Improving the Liveability of City Places by Bringing in the Public Realm

By Wenhao LONG - Wilbur

“Men come together in cities in order to live: they remain together in order to live the good life.” -- Aristotle. What enables a ‘good life’ in a city? Some would say it is accessibility and sustainable mobility, being connected to social facilities and amenities, having a more diverse and resilient economy, and affordable living costs, to name but a few. Fundamentally, the living environment is the most direct way to reflect the liveability of a city. There will always be those special spaces that create unique moments in your memory and bring happiness for your living environment, parks, gardens, a food street. On a grander scale, what gives life to the environment so that it becomes a vibrant and inspiring city place? There are many answers, but what this paper discusses is the value of bringing the public realm into development as a core strategy for improving a city’s sense of liveability in several in different cities of Asia.

Hong Kong, the global metropolitan, ranks the 1st place for the Index of Economic Freedom 2019 (The Heritage Foundation) and the 3rd place for the Global Competitiveness Index 2019 (WEF), however at the same time ranks 38th place for the Global Liveability Ranking 2019 (EIU), and ranks 76th place for the World Happiness Index 2019 (UN). As one of the cities with world highest population & building density, the average living area (2019) in Hong Kong is only 13.3m2/ person (Housing Department), which is one of the main factors that influence the city’s liveability performance. People do need more spaces, and that’s why parks become the popular & overcrowded destinations during holidays.

Figure 1. Hong Kong Velodrome Playground

Parks are always an essential element of city life, coming in different sizes, positions and types, as people need these green spaces to facilitate communication between city, nature and people. In Hong Kong we have a variety choice of different parks: promenade, country park, city park, etc. However, apart from providing open spaces with natural landscape & basic facilities, what else we can do to upgrade the experience for the citizens to enjoy the park, so that we can also be more proud of Hong Kong’s “liveability” in the future?

What I want to emphasize at this paper is the attractiveness of a park that is created by bringing in day & night activities, visually vibrant frontage and characterizing locality & culture. Whether in a city centre or a suburban new town, when a real park is incorporated into a development, it will always have a significant impact as a multi-purpose destination attracting different groups of people.

Figure 2. The “Stage Park”

One such approach to park design has been inspired by the form of amphitheater, through which park is integrated with the mixed-use development to create a “Stage Effect”, and by doing this the citizens’ perception of urban space has been further improved compared to providing an open space alone. The park still provides space for social and community life, immersed within a lush, natural landscape and a variety of activities – at the same time, people can also have easy access to an integrated commercial development to enjoy local and international food, indoor entertainment, living services, education, wellness and retail, for example. There are further opportunities, with the edges of the park being transformed into continuous street frontages with expansive canopies that provide alfresco dining spaces, grocery stores, art galleries and leisure-focused streetscapes, all of which contribute to a liveable community. Where the park’s edge meets the podium, opportunities for both landscape and activity are expanded. With a terraced design, the park climbs upward and into the shopping arcade, blurring the boundary between the park and commercial spaces. This lively green oasis is a value-added element, enhancing views for buildings such as apartment, hotel and office towers that overlook. The park itself is totally public yet benefits from private operation and maintenance. Parks can also function as key green infrastructure and climate-adaptive facilities helping to create ‘liveable cities’.

“If a city's streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.” -- Jane Jacobs. However, when talking about vehicular roads or streets, there are always unfavorable pedestrian experiences such as too much traffic, overly wide thoroughfares, messy street-side frontage, or not enough shading. Especially in most of the cities in South-east Asia where driving is a more dominant way of travelling, the pedestrian care is always ignored.

The street is a spread-out and linear city place which people use to walk or cycle to a destination nearby. When driving you cannot fully experience the street; it is the pedestrians and cyclists who have dialogue with the street, a better understanding of the space, culture, history and gaining insight into the local lifestyle. That is to say, improving the pedestrian experience of the street space is an effective way to contribute to the liveability of a city.

In a driving-dominated city, inevitably the road space will be occupied by busy traffic and road-side parking. Especially some developers usually care more about the driving experience, while it’s difficult for them to see the value of investing extra spaces and facilities for pedestrian within the developable parcels or districts.

Figure 3. The typical shop lot, https://www.proplah.com/

Yes the highway system constitutes most part of the city’s road network system, but there are always some secondary & community roads that people expecting better walking & cycling experiences, which play a very important role in creating a more liveable urban environment and at the same time stimulating the local economy. How can design rebalance the offering for pedestrians & cyclists?

Figure 4. The “Central Walkway” in shop lot parcel

The “Central Walkway” is a breakthrough strategy to invite a public pure pedestrianised boulevard spaces into a typical shop lot parcel with water features, tree shading and lifestyle offerings as a comparison to the traditional shop lot development. The new shop lot layout still have dual frontage focused upon vehicle interface, while in between the 2 stripe of shop lot buildings is a vibrant “green belt” for pedestrian engagement. The “Central Walkway” can also continuously extend to nearby community and office amenities, becoming an activity belt tie together the different components of the city, attracting different groups of people to visit the adjacent places.

Also, the sidewalk is not only the buffer between a road and a building, but also an important space to create better experience and value in cities. The idea has inspired the concept “Smart Sidewalk” for this paper. Apart from the pavement area within the road space, land owners are also encouraged to release the setback area to the pedestrian, helping to build up a grand sidewalk space. Within this zone, high quality pavement, planting, signage and streetscape can all be used to shape the public space. Street-facing tenants could benefit from alfresco dining areas; pavilions for bike parking and seating could also be included. All these approaches help to improve the quality of street life, and further create more value for both the city and the developer.

Nowadays, as the developable land in high-density city centres has become more and more scarce, the underground space becomes a valuable resource, especially under the transit-oriented development (TOD) model. Take mainland China as an example, by the end of 2019, the total metro line length within mainland China has reached up to 6730.27km, and in Beijing & Shanghai more than 8 million people take metro line for commuting every day. It can be up to 4 metro lines interchange in one station and sometimes even transfer with HSR or aero plane for some regional “super hub” stations. Then the underground corridors for interchange and inter-connection become an important civil spaces for a great number of commuting & travelling passengers using every day. It’s definitely of great necessity to think about how to make it nicer as a part of liveable city approach!

Figure 5. The Piccadilly Circus station drawing by Douglas MacPherson in 1928

Almost 100 years ago, the Piccadilly Circus Station Drawing (1928) & “May Live to See” Illustration (1925) presented amazing pictures of a vertical city with an underground civic square connecting different buildings to the interchange tube station. Within the underground square and corridors are a variety of shops and restaurants that create a vibrant environment for passengers. Moreover, this subterranean network becomes a second ground level and can provide convenience and comfortable accessibility protected from the weather outside, be it rain, snow or high temperatures.

However, in our daily life most of the interchange corridor is long, boring and low ceiling space without natural light, which is a very basic setting just meet the demand of passing. But people are not “mice” rely on those “tunnels” for moving day by day! How can the citizen feel happy if both the work place & home are all tiny and at the same time the commuting experience is also depressed? Why the underground space cannot also be more convenient & comfortable, or even be more valuable, pleasant and ‘Instagrammable’?

Figure 6. Interchange Corridor of TST & TST East Station, https://commons.wikimedia.org/

In consideration of avoiding huge investment from GOV funding, and at the same time bringing more value to the development parcels, one of the approach is to setting up a well-connected public “Under Line” network to penetrate into the private parcels rather than just relying on under road space alone. For the components of the network some are main “boulevard” that is 24-hour opened for public, while most part of it is the secondary “passage” that is part of the private basement which can be switched off due to different time operation. Through the “secondary passage” people can access the underground lobby of the destinations conveniently by walking, and along the journey people can enjoy the natural light from either the skylight or the atriums from the aboveground buildings. Moreover, people can also see different shops & restaurant along both sides of the corridor, which brings the vibrant street life down to the underground.

Figure 7. The “Underline Extension Link”

On the other end of the “secondary passage” is the “main boulevard” -- “Extension Link”, which is a public interchange link that connects two or more metro line stations. Through this 24-hour operated “Extension Link” all the parcels alongside can seamlessly access the transportation hub, extending the value of the transport interchange far beyond the point of a station. The “Extension Link” can be wider & higher, and is designed to be a real street by introducing natural light, indoor planting, outdoor pavement and water features. On both sides of the street are the retail tenants of the nearby developments, which creates a new ground floor value for these businesses.

When “Extension Link” meet the metro line station entrance is a grand underground square, as the Piccadilly Circus example shows, acting as an arrival statement and shared entrance plaza. The design ensures visual connectivity across all the main entrances to the surrounding destinations, as well as the city and environment outside through grand and generous skylights. The space is enlivened with a variety of tenants and a regular flow of visitor traffic as the development has a critical mass of offers. These strategies show the benefit of public and private collaboration and how their union helps to deliver more liveable spaces, places and cities.

Wenhao LONG - Wilbur’s Biography
Wilbur is an Associate of Lead8 in Hong Kong. He graduated from the University of Hong Kong with a Master’s Degree in Urban Design (Distinction) and is now a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design. Over the last decade, his portfolio has covered most of the global metropolitan cities in Asia, delivering TOD, mixed-use, urban regeneration, underground city, cultural and tourism, and community developments. Wilbur is an active speaker within the industry, contributing to professional conferences organized by government institutions, universities and the private sector.