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A vision for inclusiveness: re-imagining public space in Hong Kong

Sarah Mui

Hong Kong offers a diversity of scenic attractions, local culinary delicacies as well as cultural experiences. In addition to these activities, it’s worthwhile to explore the artistic side of our public spaces. Founder of One Bite Design and winner of the Hong Kong Young Architect Award 2015 organised by Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA), Sarah Mui, brings you a different perspective on public space design in Hong Kong.

For many years, Sarah has been experimenting with the possibility of connecting spatial and social communities through public space. Commissioned to design for the Happy Valley Recreation Ground, her furniture project ‘Ting Ting’ makes use of semi-spherical chairs to collect sounds of birds in the environment, connecting people with nature. Her sports ground projects in Tuen Mun and Tseung Kwan O are more than just traditional sports facilities revamped with eye-catching designs and colours. The former was actually transformed into an inclusive environment, catering to the sports needs of different generations — elderly, adults and children — all in one space. The latter is even the first ‘girl-prioritised’ sports venue in the city. All these projects highlight Sarah’s vision for and success in creating high-quality public spaces.

Inhale and exhale, take a refreshing stroll along the Hong Kong Island waterfront

Sarah believes public space should be inclusive of public needs, functioning to connect with the community where it serves. There is a beautiful waterfront promenade between Belcher Bay and Wan Chai. To Sarah, this promenade is more than just a topic of public space studies, its approach to opening up possibilities for space planning also merits appreciation. “When you run from Belcher Bay to Tin Hau, you will come across different kinds of people, engaging in different types of activities. If you pay more attention, there are different experiments going on in each space. This is a very new approach to public space design and management in Hong Kong.”

On this promenade linking up Island East and West, a number of recreational facilities are designed for all ages. There are also people hanging around on the lawn at Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park. In the area of Central Pier, you will find yourself immersed in a paradise for fishing enthusiasts. As you reach the Wan Chai section of the promenade, you will see not only a few photo-worthy art installations created by local illustrators but also various pieces of design furniture integrated into the space all serving as invitations for visitors to rethink the possibilities of public furniture.

These public spaces are valuable as they provide extra room for residents to relax in this high-density city. “Letting all adults and children find their own space is a very important vision for public space design. Although Victoria Park is very spacious, it is divided into different functional areas, while we do not see this in the design of the promenade. Visitors may ride bicycles and skateboard; while the elderly are also able to enjoy their walk safely. It is this kind of vibrancy created by a co-existence of different activities that makes me truly amazed whenever I walk along this promenade.”

Countless possibilities at West Kowloon and Victoria Park

In the past, urban planning emphasised the division of functions to fulfil various user needs for arts, culture and recreation. Sarah believes that an unstructured space that allows for free play will create more possibilities. The Hong Kong Island waterfront has continuously transformed into an inclusive public space, now frequented by more and more people. Just across the harbour, the West Kowloon Cultural District Art Park was built with different considerations in mind. "In the Art Park, especially during the time of COVID-19, one adjacent to another, tents are set up with elderly and family visitors having fun in proximity. On the other side, there are young people interested in art and culture as well as people having birthday parties… There are people from all walks of life enjoying the same space. It shows how inclusive this space is and how it builds relationships between different users.” 

Sarah also likes the functionality of Victoria Park . “There are different people using the space at different times. At weekends, there are domestic helpers doing very interesting activities. Some of them will prepare food under a nearby flyover and they will then move to Victoria Park to enjoy the meal. And after they leave, the space will be used for other purposes. There are not many parks on Hong Kong Island and Victoria Park can provide many possibilities. I hope that some under-utilised spaces can be released for the public’s free use. Of course, one prerequisite is that the users must have a sense of responsibility." 

Transcendence with art and creativity

The historical Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Park  and the Tuen Mun River Area are also places that Sarah appreciates. Elements of art and creativity were introduced to liven up the local ambience. The former has expanded people's perception of zoological and botanical parks, while the Tuen Mun River Area has created an opportunity for residents to interact with art and creativity. Artwork is updated regularly to keep things fresh and interesting. Sarah also recommends the Asia Society Hong Kong Center . “The center is characterised by beautiful architecture and a tranquil landscape design, with the Fruit Bats Bridge nestling amidst the quaint forests on both sides… All of these make this the most beautiful and secret garden in the hustle and bustle of Central.”

Tuen Mun River

Sarah is busy with various community projects. As an architect and designer, what she really hopes is to be able to engage residents more and to cultivate their sense of belonging. “The first step is co-design — to let residents realise that they are not just end users and their participation is key to the design process. The second is co-create — with everyone collaborating, the space becomes an important means to build communities. The third is co-manage — if all residents continue to use the space, it is natural to empower them with managing the site. Curating of the island waterfront is now just a beginning. The challenge lies in how to achieve the second and third steps.”

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