23 February 2016 – Open space may seem like an oddity to some Hong Kong residents – a curious lack of development sandwiched between high rises and apartment blocks. Many locals would not think of it as an amenity.
According to the Planning Department’s Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines, residents of metropolitan areas and new towns should be allocated two square meters of space each. For reference, that is a coffin, or, in happier terms, a beach mat.
On the global average, this is stingy indeed. While calculations of open space may vary depending on what types of space are included under the term, some estimates have found as much as 26.4 square meters per capita in New York and 31.7 square meters per person in London.
Small allocations are not a trivial concern. Studies have found that open space, such as for playgrounds and parks, has benefits. These include the promotion of green exercise, lowered stroke mortality, increased survival rates of elderly populations, better mental and emotional health, and reduced socioeconomic inequality.
Sadly, many Hongkongers may accept their lot, thinking they will get no better in a crowded city. They may also overlook how poor planning contributes to the situation. Even worse, some may not know that they pay more than their tax burden for their share of elbow room. For instance, officials consider many spacious private podiums in pricey housing blocks to be “open space”. But most Hongkongers cannot use it.
Finally, because the government departments involved in open space planning and management use different, non-comprehensive definitions of the term, and release statistics infrequently, there is little way to determine whether space is provided equitably.
Civic Exchange, a local think tank, wants to endow Hongkongers with the ability to call for change by shining light on the matter. Under Project Manager Carine Lai, the organization has launched a research project to review local open space policies, draw attention to the lack of data, point out existing inequities, and provide new suggestions for assessment.
Against the backdrop of a crowdfunding campaign, Carine, together with Senior Communications Manager Michelle Wong, sat down with Fragrant Delta to talk about this important project. Here is what they said:
FD: What prompted you to look into the issue of open space in Hong Kong?
Carine: In 2008, there were controversies over some public open spaces. Management was treating these spaces as if they were private. Then it came out that they were dedicated to public use but that the public was not getting to enjoy them. In one case, management was renting the space out for commercial purposes. In another, it was on a residential podium. The public was supposed to be able to use it, but residents didn’t want people walking around up there. When residents found out that it was a public open space they asked why they had to pay for a public facility.
I realized that this only tackled about a third of the issue. Nobody was talking about completely private spaces that are still counted as open space. I had to do quite a lot of checking to make sure that these private open spaces really existed. Even some planners were not aware of it. I was amazed that the government could count these private amenities as a public good.
FD: Why should the public care about your research unless you are able to propose changes that, if adopted, will make a major difference in each individual’s space allocation?
Carine: I think there’s a lot of fatalism about the issue. People know that Hong Kong is crowded and that there is not enough land, so they think they have to put up with these conditions. But I want to draw attention to the fact that, even under the quite low standards internationally that the government is giving us, we don’t even get all of that space because of ways the government can define certain spaces as open when they are not really for the community.
It’s a quality of life issue. If you just build many units of housing but you don’t plan communities well, then you are stuck with the poor planning for decades.
FD: In your opinion, what are the biggest problems in how open space is being managed?
Carine: First, if we have to accept that we are going to have a limited amount of space, then we need to maximize what we have. And if we’re going to maximize this, then we need good accessibility and fair public access, and we are not necessarily getting these things under the current guidelines.
Second, there is a serious lack of data availability and transparency, so the public has no real way to evaluate how well the standards are being fulfilled.
FD: Would you say this is evidence that the government does not care about the issue of open space?
Carine: Historically, it has been a low priority of the government. To be fair, I think there have been some improvements in recent years in the way the Planning Department is thinking. They seem to be thinking the correct things now, but implementing them is another problem because of institutional inertia.
FD: Does the current framework for regulating open space need enhancement?
Carine: The Planning Department is only responsible for determining where open space goes. For implementation, it relies on the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), the Housing Authority, and private developers. It is quite fragmented. I do not see a way to get around this because of the way in which different types of open space are defined.
One major gap is that the LCSD, which is responsible for managing some open spaces, is not really involved in planning communities. They are a maintenance department. They don’t even regularly do surveys on park usage or park usage satisfaction. Their job is basically to water the flowers. There is also a complaint-averse bureaucratic culture. The government feels embattled. As a result, they don’t want to try anything.
FD: Would you walk me through your research plan?
Carine: I have pretty much gotten the basic background stuff out of the way. The next step is to dig into all of the publicly available figures I can get my hands on to see where the space is allocated in Hong Kong. Then, I am going to compare these figures to demographics based on the census to find out whether there are socioeconomic disparities.
Stage two will be a public opinion survey on open space usage to see how people feel about the issue, how often they use the space, and how far they’re willing to travel to use it. It will be conducted after the release of the first stage report in October.
Stage three will include development of policy recommendations and tools for open space assessment in communities. There will be three reports in all.
FD: What do you think you will find?
Carine: I do not know exactly what I am going to find but I expect that the greatest amount of private open space will be in the middle class areas rather than in rich areas. The wealthy do not really need it because they can get away to private clubs or foreign countries. Previous research has found that government parks and playgrounds are more likely to be found in grassroots areas. I’m expecting our study to confirm that too.
In terms of demographic differences, it is probably going to be people who don’t qualify for public housing but who are not rich enough to live in large residential estates that have the worst situation.
FD: You are currently about 30 percent of the way to your crowdfunding goal with just one week left in the campaign. Is this what you expected?
Michelle: We expected this would not be an easy journey. We are a think tank that advocates policy issues, and this topic is not something that is easy to get people excited about, unless they already understand the background of the issue.
That is why we want to use this method to raise funds. By telling people about what we are doing now and asking for their support, we have a vehicle for earlier public engagement. We can also gain backing for a worthwhile project that can benefit local residents.
FD: If people wish to contribute beyond the end of the Fringebacker campaign, how might they help?
Michelle: Civic Exchange would be delighted to receive direct donations for this or other projects. Donors can contact us directly using the information posted on our website.