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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?

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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.)

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Dan McGrady permalink
    April 18, 2011

    Great observations and question. My assumption is that the sheer number of people are part of the answer. Americans tend to have a lot of private space and are fairly spread out. I am reminded that people are the magic of cities. Not buildings. Not streets. Not things. Your observation confirmed that.

  2. April 26, 2011

    I’m so happy to have found your site today (thanks to a terrific thinker @inflector I follow on the Twitter). I couldn’t agree more with your observation that we’re geared toward getting somewhere rather than being somewhere. But having lived both eastern & western cultures (though not in Hong Kong), I’m rather apprehensive about the connection you make here. I see the people in the lively Hong Kong streets as just as geared toward getting somewhere, if not more, as their American neighbors. It’s their cultural personalities that make their walks, well, livelier (the space factor comes in to play, for one). Whereas Americans may like to be alone after a hard day’s work, those in other cultures prefer getting it out of system in the crowd. It’s just personal or cultural preference or long-standing habits. I’d say what we see in Hong Kong streets is just another version of ‘church’. It could be a church in a better sense than religious one, but if it’s driven by ‘culture’ only, therefore creating certain immobile livelihood, it’s just another religious sort of church where no real congregation and fellowship (where the true connection takes place) can be born.

    With the market as our driving force, we can’t help losing our ability of ‘being’ somewhere. This thing called ‘culture’ (which I think has nothing to to with the culture in a positive sense) may be a sign of our struggle to keep our ‘walking styles’ as our trademark, perhaps the only available identification source in this market-driven world. I think that both eastern and western cultures could benefit and better transform the failing socioeconomic, political systems if we learn to break down the illusive cultural walls and see how alike we are as human beings. Without that recognition, all this notion about individualism is fake and religious and inhumane.

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