lushness, a feeling enhanced by the contrast between the jungly vegetation and the banal artificiality of the design: brown bricks, brown metal railings, faux stone waterfalls that looked like they came from the set of a cheap dinosaur movie.

Five years ago, on a February trip to Calgary, I made a point to walk through the Devonian Gardens when I spent an afternoon photographing the Plus-15 network of interconnected second-floor spaces that spans most of the downtown area. I had no idea it would be the last time I saw the gardens in their original state. Shortly after my visit, TD Centre and two adjacent malls closed for a years-long renovation that included a makeover for the gardens. When they reopened last summer, it became clear that it was much more than a makeover: it was a complete gutting of everything that had made the gardens special.

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July 16th, 2013

Private Paradise

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There was a time when Hong Kong was full of strange and wonderful private gardens. There was a Spanish-style garden built by a Catholic missionary on Seymour Road. In Tai Hang, the seven-storey pagoda of Tiger Balm Garden could be seen for miles around. When Sir Robert Hotung built a second house on the Peak, he surrounded it with a 116,000-square-foot garden built in a Chinese Renaissance style, complete with pagoda and colourful tilework.

Many of the world’s great parks began their lives as private gardens — the Jardins du Luxembourg in Paris, the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid — but few of Hong Kong’s private gardens have survived, let alone been given over to the public. Civic mindedness is not a common trait among the scions of Hong Kong’s landed class; many treat their family’s property as oversized ATMs. Tiger Balm Garden had in fact been open to the public for decades when Tiger Balm heir Sally Aw Sian sold it to Cheung Kong Development in 1998. It was demolished in 2004 and replaced by a wall of apartment blocks festooned with blinking LEDs. Hotung Gardens has always been private, though Hong Kong’s government made an effort to declare it a monument when its owner declared her ambition to demolish the estate; the preservation drive was deterred when she demanded no less than $7 billion in compensation.

Still, one of Hong Kong’s great private gardens has managed to survive. Dragon Garden was built as a weekend retreat by entrepreneur and philanthropist Lee Iu Cheung, and while it was nearly bulldozed for a tawdry high-end housing estate, it was saved from demolition when Lee’s son Shiu bought out the property from his siblings. Since then, granddaughter Cynthia has agitated for government support to restore the gardens, which I wrote about three years ago. As far as I know, the situation hasn’t changed — money is still tight, Cynthia is lobbying to reform Hong Kong’s heritage policy and the public can only visit the garden on special occasions.

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June 3rd, 2013

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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June 2nd, 2013

Hong Kong’s Silence on Noise Pollution

Posted in Asia Pacific, Environment, Maps, Public Space, United States by Christopher DeWolf

SOGO crossing, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong at night

Sogo Junction in Causeway Bay, where ambient noise levels can reach 118 decibels. Photo by James Shandlon

After Karl Sluis’ richly-detailed map of New York City noise complaints was featured on The Atlantic Cities, my editor at the South China Morning Post got in touch about making a similar map for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong can be an intensely noisy place: roaring buses, skull-shattering pile-driving, incessant jackhammers, video billboards set to max volume. Ambient noise levels in Causeway Bay can reach 118 decibels — equivalent to sandblasting or a rock concert. Paradoxically, the noisiness of everyday life here seems to have made people less tolerant of things like outdoor concerts, which are always plagued by noise complaints. Just as Sluis did in New York, mapping those noise complaints would provide insight into Hong Kong’s geography of noise.

But we failed. That’s because every attempt I made to extract precise data on noise complaints from the Hong Kong government were met by obfuscation and outright refusal. Not only does this point to the government’s lack of transparency, it raises questions about how seriously it is committed to handling Hong Kong’s noise problem.

The problem is that, when it comes to noise, the government just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. “There are not any comprehensive and detailed noise pollution surveys and studies in Hong Kong,” says Yip Yan-yan, chief operating officer of think tank Civic Exchange. The only way to reduce noise pollution is to analyse it — and to make those findings available to the public.

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May 29th, 2013

Behind the Noise Map

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

NYC Noise Map by Karl Sluis

If you read The Atlantic Cities, or follow our Twitter feed, you’ve probably seen Karl Sluismap of the 40,412 noise complaints made last year in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful, richly-detailed effort to chart not only the geography of noise but more subtle variations in New York’s socio-economic landscape, like the fact that complaints about loud music from cars seem only to happen north of Central Park.

I’ve been working with the South China Morning Post to create a Hong Kong version of Sluis’ map for the past couple of weeks. It hasn’t gone so well. I’ll have more about that later, but in the meantime, here’s a quick interview I did with Sluis by email.

What came first, wanting to do a noise map or coming across New York’s open-source data on noise complaints?

As a freelance data visualization designer, I’m always on the lookout for that next great data set, so I was attracted first to NYC’s Open Data portal. Granted, a lot has already been made with the data released by the city of New York. I was perusing some of the less-popular data sets when I came across the 311 (NYC’s non-emergency information line) data set.

Wired Magazine had already made a visualization out of the same data some years ago, so I hardly wanted to repeat an existing project. What got me excited was the combination of geolocation data, time data, and, particularly, the metadata on what type of complaint had been filed. With such a rich data set, I knew the visualization would have legs.

New York’s an immense, incredible, rich place, and as a resident, I’m always curious to learn more.

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April 17th, 2013

What Sucks About Walking in Hong Kong

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

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I often get angry when I walk around Hong Kong. This is one of the most fascinating cities in the world to explore — densely layered, pulsing with energy — but it’s also one of the most frustrating because of all the ways the pedestrian experience is undermined and made unpleasant. In the city with the lowest car ownership rate in the developed world, pedestrians are treated like second-class citizens.

Designing Hong Kong recently launched an interesting new initiative called Missing Links, which is lobbying the government to improve pedestrian linkages around the city. One particularly egregious example is Salisbury Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, which runs parallel to the harbourfront in Tsim Sha Tsui. In the past, crosswalks allowed pedestrians to easily walk to the waterfront, but a major traffic engineering project about 10 years ago removed all surface-level crossings and forced pedestrians into a confusing system of underground passageways. Walking through them is not much different from being a rat in a maze. To say it’s a dispiriting experience would be an understatement: if life is a series of tile-walled tunnels, I’ll take the next exit out, thank you very much.

This is just one example of what’s wrong in Hong Kong. What’s even more outrageous is the systematic denigration of pedestrians in the city’s entire network of streets. There are the legendarily narrow sidewalks, made even narrower by the presence of roadside fences that eat up valuable pedestrian space. When a sidewalk becomes overcrowded, it isn’t widened, it’s fenced in, the way the jam-packed sidewalk of Dundas Street was fenced in when too many people started walking in the street.

Crosswalks at major intersections are generally too narrow and surrounded by fences that create artificial choke points. Minor intersections have absolutely no provisions for pedestrians: no crosswalks, just a “Look Left” or “Look Right” sign painted on the asphalt. Pedestrians are meant to wait for oncoming vehicles, which always have the right of way unless there is a zebra crossing. And while there are zebra crossings here and there, usually in very quiet parts of town, in recent years they have become even more endangered than the animals for which they are named.

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March 28th, 2013

The Seawall in all its Incarnations

Posted in Art and Design, Canada, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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Walking the length of Vancouver’s Seawall is a lesson in design fads and fashions. The Stanley Park stretch dates back to 1914 and is elegant in its simplicity; a rough-hewn stone wall threads its way around the park’s craggy shoreline, rainforest on one side and cool Pacific waters on the other. Near Granville Island, the path takes on a late-70s look with brick paving, timber planters and suburban landscaping, a trend that continued into the 1990s, with some variations — square-cut timber gave way to painted steel tubes as the material of choice for benches and railings, and the pine trees of the 70s were usurped by a 90s love of palms, which matched the SoCal architecture that was fashionable at the time.

By the time the late 2000s rolled around, fashions had changed yet again, and this is reflected in the newest stretch of the Seawall, which runs along the southeast side of False Creek next to the Olympic Village. The materials used are at once rustic yet contemporary: cool materials like concrete, granite and steel juxtaposed with warm timber. Natural shorelines were preserved rather than obliterated, wild grasses are abundant and there is generally a more diverse array of spatial experiences than on the more rigid parts of the Seawall: paved plazas, boardwalks, pebble beaches, piers jutting into the water. (The entire Seawall is documented on Google Street View, so feel free to take a virtual bike ride to see if you agree with my impressions.)

It’s that depth of experience that sets the newest part of the Seawall apart from its predecessors. It is not simply a space meant for enjoying the view; it’s a space that encourages active participation. There are lounge chairs, a seemingly unregulated community garden and — most interesting of all — there’s Habitat Island. This spit of scrubby offshore land is accessible only at low tide via a pebble beach. The last time I visited, on a sunny spring day, the island was filled with people: teenagers rummaging through the bush, some people smoking pot, others drinking beer, families examining the aquatic life of tidal pools. It’s a lovely, unmanicured island, its wildness made all the more striking by the wall of glassy condominium towers across the water.

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March 27th, 2013

Landscape = Architecture

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Joel Sanders’ Broadway Penthouse

Five years ago, New York-based architect Joel Sanders was renovating a downtown Manhattan penthouse when he ran into a problem. “There was a rooftop garden, and what we needed to figure out was how to connect it to the loft,” he says. “We decided to reverse Modernist convention. Instead of taking hard materials outside, we brought the outside in.”

Like a waterfall of greenery, the roof garden makes its way into the centre of the apartment through a skylit atrium, through which a runs a minimalist wood-and-metal staircase. The green space serves a dual function as both focal point and barrier, separating the public areas of the apartment—the kitchen and living room—from the bedrooms. Glass walls in the bathroom look out to lush foliage; bathing inside “is like being in a spa,” says Sanders. “We made living with nature part of the lifestyle of the apartment by literally weaving the indoor and outdoor spaces together.”

It’s a concept that scales up. Last year, Sanders and landscape architect Diana Balmori, who both teach at the Yale School of Architecture, published Groundwork: Between Landscape and Architecture, a new book that seeks to eliminate the “false dichotomy between architecture and landscape” – the idea that the built environment is somehow distinct from the natural one.

“What we need to do now, because of the imperative to face environmental issues today, is to see buildings and landscapes as always being interrelated to one another,” says Sanders by phone from Yale. “We need design buildings that are green, sustainable and tied into the environment, but which also spatially integrates the indoors and outdoors.”

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March 26th, 2013

Sakura Space

Posted in Canada, Environment, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

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Human life and natural life are often seen to be at odds, so the points where they intersect — urban beaches, wall trees, overgrown vacant lots — feel wonderfully transgressive. Cities are such regulated environments that the intrusion of a self-governing natural element is disruptive and thrilling.

That’s especially true around this time of year, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom. In Japan, this occasion is used an excuse to throw hanami parties under the blossoms, and similar gatherings occur elsewhere in the world. When I was in Vancouver last spring, there was a sakura festival outside the Burrard Street SkyTrain station, with music and bento boxes that people held up to the flowers and photographed. Elsewhere in the city, small crowds gathered around particularly attractive blossoms to take photos.

These sakura spaces are ephemeral in the extreme: one week they’re there, the next they’re gone. The area outside Burrard station is a pretty unremarkable place, a sunken concrete plaza where office workers eat their sandwiches before returning to another slog in the cubicle. But for two weeks each spring, the arrival of the cherry blossoms transforms it into somewhere almost magical, a feather-ceilinged outdoor room that people go out of their way to visit.

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March 13th, 2013

Walking in the City Without Ground

Posted in Architecture, Asia Pacific, Environment, Interior Space, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

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One of the first lessons of walking in Hong Kong: maps are your enemy. In a city with such dramatic topography, where private and public spaces blend together almost seamlessly, the best routes are not the most obvious.

Take for example the 20-minute walk from the cafés of Star Street to the shops of Queen’s Road Central. Follow the directions offered by Google Maps and you’ll head straight along the Queensway, a flat and easy route but not a very nice one, since you will be accompanied along the way by the noise and exhaust of roaring traffic, without any trees to shelter you from the sun. Far more interesting is a route that takes you through Pacific Place, Hong Kong Park, Citibank Plaza and Government Hill. Sounds complicated, but in practice it is an easy journey that passes through a shopping arcade designed by Thomas Heatherwick, a leafy park forged from the remnants of a British military base and one of Hong Kong’s most historically important clusters of architecture. I’m willing to bet that, on a hot summer day, this route — which combines stretches of indoor air conditioning with leafy green space — is about five degrees cooler than walking alongside the cars and buses of Queensway.

When I first met with Jonathan Solomon, one of the authors of Cities Without Ground, a book that maps Hong Kong’s intricate networks of three-dimensional private-public passageways, he made a very interesting observation: on Hong Kong Island, the ground doesn’t really exist. Solid though it may seem, the ground beneath our feet has been shaped and transplanted like so much spare modelling clay — and that’s just the natural stuff, not including the artificial ground like rooftop public parks. While cities like New York “worship the ground,” as Solomon put it, the very concept of what “ground level” is in Hong Kong is a bit shifty.

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February 27th, 2013

La ville à l’échelle animale

Friend of man.

Bobo-Dioulasso. Photo : Matthew Bradley

Il est commun maintenant de dire d’une ville qu’elle est à l’échelle humaine. Il s’agit plutôt d’un compliment, généralement, mais a-t-on déjà vu une ville à l’échelle animale ?

Je réponds oui, et j’y ai vécu un court instant. Il s’agit de Bobo-Dioulasso, une ville du Burkina Faso, petite en terme de population, environ 500 000, mais élastique en terme de distance. Comme les bâtiments sont pour la plupart courts sur pattes, rarement deux étages, exceptionnellement trois étages ou plus, les distances s’étirent. D’ailleurs dit-on, peu de Bobolais marchent leur ville, préférant le vélo, la moto et exceptionnellement l’auto. Le curieux réalise rapidement que c’est faux et que plusieurs de ces citoyens n’ont d’autres choix que d’user leurs sandales sur l’ocre et le goudron.

Ici la ville se marie à la campagne : l’urbain n’est pas certain de son identité. Du reste, comme le Burkinabé en général est massivement campagnard, on s’étonne moins qu’il amène sa campagne en ville. D’abord, sauf exception des grandes avenues, la plupart des routes sont en terre. Ensuite, il n’est pas nécessaire de faciliter la vie aux visiteurs par des repères clairs basés sur les bonnes pratiques en matière de circulation routière et donc comme à la campagne, les points de références visuels sont les seuls aides (pont, courbe, mosquée, gare, rond-point, maquis, etc.). Et enfin, rare sont les Bobolais capables de lire une carte, donc inutile de prendre se raccourci.

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