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Alfred Ho Shahng-herng, a local urban researcher who specialises in city planning, says private developers agree to include open spaces in their buildings because they can gain tangible economic benefits from doing so. Under the Buildings Ordinance, developers can be granted extra gross floor area (GFA) if they create open spaces for public use in their buildings. In other words, it is a way for developers to build higher buildings.

The lower entrance open space of PMQ
The lower entrance open space of PMQ

“Imagine if there is no bonus [GFA] as incentives, [private developers] will use every inch of the land instead of providing open spaces to the public,” says Ho.

Ho points out that one of the most common types of POSPD in Hong Kong is the podium garden found in residential buildings. But very often people are unaware of these public spaces because they are located inside residential buildings – people may think they are privately-owned. “Because the public can’t tell whether the space is private or not …it creates a problem that the developer may privatise the space,” Ho says.

Another contentious case involving the management of POSPDs is Metro Harbour View, a private housing estate in Tai Kok Tsui. The podium garden located on the fourth floor of Metro Harbour View is considered a public space under the land lease. However, nearly all the residents of Metro Harbour View thought the garden was a private space until 2008 when local media revealed it was a space for public use.

In 2011, the Development Bureau proposed to exempt the podium garden from being a public space as it is not easily accessible to the public. This requires the consent of the Area Committee, which is formed by representatives in Tai Kok Tsui, the District Council, the Town Planning Board and the Lands Department. The Area Committee raised objections and the issue remains deadlocked up till now.

Yau Tsim Mong District Councillor Patrick Lau Pak-kei, who also lives in Metro Harbour View, says both the government and developer of Metro Harbour View should bear responsibility for the problem. “To those who don’t live here, the podium garden is inconvenient to access as it’s located on the fourth floor of the estate … the location [of this POSPD] is unreasonable,” he says. “The developer has responsibility too. Many residents felt deceived because they were not informed clearly [that the podium garden was a public space] when they bought properties.”

Such conflicts over privately owned public spaces occur for many reasons but Kenneth Chan Kin-wang who works for an architectural firm and is a project manager of the non-profit organisation, Hong Kong Public Space Initiative (HKPSI), says the main problem lies in miscommunication among different sectors – the government, developers and property management companies.

Chan says the root cause of the confusion and disagreements regarding public spaces lies in Hong Kong’s property management culture. He says developers commonly hire property management companies to control and oversee their real estate. But these management companies may not understand the concept of public space well.

“The property management companies have low understanding of what public space is … they only want to keep [the areas] safe and avoid all the risks. They are not trained for [managing] public spaces,” says Chan. He adds this explains why there are usually many rules in parks and other open spaces in Hong Kong.

For Chan, good public spaces bring people from all walks of life together. Ideally, such a public space should be accessible and highly visible to everyone, and be comfortable and engaging. He thinks nearly half of the POSPDs in Hong Kong are unsatisfactory in terms of location, environment and facilities.

Public spaces are essential for creating a balanced urban life for people living in cities. They are spaces for people to unwind, gather and interact with each other. In a city as small but densely packed as Hong Kong, public spaces are very valuable. Both government and the private sector should put more thought into planning and designing genuinely user-friendly public spaces. And authorities should regulate the management of privately owned public spaces in order to make Hong Kong a better place to live.

Edited by Yan Li