Hong Kong’s new colorful “pocket parks” are revitalizing public spaces

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

Contributors Dan Hodge, Lauren Lau

Bright pink and littered with octagonal stools, Portland Street Rest Garden is an Instagrammer’s dream. But this park, wedged between two skyscrapers on a bustling Hong Kong street, isn’t full of influencers posing for photos: instead, local retirees play checkers on fuchsia boards, while elderly neighbors gossip on pink benches, the purple grass swaying in the planters behind.

While 75% of Hong Kong’s territory, which includes more than 200 islands, is made up of lush jungle and country parks, the city of Hong Kong is short on space. Its residents have just 2.7 square meters (29.1 square feet) of public space per person, according to the non-profit think tank Civic Exchange, compared to 5.8-7.6 square meters (from 62.4 at 81.8 square feet) per person in other dense Asian metropolises such as Singapore, Tokyo and Shanghai. There is a correlation between access to nature and good mental health, with people living closer to public open spaces reporting less anxiety than those living further away.

The designers split the Portland Street Rest Garden in half, restoring one side in the style of an 80s park, while the other was given a bright pink look. Credit: Confidence in design

Parks like Portland Street can therefore offer a respite from the compact towers that most people live in.

Its eye-catching design is the result of a makeover by Design Trust, a non-profit organization that supports design-based programs. The organization redesigned four of the city’s micro parks in an effort to effect a “macro transformation” in the public space, said Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of Design Trust.

Unlike other parks in the city, many of which have the same generic look – neutral tiles or concrete slabs, fenced greenery and one-seat benches – Design Trust wanted to break the mold, creating distinct designs that could show the “unique stories” communities.

Working alongside the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which manages Hong Kong’s public parks, four different teams have conceptualized the redesign of the micro parks. On Portland Street, the redesign increased the capacity from 16 to 81 people and the greenery by 26%.

The game is for people

The design concepts for the parks were created in 2018, but due to the pandemic, the LCSD and the Department of Architectural Services did not start construction until 2021. The project, called “Play is for the people”, was centered around about fun.

“The game should be accessible to all ages, whether it is adults playing chess or children running,” Yiu said.

The team behind Yi Pei Square in the park.  Left to right: Kay Chan, Stephen Ip, Jonathan Mak, Christopher Choi and Marisa Yiu, founder of Design Trust.

The team behind Yi Pei Square in the park. Left to right: Kay Chan, Stephen Ip, Jonathan Mak, Christopher Choi and Marisa Yiu, founder of Design Trust. Credit: Confidence in design

And the game is in fact at the center of the project’s first park, Yi Pei Square, in Tsuen Wan, which opened in April 2021. The long, thin courtyard is surrounded by apartment buildings and was a paved area, mostly used as a sidewalk. But Design Trust transformed the 930-square-meter (10,010-square-foot) site into a “common room” with play areas, exercise areas and benches.

Community involvement was a key part of the process. By creating prototypes of different elements of the park, the team organized exhibitions in co-working spaces and shopping centers to test their ideas and engaged the residents in feedback sessions where the children suggested games and the shape and size of the playground facilities, such as the slide which has been enlarged to allow them to run down two at a time. “Designers have learned a lot about how people live,” Yiu said. “What you see now in Yi Pei Square is generated by the community.”

In Portland Street Park, which opened in September 2021, the design team wanted to modernize the site while continuing to highlight the history of the area.

To balance the bold color, the team decided to divide the 376-square-meter (4,047-square-foot) park in half with a zigzag line in the center: while one side is Barbie pink, the other is restored to look like a typical 1980s Hong Kong rest garden, complete with hexagonal geometry, bamboo and shaded seating areas.

For designers, pink was the perfect choice to revitalize the park – it inspires joy and compassion and contrasts with the green of the foliage to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere, Yiu said.

“The designers were so empowered by this color that it made sense,” he added.

Portland Street Rest Garden's design is now split in two, showing the restored old style and new, modern pink design.

Portland Street Rest Garden’s design is now split in two, showing the restored old style and new, modern pink design. Credit: Confidence in design

Locals seem happy with the results. 70-year-old Mr. Kong, who only gave him his last name, says he likes the new park layout. Resident in this neighborhood for decades, he visits it every day and says he is cleaner than before. Meanwhile, Peter, who is in his 60s and eats lunch in the park most days, says he is grateful that people have access to this kind of space outside their homes.

Running out of space

Bringing new ideas on how to design public spaces can be challenging. A few examples Yiu points out throughout the city, such as barred or sloped benches and chairs, can actually discourage people from lounging around or relaxing, adding that it took some time to convince designers to embrace more flexible spaces, such as benches without barriers or mobile furniture.

Left to right: Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of the Design Trust, and Ricky Lai, Kam Fai Hung and Xavier Tsang, who were part of the design team behind Portland Street Rest Garden.

Left to right: Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of the Design Trust, and Ricky Lai, Kam Fai Hung and Xavier Tsang, who were part of the design team behind Portland Street Rest Garden. Credit: Confidence in design

And the teams are constantly learning from how the parks are used and adapt their current and future projects accordingly. For example, on Portland Street, tables and chairs have suffered chipped paint. Now, Design Trust is exploring more resilient paints and coating materials. “These are the things you can’t do without testing, trial and error,” Yiu said.

The Design Trust isn’t the only organization getting creative with Hong Kong’s limited space. In May 2022, the city’s first rooftop skatepark opened at the HANDS Mall in Tuen Mun, joining the existing rooftop basketball court designed by One Bite Studio. Other basketball courts across the city were also decorated in colorful designs, including Shek Lei Grind Court which used 20,000 pairs of recycled Nike trainers for its rubber surface.

The government has given the green light to rejuvenate another 170 parks and playgrounds in a five-year project. While this will not be in partnership with HKDT, Yiu said the micropark pilot helped “mobilize and accelerate” the new policy. An LCSD spokesperson said the innovative designs would make parks more attractive and, along with projects such as an inclusive playground built at Tuen Mun Park, the micropark pilot project’s experience and design processes will help to “implement the transformation. of public play spaces. “
Yi Pei Square has space for children to play, as well as an exercise area for seniors and areas for socializing and gathering.

Yi Pei Square has space for children to play, as well as an exercise area for seniors and areas for socializing and gathering. Credit: Confidence in design

Heritage through design

Design Trust’s third park, Hamilton Street in Yau Ma Tei, will open in October, while the fourth will open later this year. Hamilton Park’s design team is commemorating the area’s rich history of craftsmanship.

Home to historic buildings and temples, the area is home to many “sifu”, or master craftsmen, whose businesses have outlived generations. Design Trust commissioned them to produce elements of the park, such as copper lighting fixtures, as well as signage made with the characteristic cutting boards seen by butchers around the city.

“It gives the designers an opportunity, but (sparks) also the transformation of the neighborhood”.

Marisa Yiu, founder of the Hong Kong Design Trust

Preserving an old banyan tree at the edge of the park is another nod to the past, while a large table in the center of the park serves as a focal point for community gathering.

According to Yiu, the cost of each park is the same per square meter as generic parks seen in other parts of the city, with the exception of Yi Pei Square, which has received extra funding.

The designers have commissioned works to local artisans, such as this sign made from a cutting board, typical of the city’s butchers. Credit: Dan Hodge / CNN

He hopes these pocket park prototypes will inspire cities to think more creatively about public space design and move away from the “cookie cutter formula”.

“We don’t want 20,000 pink parks,” Yiu said. “Design Trust is really looking at Hong Kong’s heritage, the challenges of a park’s context, but also health and wellbeing and a sustainable future. Each park has a way to engage in a different way. It is a cultural responsibility for everyone to be involved “.

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