The dull city creates social distance

The housing estates in Hong Kong once laid the foundation for a relative open society that offered plenty of opportunity for social mobility. More than fifty years later, these public estates are more of an obstacle to the emancipation of population groups, and the public and private housing estates of Hong Kong form a city made up of islands with little interaction or exchange between them. A radically different approach to the housing question is required if the city is once again to become a habitable place for everybody and a forum for sharing ideas.

Tin Shui Wai – public housing estate. Image: the authors.

Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where your address indicates what you earn. If a villa on The Peak is beyond your means, you are likely to end up in one of the housing estates, which vary greatly in quality, prestige and price. These pieces of city, about the size of the Vondelpark, are filled with dozens of tall residential towers that could house the entire population of, say, Gouda. Diversity is often nowhere in sight in this form of society.
Space is scarce in Hong Kong, and that has elevated efficiency to a true art form. Number of square metres, prices and amenities are tailored precisely to the needs and means of residents. Accordingly, people with similar incomes, lifestyles and patterns of consumption automatically end up in the same housing complexes. The question then is how these homogeneous, self-sufficient islands influence the dynamics of the city as a whole. Also, how did this type of urban development arise? Even more importantly, how does a city that has adopted this form influence the behaviour of its inhabitants?

No visitor would ever describe Hong Kong as a boring city. The iconic and breathtaking skyline, vast harbour and spectacular skyscrapers set against a backdrop of green hills are a feast for the eye of every city lover. Even so, most people in Hong Kong live in a totally different setting. The Hong Kong they see every day is closer to Le Corbusier’s monotonous Plan Voisin, but twice as crowded and at an extreme scale: homogeneous, very densely populated, vertical neighbourhoods. As early as the 1950s, Guy Debord and the Situationists wrote about their fear of the effects of boredom in the Modern City. If all space is controlled so rigidly, there is no space for spontaneity or chance encounters.

Image: the authors.

Island culture
Housing estates have more and more in common with an island or village, which is why there are fewer reasons than ever before to leave your estate. Shopping, going to school, relaxing: all this you can do within your estate. An extreme example is Park Island, a housing estate that literally is an island. Moreover, the developer of the towers is also the creator of everything else on the island. Even transport is in the hands of this private company. The complex also operates its own ferry service and bus service to take residents to and from the island. Strange rules have resulted from this monopoly position. Connected by a bridge to Kowloon and Lantau, the island is only accessible to taxis at certain times of the day in order to safeguard the profit earned by the developer from transport. Such rules reveal how the developer can prescribe and enforce behaviour, and even prevent certain groups from accessing amenities. The scope for spontaneous behaviour on Park Island is reduced, and alternative ways of using space are restricted.

Richard Sennett, a sociologist at the London School of Economics, warns of the social effects of places like this. He argues that residents in such homogeneous ‘island cities’ no longer learn to deal with people who are different. According to him, mastering so-called stranger skills is a prerequisite for enjoying a high quality of life in an urban environment. Such skills help people to feel at ease in different situations. The extreme control exercised in housing estates such as Park Island ensures that city dwellers no longer find themselves in complex situations, and so there is less and less interaction between various groups. Consequently, people will ultimately be unable to feel any empathy for or interest in ‘the other’. Sennett is of the view that differences are precisely a defining characteristic of the city. Districts where different people do not meet one another endanger the age-old concept of a city as a forum for exchanging ideas.

Mei Foo Sun, public estate. Image: the authors.

Do the people in Hong Kong miss such chance encounters and complex situations? ‘We love our neighbours… but only if they’re like us’, ran a headline in the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong last summer. The article described the findings of a study carried out by the World Values Survey Association. No less than 28.3% of people in Hong Kong said they would prefer not to live next to somebody of another race, a relatively high percentage in comparison with other countries. Ignorance breeds intolerance. Sennett’s theory would therefore seem to apply to the Asian context.

More than 60% of the population of Hong Kong currently lives in housing estates, some of them built by private developers and some by the government (public estates). Both the developers and government are very fond of this form of housing because estates offer the efficiency that is desirable for various reasons. For developers, estates generate higher profits, and for the government they are an inexpensive way of building as many homes as possible in its attempt to limit the constant shortage of housing units. So these housing estates seem a logical product in a society dominated by the market.

Taikoo Shing. Image: the authors.

But one can point to other periods in the past when estates were strongly intertwined with another identity in Hong Kong. For after the Second World War the city was the setting for the biggest government-led public housing programme in the world, a huge undertaking that set in motion drastic social consequences almost unintentionally. During the era of Japanese domination and political instability just after the war, large groups of immigrants from China came to try their luck in the city. The population of Hong Kong increased fivefold between 1938 and 1980. As a consequence, slums mushroomed on the edge of the city and on the roofs of existing buildings. Moreover, dwellings were often subdivided into cubicles, leading to a rise in population density. A big fire in the Shek Kip Mei squatter town (1953) prompted a series of ad hoc housing measures whose effects are felt to this day in the city as we know it. In many respects, these early housing estates exerted a positive influence on social infrastructure, economic progress and local politics in Hong Kong.

Historical DNA
By far the majority of Hong Kong’s inhabitants are the children or grandchildren of immigrants from China. These newcomers started out destitute at the bottom of the social ladder. Owing to the rapid economic growth of Hong Kong, however, many people were able to grow with the economy, and that expressed itself in the evolution of their housing situation. Refugees arrived and found a place for themselves in squats or cubicles. After a number of years, young families often managed to get hold of a home in a public housing estate. In the 1970s the government started a programme for subsidised owner-occupied homes so that people could invest their newly acquired capital and ultimately acquire an apartment in a private estate. In that way, many Hong Kong families worked their way up from illegal squat residents to proud homeowners within two generations.

Image: the authors.

Public estates also ensured greater political participation among citizens. As a result of two bouts of heavy rioting in the 1970s, workers received permission to have their say in Multiple Aid Committees (MAC). These political consultative bodies at local level would become the eyes and ears of the government in public estates that were the scene of so much conflict caused by housing issues. Representatives of workers who turned out not to be pro-government were initially kept away from the negotiating table, but this prompted further protests. All sorts of interest groups emerged to highlight not only housing problems but also the undemocratic nature of the political system. Traces of these turbulent times are still evident in the political arena today.

Collective memory
You could call it ironic that what at first glance look like monotonous, boring housing estates were decisive in shaping the positive image that the world now has of Hong Kong as a prosperous and free city. The housing estates of the 1950s and 60s gave Hong Kong the self-made reputation that plays such a vital role in the collective memory of the city. A good illustration is the immensely popular Hong Kong soap opera Below the Lion’s Rock, which deals with the ‘ups and downs’ inside a public housing complex. The show cultivates a version of history that depicts frugal times when hard work and perseverance are rewarded in the end. In the exuberant celebration of largely fictitious upward mobility, the ‘unsuccessful’ underclass of today is automatically held responsible for its lack of success. Moreover, an address is a ruthless indicator. There is huge contrast between the real residents of the public housing estates and those who nostalgically glamorise ‘the good old days’, without ever having set foot in a public housing complex.

Park Island. Image: the authors

City of Sadness
An address in Hong Kong creates not only mental but also physical distance. Public housing estates are sometimes located so remotely and isolated that the allocation of a home there can almost feel like banishment, especially if there is no metro connection. A familiar example in Hong Kong is Tin Shui Wai, a far-away residential district that the media has dubbed the City of Sadness. During the first decade of the 21st century it was the setting for a lot of domestic violence, crime and suicide. One of the causes attributed is the dreary situation in which residents find themselves. There is scarcely any employment to be found close to this isolated development, and most residents have difficulty affording the high cost of transport to get anywhere.

If amenities are located within clearly defined residential areas and a lack of infrastructure creates a sense of disconnection, it is difficult for residents to feel part of a larger entity called the ‘city’. The question that hangs in the air is: how do you prevent an island from becoming a prison? Particularly in the public sector it is not easy to move upwards to another (private) estate. That is largely down to the high price of land. People who live in public housing complexes in Hong Kong have great difficulty in moving anywhere else because the difference in monthly living expenses between public and private is bigger than ever. Rental prices in the public housing sector start at between 30 and 150 euros a month, while a room in the private sector costs a minimum of 600 euros. That wasn’t the case in the past. While public housing estates in the 1950s and 60s really were socio-economic steppingstones, machines that transformed migrants into urban residents, a static situation seems to have emerged today. It is interesting to note how public housing estates in the welfare city were once incubators for (political) change and economic growth, but the reality of today is that ‘it’ no longer happens in housing estates.

Taikoo Shing. Image: the authors.

What should be done?
There is much the government could do to improve social mobility. For a start it could literally create space. The small area on which one can build covers just 7% of Hong Kong (including the rural communities) and is very crowded. The government has only carried out limited land reclamation (on which it has a monopoly), and house prices have been forced significantly upwards as a result. In addition, in response to the Asian crisis in 1997 the programme for subsidised owner-occupied homes was halted in order to give the market an extra boost. An essential leg up the ladder to private housing disappeared in the process. The new government has gone some way to reversing this policy but it refuses to acknowledge that public and private estates should be combined in one complex. Moreover, private developers are under no obligation to provide public housing. To reduce the gap between various income groups (and the accompanying difference in opportunities available), the government should make it obligatory for developers to create mixed compounds.

And can (landscape) architects and urban designers make a difference? Many architects have turned their backs on housing in Hong Kong, preferring instead to get involved in the gigantic building operation triggered by the high-speed process of urbanisation in China. That’s a pity, because it is precisely in densely populated and developed Asian cities like Hong Kong that we find places where differences between various classes and ethnic groups could easily lead to unrest, with all its repercussions, economic too. So there is a need for experts who are able to fathom the undercurrents in a complex city. Here lies an opportunity for European architects and urban designers too, since they are used to designing medium-sized cities comparable in format to the housing estates of Hong Kong. They could advocate the idea that housing estates should not simply be viewed as projects for residential efficiency and that areas where so many people are going to feel at home calls for decent urban design. Both government and developers must be convinced that feasible alternatives can and should be explored. A housing estate lacking good-quality places to work, shop and meet one another is a dull district that can turn into a ticking time bomb.

Tin Shui Wai. Image: the authors.

Are there densely populated cities in Asia where urban designers have succeeded in creating mixed developments? Singapore shows that it is possible. The great variety in types of public homes, and the high quality that is a match for the private sector, ensures much more diversity in living environments. As a result, there is no stigma attached to these districts. Many urban residents in Singapore therefore continue to make use of public housing options (85% of the population, as opposed to 46% in Hong Kong), and the effect of this is healthy social integration. People from different strata of society frequent the same education facilities, shopping areas and public spaces.

A place can subconsciously stimulate us to move around and interact with each other, or to lock ourselves away in homogeneous bastions of passivity. Does it matter to the residents of housing estates that they live on self-sufficient islands? Do they feel restricted by the many regulations, or are they content with the carefully chosen facilities based on a carefully thought-out consumer profile? The vast majority of inhabitants do not pose such questions: they interpret the monotonous tedium of their private estates as comfortable and convenient. For the residents of public estates the social distance between various pieces of city can be felt, because the choice to live somewhere is not a free one, accessibility to the city (and therefore employment) leaves much to be desired, and their address has a stigmatising effect. In both cases architects and urban designers have a moral obligation to offer resistance. Cities have always created the necessary conditions for exchange. For it is precisely interaction, the sharing of new ideas with enterprising citizens, that makes places habitable, built on foundations so sturdy that they form the basis for a sky-high quality of life.