All around the Monocle bureau in Hong Kong there’s drilling and jackhammering going on. The Star Street area is getting a new underground water system and is being beautified in the process. We’re putting up with the constant noise because already we’re seeing improvements in our little neighbourhood. Two tiny parks have just opened. From a distance they look lovely. There’s greenery, shade under young trees, grey stone benches, rounded landscaped shapes that should be the perfect lunch spot.
At a closer look, however, the parks are less appealing. There’s concrete on the ground, not a single blade of grass is in sight and the very few park visitors who’ve made it onto the stone benches sit there awkwardly straight-backed, not talking to each other or doing very much at all. And that’s why these small parks seem to exist – for people to do nothing.
Before you enter the parks, you’re met with several signs telling you what not to do in there: no lying on benches and no cycling, no dogs and “do not make damage”. The effect is a deserted park without any life whatsoever. It’s obvious that it wouldn’t be a good idea to damage the park but why not allow people to have an afternoon siesta if they feel like it? What is the point of investing in the design of public parks if people aren’t allowed to use them as free public spaces?
Hong Kong’s new (and old) little parks tell a bigger story about this city. They express the philosophy behind its urban fabric. Here urban planners and thinkers have entered an era of making Hong Kong prettier, which is quite an ambitious plan considering how much old housing stock in need of a fresh lick of paint there is here. But they’re forgetting about the actual use of the city as they roll out the plan to fix it up cosmetically.
A city is about its people and the activities they carry out there. What is a park without dogs and people walking – or cycling – through it? It’s not much of a park. Hong Kong does have a good example of a vibrant and functioning public green space. Victoria Park, opened in the 1950s in Causeway Bay, has a running track, a swimming pool, tennis courts, tropical plants and birds in every corner and, naturally, lots and lots of people.
They chat away as they stroll or jog along, there’s dancing on the little pathways and picnics on Sundays. Just as Hyde Park and Central Park are integral to the city fabrics of London and New York, Victoria Park is Hong Kong’s green heart.
Perhaps it’s time this city let its smaller parks become equally charming as their big sister in Causeway Bay – hopefully without the concrete and with some happy doggies running on green grass.