A Platform for Dialogue: Co-creation Workshop for Transitional Housing in Hong Kong
It is 2PM on a Sunday afternoon. As you step out of Exit A2 of the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), you are on a shabby street with green metal vendor stalls; flocks of grassroots put out a cloth on one side of the narrow street displaying their “collectibles” for sale. The street is flanked by old tenement buildings. Some of them have been illegally subdivided into flats as small as 7-13 square metres per household (1), housing the most underprivileged population of Hong Kong. If you head southward and walk past a few residential towers recently built under urban renewal schemes, you will reach the abutment of the infamous Tung Chau Street Flyover and Tung Chau Street Park — once and still are popular spots for the homeless. This is Sham Shui Po, the poorest urban district of Hong Kong.
Housing has been a severe social problem in this congested city — more so in Sham Shui Po. In view of the urgent housing needs of low-income households currently living in inadequate housing, the Hong Kong Council of Social Service (HKCSS) launched the Modular Social Housing Project. Their first project “Nam Cheong 220” was completed in 2020, while their second project is underway at Yen Chow Street. Both project sites are located in Sham Shui Po and are characterised by their limited site area, and thereby limited opportunity for doorstep open space. Nevertheless, there is an empty vacant site freed up recently after the demolition of a footbridge immediately outside the site at Yen Chow Street. Adjacent to the vacant site there is a linear park leading to a public housing estate. It is a site full of potential for landscape interventions.
With full awareness of the extreme social complexity of this site, the Transitional Housing Work Group of the Hong Kong Institute of Landscape Architects (HKILA) set out to collaborate closely with NGOs based in the district to organise the second workshop of the initiative.
From Half-A-House to Transformable Landscape
The first HKILA Transitional Housing workshop was held in January 2021. Landscape architectural students and young practitioners were invited to brainstorm options based on a modular design approach for its mobility and multifunctionality. The modular designs inject creativity and vibrancy to the community while balancing maintenance and operational concerns. (Check out our article on the first workshop here.)
Inspired by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena’s incremental housing, a group of Year 4 students from The Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi) continued to develop the modular design into a series of Modular Integrated Construction (MiC) landscape units which are easy to assemble/dismantle and are transformable.
Design Team (from left to right): Emily Kwok, Andy Ng, Po Chan, Jenny Chan
The design team developed four 2.5(W)x 4(L)x 2.5(H)m modules for “play”, “farm/market”, “lawn/leisure”, and “resting/activity”. Each module can be combined and arranged creatively to perform a wide range of functions – from the playground, gathering spot, market stall to an open-air cinema. The modules also feature flexible furniture, movable sliding doors, solar panels, etc, serving communal and environmental needs. These modules form the basis of transformation; they are the basic frames for an incremental open space to be developed by the future community.
As attractive as the design may be, how will people in the local community, the Kaifongs, react? Will we fall into the modernist paradox of injecting a proclaimed egalitarian future by creating objects of an imagined social and aesthetic order within a utopian public sphere? (2)
Members of the HKILA Transitional Housing Work Group took the design ideas to seek advice from The Society for Community Organization (SoCO) and Hong Kong Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) Integrated Social Service Centre. Both are NGOs based in Sham Shui Po working with the urban poor and have extensive knowledge of Kaifongs' needs.
HKILA Work Group met with social workers of SoCO and YWCA Sham Shui Po in March 2021
“Think from their perspectives – small local economic opportunities in public space are key to this district. Selling collectibles, sure; but cooked food, even better. An important part of empowerment is to enable them to sustain themselves financially with the type of skill sets they have.”
“Experience tells us that share-farming works well in connecting the Kaifongs. We have done it on rooftops and in urban locations, either fixed farmland or movable pots. Kaifongs may be early migrants from China who have knowledge in farming. Working or volunteering for regular harvests empowers them.”
“I would imagine the vacant site at Yen Chow Street to be available for uses alternately by different NGOs and organisations – flexible, vibrant, but also manageable in terms of resources needed to maintain the open space and the design.”
As Jennie Chui of SoCO and Clarence Wai of YWCA hinted, it is the socio-economic performance of a public space and how flexible space can be used to strengthen social cohesion that matters.
The Wisdom of Kaifongs
Thanks to SoCO and YWCA’s community networks, around 25 Kaifongs of Sham Shui Po from diverse age groups were invited to our second workshop held in April 2021. All of the participants lived close to the Yen Chow Street site. There were youths in their late teens and early twenties, low-income middle-aged women and men (including representatives from the Christian Concern for the Homeless Association), and current residents of subdivided flats and “Nam Cheong 220”, the first completed Modular Social Housing Project.
Although the Kaifongs were not particularly highly educated nor trained in design, they were never short of creativity in imagining how public space could be used. Indeed, they literally transform an underutilised bicycle parking into a laundry rack on a regular basis just around the corner of Yen Chow Street. Just as we introduced the design team’s modular design ideas to the Kaifongs, they were quick in providing critiques and suggestions drawing from their wisdom from everyday life.
“It was inspired by a place in Macau,” one middle-aged man told us about his design. “If one person is occupying the container resting place, no one else would even go in. That’s simply how Hong Kong people are. So why don’t you make a huge tensile structure? You get rid of the columns, and then it can be a space for exercise, for activities, anything; even as a shelter on rainy days.”
“What do we need? De-stress!”
As one of the low-income women in their 40s and 50s gave this brilliant remark, the entire group of women applauded and laughed. One after another they spoke in somewhat overlapping voices and enthusiastically suggested a perfectly enclosed and soundproof “de-stress room”, where they can simply shout. They need a refreshing moment, a temporary escape from their stress and burden. As the conversation went, the “de-stress room” evolved into a multi-functional space with KTV, a beer machine, and a removable graffiti wall.
The Kaifongs never fail to amaze us. They are the experts of their neighbourhood and are able to provide interesting insights and valuable advice which we, the designers, often miss. One group concluded that exercise and fitness areas were essential, and the youth, on the other hand, considered band room and green screen for film shooting necessary. Overall, most Kaifongs agreed that the new public space should be adjustable, multi-functional, and should encourage social connection. To our surprise, most of them welcomed the attractive and aesthetic design, except for a few youths who had concerns about the negative impact of Instagramism.
A Platform for Dialogue
The second workshop was a platform for dialogue between the professionals and the real users. We have invited members of the HKILA and other interested professionals to be the workshop facilitators, mainly to initiate public space and design-related discussions with each group of Kaifongs. Facilitators helped to prompt Kaifongs to voice out their thoughts during the discussions, for one could never imagine the needs of another. As one of the workshop facilitators, Chloe Lau said,
“it is a pleasure for me to communicate with the Kaifongs face-to-face. I’m glad to see that all participants enthusiastically joined the discussions, and this actually inspired me on the importance that the users’ needs should be taken care of in a good design. I truly hope that the ideas collected today will be realised as a public space that the Kaifongs like and will help to beautify the community as the Kaifongs wished.”
Indeed, we have much to learn from the Kaifongs, just as another facilitator, Yuen Tsz Man, shared,
“When it comes to ‘providing the right things to the right people, in the way they want to use them’, co-creation may be one of the most effective ways to integrate user's views into the design. I was impressed and surprised by how the participants smashed the assumptions of the usage of the piece of land in the community. At the end of the day, they are the people who understand best of their neighbourhood.”
While gathering opinions and realising the Kaifongs wishes in public space are important, I would suggest that co-creation can have an additional layer of social impact. Landscape architecture should go beyond the design of the experience, the materials, or the functions of public space. We should acknowledge that public space is by nature incremental; it is never an end-product. What is important is that we can extend the incremental nature and let it begin before the actual realisation of a built project. As the workshop ended, the social worker of the YWCA noted to us that the participated Kaifongs appeared to be very engaged. Should there be a next round of workshops, they will likely be willing to join again. It is perhaps in the process of design that the social dimension of a public space begins.
Taking a Step Forward
On the afternoon of the same day, we have put forward the design team’s modular design ideas along with Kaifongs’ comments to stakeholders and supporting organisations, including project proponent HKCSS, contractor of the Yen Chow Street social housing project Yau Lee Construction Company Limited, local NGOs SoCO and YWCA, and organisations committed to advocacy including Playright Children's Play Association and Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation (JCDISI) of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
The conversation shifted towards practicality and challenges ahead. As Karen Lee of JCDISI put it, “the biggest questions are: Who will be the agent and who will manage this?” While stakeholders and supporting organisations had a consensus that social space, community cohesion, diverse and informal play space, and emotional relief space should be valued, how may we tackle issues such as site operation, safety, and maintenance responsibilities? Anthony Wong of HKCSS highlighted the importance of reassessing site constraints against the Kaifongs’ wishes. Kathy Wong of Playright reminded us of the needs of operators for specific types of play. Richard Lee of Yau Lee noted construction cost implications, practical aspects of the modular design, and challenges in regulation and safety compliance.
“Would an empty space and open lawn with a few benches already be enough?” Richard Lee counter-proposed. In fact, HKCSS’s social housing project managers shared their observations in “Nam Cheong 220” that children and residents have already been creatively adapting the emergency vehicle access – the only open-to-air space laid with bare concrete – for their spontaneous activities. The tiny road gradient became perfect for scootering for little kids; the empty undesigned space has been used for planting classes and haircut services initiated by residents. This leaves a critical question for us all – how landscape architects should re-conceptualise the making of and intervening in a socially engaging public space.
- Kris Cheng, “209,700 People Live in Subdivided Flats in Hong Kong, 2016 Gov't by-Census Reveals,” Hong Kong Free Press HKFP, March 31, 2020, https://hongkongfp.com/2018/01/19/209700-people-live-subdivided-flats-hong-kong-2016-govt-census-reveals/.
- James Holston, “Space of Insurgent Citizenship,” in Cities and Citizenship (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999).
Acknowledgment (in alphabetical orders):
Working Group on Transitional Housing under Public Affairs committees, Hong Kong Institute of Landscape Architects:
Chan Yuen King, Paul; Lai Chung Yin,Stephanie; Lau Hoi Ying, Kate; Ngo Tsz Kei; So Ho Lung, Bosco
Hong Kong Young Women's Christian Association Sham Shui Po Integrated Social Service Centre; Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation; Playright Children's Play Association; Society for Community Organization; The Hong Kong Council of Social Service; The Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors; Yau Lee Construction Company Limited.
Jenny Chan, Po Chan, Emily Kwok, Andy Ng
Junior Ho; Michelle Ho; Lau Ka Yee, Chloe; Leung Ho Chuen, Henry; Penny Liu; Luk Chi Chung, Soul; Ngo Tsz Kei; Alice Tang; Yuen Tsz Man;
Justin Lam; Wong Tsz Nga, Paper