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C200: The Public Realm

2011 April 18
by Scott Wolf

One of the things that struck me most about Hong Kong is just how active and vibrant the public realm was. Everywhere you went, there were people out and about. Meals were eaten in open air cafes, business was conducted in the streets, commercial activity spilled out of shop fronts onto sidewalks and streets, and all of this contributed to a feeling of vibrancy that is all too often absent from U.S. city streets.

It seems like the public realm is where most people in Hong Kong spend the majority of their time. Not just using the public realm to move from point A to point B, but being in the public realm. Unlike in the States, where we more often than not use the public realm to move between destinations, in Hong Kong, the public realm seemed to be the destination.

That being said, amidst the bustling often-chaotic city life, there are also beautiful, unassuming moments of quiet and serenity. Evidence of people carving out a bit of the private in the public realm. My favorite is this picture of someone looking for – and presumably finding – a bit of respite in one of the congested utility-filled back alleys of Wan Chai:

Maybe the character of the public realm in Hong Kong is simply a result of people not having as much individual or personal space as we do in the west, or maybe there’s a deeper cultural meaning associated with valuing the collective over the individual. Whatever the reason, it sure makes for a wonderful urban experience…….one that leaves me feeling that the streets of Seattle are pretty boring by comparison. The energy of Columbia City’s central core, Broadway in Capitol Hill, Market Street in Ballard, and parts of the Seattle Center (sometimes) are pockets of pedestrian-dominated exceptions that come to mind, but my impression is that many of our streets are simply paths rather than places. I don’t think this is a question of design. I think it’s a question of use. And societal values.

What I am left wondering is:  Why is so much of our built environment geared towards getting somewhere rather than being somewhere?


Scott Wolf is a Partner at The Miller Hull Partnership and an Affiliate Fellow of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. The interdisciplinary group of Fellows recently returned from a research trip to Hong Kong. Read more about their findings on their blog. (Photos by the author.)