Hong Kong designers reimagine the city’s pocket parks

In a megacity where public space is scarce, local parks are often called ‘three-cornered shit pits’. Now a group of Hong Kong designers is hoping to make them more inclusive, playful and celebratory of the city itself. Mary Hui reports

Hong Kong’s pocket parks, like this one in Hill Road, are officially known as ‘sitting-out areas’

Dotted all over Hong Kong are small parks — officially known as “sitting-out areas” or “rest gardens” — etched deep into the urban fabric of this densely packed city. They are often located in the most unassuming of places: under flyovers, tucked between two buildings, squeezed into a leftover parcel of awkwardly shaped space. Together, they fill in the gaps of the urban landscape.

Though they vary in size, the parks are generally quite small. Whereas the typical pocket park in London is between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet, Hong Kong’s average is about 1,000 square feet, according to Susanne Trumpf, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, and who has studied the city’s pocket parks extensively.

To an older generation of Hong Kongers, these parks also go by a somewhat more explicit name: “three-cornered shit pit”. That’s according to Hoyin Lee, the co-founder and director of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong, and who first heard the phrase from his nonagenarian father.

Hamilton Street Rest Garden, located in the Yau Tsim Mong district of Hong Kong, the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city

“Three-cornered shit pit” initially referred to public toilets built around the city from the early 20th century onwards, after a plague swept the city in the 1890s. Because the Chinese quarters, where the plague broke out, was by then already quite built up, the government had to make do by squeezing the toilets underground or onto leftover sites that couldn’t be developed because of their small size and awkward configuration — typically a triangular shape — hence the name.

Many of those early public toilets have since been demolished. While there may not be a direct link between the toilets and today’s pocket parks, both are built on small, awkward scraps of land. In fact, as old Chinese-style shophouses known as tong lau were demolished in the city’s post-war building boom, it left behind small interstices in the urban landscape. Now, those interstices are where many pocket parks stand.

Sitting-out areas have become an important urban planning tool for a city that is constantly rebuilding, occupying spaces where old buildings once stood, filling irregular gaps between new complexes, or added to comply with new setback requirements, explains Trumpf.  “The most common case would be with the smaller sitting-out areas in Central which are literally squeezed between two tong laus,” she says, referring to old Chinese-style shophouses. In other cases, a large block of old buildings is knocked down, and with new planning and building guidelines, sitting-out areas have to be added into the mix. In this sense, the sitting-out areas become a little bit like a historical record of what the city was and how it has changed. “In Hong Kong, things get rebuilt so constantly and regularly,” says Trumpf.

1024px-Sun_Chui_Estate_Sitting-out_Area CC Prosperity Horizons
Sun Chui Estate sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Prosperity Horizons

The parks also serve as an important and much-needed breathing space in the hyper-density of the city. Within urban Hong Kong, residents get roughly 30 square feet of open space per person, less than half of what residents in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore get. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the 40% of Hong Kong’s territory that is protected as country parks. But within the city’s urban heart, open space is a scarce resource.

“If you’ve got people in a very closely packed environment, they’ve got to have some space,” says Jason Wordie, a local historian. The sitting-out areas “provide a bit of the social value” and make use of otherwise unpromising areas.

Visitors to these small parks also tend to be older, according to research conducted by Civic Exchange, a local think-tank. This doesn’t surprise Wordie. Densely built areas tend to have more subdivided accommodations, and these in turn tend to have an older, single, male demographic in them. “So if your choice is between sitting in your cubicle in your bunk bed or sitting under a tree, well, then that’s that,” he says.

Sha_Tin_Tau_Village_Sitting-out_Area_Creative commons Underwaterbuffalo
Sha Tin Tau Village sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Underwaterbuffalo

The parks are as abundant as they are homogenous. On Hong Kong Island alone, which makes up a mere 7% of the city’s territory, there are some 169 such parks. Managed by the government, they all feature the same set of standardised features and furnishings.

“Uniquely generic, the sitting-out area is the quintessential Hong Kong urban typology,” Trumpf and her co-authors wrote in an academic article in 2017. To Trumpf, the sitting-out areas represent an under-tapped potential for the city to provide a network of public open space.

Now, a group of design professionals are looking to rethink the role and future of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous pocket parks. Working in small teams under the Design Trust Futures Studio program, part of the local NGO Design Trust, they came up with new designs for four pocket parks in different parts of the city. They recently rolled out prototypes, and have been working closely with the city government to build the new parks.

1 alpha light on
Conceptual designs for a park under a flyover, by Aron Tsang, Andy Cheng, Jose Fu, and Zoey Chan

The goal, says Marisa Yiu, co-founder and director of Design Trust, is to re-make the parks as a representation of the city’s rich cultural heritage, history, and the diversity of needs and demographics.

“We have such unique neighborhoods,” she says. “Why not utilise something to present the local flavour instead of every park being the same, with the same equipment and the same furniture?”

Over the past year, the design teams conducted extensive research and site analyses to come up with designs that more closely reflect the city’s layered narratives, and that provide inclusive spaces for rest and play.

The redesign of Portland Street Rest Garden provides more seating, and uses bright pink to revitalise the park

At a somewhat drab and gritty park located directly across a betting station and frequented by horseracing gamblers, the designers noticed a shortage of chairs, with many of the elderly men sitting on or squatting by planters. So they have added bright pink moveable seats and tables.  At another park, located under a flyover, the designers opted to play with vertical height, installing an undulating LED installation and perhaps even climbing nets.

The design teams unveiled their 1:1 prototypes and scaled models at an exhibition in January. Each was completely different and tailored to the geographic, historic,  demographic context of each site –– a marked contrast to the uniform designs of the parks currently. And in March, prototypes were displayed at one of the parks, drawing curious passersby as they tested out the bright pink chairs and tables.

The playground design for Yi Pei Square adds colourful graphic patterns to the flooring, creating a sort of carpet for children to play on

Although people generally thought that the bright pink colour of the proposed design was positive, there were worries that the use of steel may attract thieves given the material’s higher resell value compared to cement, stone, or recycled plastic. Another prototype, featuring a slide and a tunnel for the Yi Pei Square Playground site, proved very popular with people of all ages, especially young kids because of the sense of discovery that the equipment encouraged.

The Design Trust is now pushing to make the proposed designs a reality over the next 1–2 years. “Our aim is to guide, disrupt, and challenge the question of what public space is and what it can do for the community,” said Yiu. “The parks are a representation of how we respect our space.”

Mary Hui is a freelance reporter based in Hong Kong



The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore

A typical void deck

The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.

It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.

Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.

Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.

The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.

Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.

Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.

It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.

Void decks perform many roles for residents

However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?

Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.

Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.

The tools of exclusion in American cities


by Christo Hall

“Contested space.” I first heard that term in reference to the communities that surrounded the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There — where political, religious and geographic disputes brought about physical violence and an interruption of shared space — the term was apt, but using the language of conflict and competition to describe issues of public space overshadows what is surely the greater objective: harmony.

A new collection of essays, The Arsenal of Exclusion and Inclusion (Actar Press, 2017), seeks to address strategies and interventions it calls “weapons”, which have been used with the ambition to create both exclusive and inclusive spaces in cities. Weapons that have historically — especially considering the focus of the book on American cities — often brought about racial segregation, such as Robert Moses building low bridges along the Long Island Parkway in New York to prevent poorer black communities — who were travelling by bus — from accessing beaches built for the overwhelmingly white suburbs.

But is the language of weaponisation appropriate in the discussion of public space? My feeling is that to describe the guerrilla attempts at spatial inclusivity like the wide-ranging Occupy movement or the wade-in protests that accessed “private beaches” as examples of public space warfare is counterintuitive. These were peaceful challenges to schools of thought that encourage inequality; they were not looking to inflict harm.

A group of African American and white demonstrators surrounded by police during a wade-in at St. Augustine Beach, Florida, in 1964. Photo: AP/Horace Cort

Nevertheless, as a reader from the UK, I’m aware that many of the tools of spatial exclusion that we see in this country are latent forms of manipulation rarely addressed or understood until recently.

The fact is that many tools of exclusion are covert. Many mixed-tenure developments have one door for private tenants and another for its social housing tenants (something that has become known as the “poor door”). Many public benches are designed with armrests to prevent homeless individuals sleeping on them, while some cities have banned people from providing food to the homeless in public space.

In the suburbs of Cleveland and Chicago, neighbourhoods lobbied to remove basketball hoops from public space to prevent the arrival of “outsiders”, which was code for a white neighbourhood seeking to keep its neighbourhood white. A Baltimore neighbourhood demanded one-way streets along every road that led to the avenue which divided them from a majority black community living on the other side.

Volunteers in Philadelphia distribute food to the homeless outside a public hearing on rules banning outdoor food distribution. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Examples like these are eye opening, and the book is an excellent resource to spot the exclusive policies that are often executed under the guise of another aim, with more than a hint of sleight of hand. But as a resource it also helps identify those tools of inclusion that might not be immediately obvious: design elements such as detectable warning surfaces or building ramps that work to better include people with disabilities in the public realm, for example.

Not all the tools of exclusion and inclusion are hidden: gated developments, or the proposed bill in US congress that will provide lactation rooms in all American airports, are hard to miss.

The hundreds of listed ‘weapons’ in this book, many in relation to housing policy in the United States, contribute to portraying a situation where access is often regulated by affordability — and, increasingly, desirability. For example, regulations against non-criminal behaviour such as skateboarding, parkour and “loitering” — whether implemented by public or private orders, and often by groups such as ‘block clubs’ and Business Improvement Districts — are prejudices against certain groups of people in the name of so-called “common decency”.

To regulate what is desirable in public space is an ambiguous business, and one that suggests that someone or some authority knows best. And in an era of state relinquishment of public space to the private sector, what is desirable is often defined as what people and behaviour leads to the most profit rather than what can lead to social good, and where wealthy members of the public are privileged over others.

While the book’s essays do a great job of assessing the individual “weapons”, they do little to propose a cohesive thesis as to how to tackle opposing ideas about space and civil liberty. It is, largely, a safe study and an epidemiology of public space disorder. What’s needed now is discussions that weigh up what is needed to accommodate attitudes, whether we should be trying to reach consensus in public policy or instead somehow trying to find a solution that works for all, or if indeed there is such a thing as a city which is too permissive. To crack attitudes of fear and closed-mindedness we don’t need weapons — we need conversation.

Christo Hall is a freelance writer, the founding editor of Cureditor, an editor at LOBBY magazine and founder of MagShuffle

Infra-structured landscapes

Adriaan Geuze and Matthew Skjonsberg explore the social impact and negotiation of urban infrastructure – and the the advocatory role landscape architects can play in designing public spaces

The High Line park in New York. Source: boomsbeat.com
The High Line park in New York. Source: boomsbeat.com

Infrastructure can be wielded as a means of promoting the common good or as an institutional weapon of exploitation. While the highways, bridges and dams funded by international economic interests and built in outlying regions like the Amazon play a role that is difficult to conceive of as being anything other than devastatingly exploitative, the public parks and greenways of the world’s major cities also clearly serve economic functions while delivering a variety of benefits to the common good.

Infrastructure can be conceived of as opportunistic and multilayered, serving explicit functions of enabling mobility, energy, and communications – but also potentially prioritising access to light, air, and water: creating open space for social gathering and spatial continuity for ecological habitats. This is true whether infrastructure is regarded as a public space or as private commodity. Semi-public spaces now proliferate in major cities. Of course, the term ‘semi-public space’ is effectively a euphemism for ‘private property’, and while this trend might be criticised, there are also examples of these spaces being used in such a way as to provide alternative commons when the public are denied their right of free access to public space.

For instance, when in New York City the Occupy Wall Street movement was prohibited from gathering in public space on Wall Street itself, the protesters instead inhabited nearby Zuccotti Park. A small granite plaza in close proximity to the New York Stock Exchange, Zuccotti Park is one of over 500 ‘bonus plazas’ built in the city – privately-owned public parks created according to a little-known law established in 1961, the result of a compromise struck between the city and property developers.

The law states that should developers desire to build a taller skyscraper than zoning would otherwise allow, they can construct a compensatory plaza that provides ‘light and air’ for passers-by: the taller the building they desire, the bigger the plaza they must build. These bonus plazas are generally required to be open 24 hours a day, barring a safety issue, and they are governed by specific regulations in the zoning law. The law states that the layout of such plazas must provide easy pedestrian circulation throughout the space, and, thereby, promote public use.

Police presence at the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Zucotti Park, October 2011.
Police presence at the Occupy Wall Street protest camp in Zucotti Park, October 2011.

Indeed, this was effectively the case at Zuccotti Park from the arrival of protesters there in September 2011 until police forcefully evicted them in a raid two months later. When protesters initially occupied the park the only rules visibly posted there were: ‘No Skateboarding, No Rollerblading, No Bicycling’. Subsequent to their arrival, the owners of the site made public an additional set of rules banning everything from erecting tents and tarps to lying on the benches, although these rules were not enforced until the November police raid.

At that time barricades and police presence were established so as to discourage protesters from returning, and those who chose to enter the park were subjected to search and checkpoints monitored by police. This situation persisted until, in January 2012, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the city’s building department, asserting that the barricades were in violation of the city’s zoning law as they restricted public access to the park – stating that by allowing the barricades to exist the city was failing to enforce the law. The barricades were swiftly removed, and open access to the park was once again provided.

The High Line Park in New York, also a ‘semi-public space’, generated controversy when park officials brought in police to arrest an artist – Robert A. Lederman – selling his work there. After his release, Lederman vowed to return to vend his art on the High Line, and he did so – only to be arrested once again by Park Enforcement Patrol officers. The current city administration then stepped in; Lederman was personally contacted by the Parks Commissioner, who informed him that he would not be arrested again, that the charges against him were dropped, and that the Parks Commission had begun developing terms by which to accommodate artists and other vendors on the High Line.

The High Line
The High Line

Clearly, the struggle over infrastructure and public space is an ongoing negotiation – in contrast to the relatively amicable outcome in the case of the High Line, following the 6-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street Protests hundreds of protesters were again evicted from Zuccotti Park, and 73 arrests were made by police who used batons and tear gas in dealing with the crowd, dramatically illustrating the sometimes emphatic nature of this struggle. Among the perennial questions that persist is under what circumstances the rights of one group or interest are to be diminished by those of another, and whether infrastructure, by virtue of its interoperability, can be an effective means by which to reconcile disparate interests.

As designers, we talk about space, not politics – but we are aware that the two are interrelated. As distinct from visionary cities of the future, we are particularly interested in learning from the urbanising processes at work in the day-to-day creation of real cities and the role of infrastructure in these processes.

There is always the risk that the designers of infrastructure – whether architect, landscape architect or engineer – become merely technical enablers of narrowly focused interests all too often purely intent on short-term economic gains. We might imagine that megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam in China – which along with the ‘green energy’ it provides has had negative social and environmental impacts that are widely acknowledged – are inherently more harmful than, for instance, the infrastructure needed for internet service.

Three Gorges Dam, China. Source: Reuters
Three Gorges Dam, China. Source: Reuters

We believe in the proactive assertion of designers to champion the reality of interests beyond those financially vested in the work. In this regard, it is necessary to acknowledge that the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, engineering and construction all operate extensively within the public realm: to reach decisions and to establish finances we have to work with politicians, local citizens, and bureaucracies with quite diverse systems.

We must deal with outreach, public opinion, interaction, legal systems, implementation, and compromise. Our disciplines cannot avoid responding to socio-political contexts. While this situation might be regarded as a liability if design intent is fixed on a single predetermined outcome, it can also be seen as a real opportunity to engage the fluid condition of the city’s evolution – and to develop a mindset that can be characterised as ‘radical contextualism’.

Considering both the historic and contemporary phenomenon of the privatisation of common resources – whether water, air, and light or mobility, energy and communications – infrastructure is fundamental to civilization’s second nature, that body and activity of civilization that provides both connection and buffer between ‘nature’ and ‘city’, and between community interests and individual interests. Do we, as designers, effectively embrace our conciliatory role in making these resources available to the public? Are we willing to accept our responsibility if we fail to proactively advocate the public good, and design infrastructure that fails – in one way or another – to acknowledge context?

Now is the time to get a handle on our intentions, compare them with the outcomes of our efforts – and if the two are not convincingly aligned, make a change. Best, a radical one.

This piece is an edited version of an article titled ‘The Interoperative’ first published in Oz Journal, Volume 34. Adriaan Geuze is the founder of West 8 urban design and landscape architecture. Matthew Skjonsberg, architect and urban designer, is a Ph.D. researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)


Istanbul: They Call it Chaos, We Call it Home

by Naela Rose

Photograph: Oliver Zimmermann
All photographs: Oliver Zimmermann

The cobbled pavements teem with a buzzing frenzy of people. Tourists, locals, street-sellers and punters alike create a steady stream of bodies, flowing consistently through the narrow streets of this heaving city.

Whether you love or hate it, Istanbul is without doubt a city that splits opinion. For some, it is an exotic metropolis – steeped in rich history and culture – pulsating with modern life. For others, the city environment is pure chaos. Many local people feel that Istanbul is over-crowded and over-developed; a suffocating and homogenised urban landscape, representative of the negative consequences of capitalist culture.

The fact is, both the physical place and conceptual space of Istanbul remains at odds with the sheer quantities of people that inhabit the city; Istanbul is one of the most over-crowded cities in the world, with a population of approximately 15 million and rising. The city sprawls over 2,063 square miles, spanning the Bosphorus Strait that separates East and West, forming the largest urban agglomeration in Europe and the Middle East.

For me, this colossal city is the very definition of contradiction. Everything here happens in extremes and changes rapidly. Around the corner from my flat in Galata, a small independent pop-up shop sells foreign coffee, fair-trade T-Shirts and illustrated posters that read: Istanbul. They call it chaos, we call it home. I bought one to remind myself why I like living amid the pandemonium of this urban jungle, in all its gloriously paradoxical charm.

Istanbul is a patchwork of dazzlingly busy spaces that never seem to sleep – and for this reason it can at times be an exhausting, even claustrophobic, city to inhabit. However, historically Istanbulians have always conducted their business in the open, always out on the street. There is an inherent sense here that outdoor space belongs to the public. The streets are occupied daily with tradesmen selling their wares, exchanging produce and sharing stories. Unlike the common conception of public space in large cities in the Western world, the streets of Istanbul have traditionally been considered as an open playground, within which trade, performance art, and food culture thrive.

Turks are not afraid of public displays of emotion, nor are they shy about public appearances. Couples argue passionately in the street, crying and yelling at each other; old men laugh and goad each other while playing backgammon and drinking çay together on the roadside; street children sell tissues, phone batteries and chewing gum; food merchants sound their street calls, advertising their wares on every corner. However, despite the vibrancy of Istanbul’s street culture, the outdoor areas of the city remain intimidatingly hectic and over-crowded. The city consistently overflows with people, relentlessly vibrating with noise and energy, car horns screeching day and night. As a result it possesses a tumultuous, even oppressive, atmosphere.

These days, there is also a menacing police presence in central areas of Istanbul. Since the 2013 Gezi Parki protests in Taksim Square it has become clear that public spaces are controlled and shaped by anyone but the public. What had initially begun as a wave of peaceful demonstrations in the city’s central park soon developed into massive civil unrest, resulting in violent and prolonged riots between protestors and Turkish police. Since Gezi, street culture in Istanbul has been gradually eroded by the ongoing threat of police violence. The controversial issue of public space is made more complex by the current government’s totalitarian approach to crowd control within Turkish cities. As a result, citizens’ civil rights – such as the right to public assembly, peaceful protest and freedom of speech in the streets – are being systematically eradicated.

Today most Turks rightly feel a sense of fear and paranoia about the way in which the government controls public spaces. I still cannot get used to walking amid the multitude of stern-faced, uniformed officers, each of them armed with loaded machine-guns, batons and tear gas pistols. Furthermore, the de-humanising effect of Istanbul’s over-developed, heavily moderated public spaces – particularly green spaces – under the AKP government has diminished its citizens’ ability to have their say about how public spaces are used. There are currently growing rumours that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will in fact go ahead with construction in Gezi Parki this year; many Turkish websites state that the government is preparing to push forward with building plans for the original shopping mall, which was the catalyst for the 2013 riots.

Among most Istanbul citizens there is a growing sense of disempowerment within their frenetic urban environment and oppressive political system. They have not forgotten the brutality of the Gezi movement – which shook their city, killing 11 citizens and wounding 8,163 more – nor have they forgiven their government’s heavy-handed occupation of the streets that previously seemed to belong to the people. Many locals feel constricted by the sheer lack of free space in Istanbul: they find the oppressive urban landscape increasingly depressing. My Turkish friends complain that there are not enough accessible green spaces within the inner-city districts in which they might claim respite from the stresses of everyday modern life. They feel there is too much traffic and too many people, too much noise and seemingly endless construction work; they say the city is utter chaos.

Some pro-government supporters argue that the economic boom, made possible by the success of the construction industry in Turkey, has enabled Istanbul to become a thriving, cosmopolitan player on the world stage. But at what price? According to the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, the green area ratio per person here is on average only 6.4 square meters. The standard living space here is made up of chock-a-block apartments without access to any gardens, or courtyards at all. In some districts it is hard to spot a single tree, let alone a park. Indeed, capitalist industry has meant that Istanbul has fallen victim to relentless, out-of-control development. Today, this internationally revered metropolis is becoming one of concrete, conflict and over-crowding, with an ever-rising population.

Yet, perhaps it is not too late for the authorities to reconsider how Istanbul’s public spaces function. Many Istanbulians believe that the government needs to start making ‘green’ choices. A possible solution could be to pedestrianise specific areas of the city and to limit government funding for the unnecessary construction of yet another shopping mall. I personally believe that in order to retain a democratic approach to public space, it must be the job of the government to moderate industry, to control construction and pollution, and to listen to the voices of its citizens.

Although the world may regard Istanbul as a great cultural destination, the Turkish people who live here feel that their voices are being silenced. They remain deeply concerned about the issue of public space in their rapidly growing city. While there are no simple solutions for the dilemmas posed by living in such a large metropolis, there are also many positives. Istanbul is a multifaceted place that still has so much to offer – not to mention the beauty and magnitude of its geographical formation.

If you walk down the hill from Galata, through Karaköy, away from the inner-city chaos and towards the coastline, you can watch sunlight dancing on the Bosphorus and glistening along the silhouettes of mosques scattered across the horizon. You can sit and drink çay by the waterside. Here you can look out over the only truly open space left in Istanbul. By the water’s edge, with the commotion of the cityscape at your back, you can feel the sea breeze on your skin. Here you are able to get perspective and take a much needed breath of fresh air.

 All photographs by Oliver Zimmermann and all rights reserved 

LA’s public works: Rethinking the city’s transport infrastructure

by Charles Critchell

Illustration by Nate Kitch
Illustration by Nate Kitch

Los Angeles divides opinion. For some it is a land of sun-drenched beaches and palm-lined boulevards. For others, car-choked freeways and a monotonous urban fabric – dominated by its sprawling grid – are the images which live longest in the memory. The fact that it is all these things, and more, is no doubt why it can be considered so divisive; the perception of Los Angeles the place versus the lived reality of Los Angeles, as a place. Friends had been quick to caution me before I had left to visit. Their warnings – from the impossibility of walking anywhere and the problematic public transport, to how I would simply dislike the place – fell largely on deaf ears.

So, when a couple of weeks later I had alighted from the serenity of an air conditioned bus having carelessly missed my stop, I enthusiastically took to the sidewalk to prove them wrong. As I slogged my way back along La Brea Boulevard however, it soon became increasingly difficult to ignore both the searing heat and those voices that had told me it would be like this. The sheer distance between intersections and the comparative monotony of the cityscape, with its low-rise urban fabric and broad swathes of concrete began to feel consuming. Likewise the constant negotiation of the sidewalk for any shade from an unrelenting sun quickly became exhausting.

Los Angeles: the dominance of the car
Los Angeles: the dominance of the car

The frustration of feeling as if you’re going nowhere fast is, of course, exacerbated by the traffic. Waiting for it to subside before a series of illuminated white figures beckons you forward can often feel like an eternity, whilst waiting for the next bus can feel even longer. Whilst Los Angeles’ well-known dependency on the car renders its sidewalks and public transport networks free of overcrowding, it can, however, rarely be considered high quality public space. This realisation soon took hold as I recounted my effortless traverse of San Diego’s Gas Lamp quarter only a few days before.

The Grid typology, common to many major US cities, was the urban model of choice for quickly and efficiently subdividing land for real estate, still a major consideration in the state of California but more specifically in Los Angeles itself. Though unlike Los Angeles, neighbouring San Diego favoured smaller block sizes as a means of creating a higher number of profitable corner plots, thus capitalising on the commercial value of the land. So why hadn’t Los Angeles followed suit?

San Diego
San Diego

Firstly, Los Angeles is still a comparatively young city, with a grid system designed to embrace the automobile and the promise of the utopian future it was hoped it would deliver. By contrast, San Diego and many of Los Angeles’ East Coast rivals were purposefully laid out to accommodate horse, carriage and pedestrians, resulting in narrower streets and a tighter urban grid. Of perhaps greater significance is the sheer scale of the Los Angeles basin, which constitutes the informal annexation of both beach and foothill cities into the city of Los Angeles itself.

Successfully connecting these geographically disparate communities has demanded some huge infrastructural moves over the years, with the proliferation of sprawling highways and the cities ‘super grid’ very much key facilitators. Whilst these facilitators have long been acknowledged to lend the city the unique character it possesses today, dig a little deeper and you find that this wasn’t always so. Long regarded as ‘The Mobile City’, it was actually a thriving public transport network which delineated Los Angeles urban form. Pacific Electric railway cars ran everywhere, and when the automobile arrived, freeways and Boulevards literally ran along their tracks.

The age of individual travel coincided with the rise of another phenomenon which can be seen to be integral to the psyche of Los Angeles the place: mass consumerism. As impressed as I had been by the towering conglomeration of billboards residing not only on Sunset Strip but other linear neighbourhoods amongst the grid, what was possibly more noticeable was the total absence of any advertisement on public transport. Huge sterile ticket halls, scantily-clad subway platforms and unerringly bare buses, seemed so out of character with the place as to suggest that you weren’t in Los Angeles at all.

Likewise, step a street back from any of the main shopping drags and you are cast into a veritable no man’s land of vacant parking lots, breakers yards and industrial compounds – wide open spaces essentially devoid of people or human interaction. It’s these two sides of Los Angeles that is perhaps the most striking thing about a visit to the city, the conspicuous excess alongside the unnerving emptiness.

Los Angeles
Los Angeles

Whilst this is an inherent and accepted fact of Los Angeles life, could measures not be taken to improve the experience of the pedestrian and public transport user? Could private investors not work with the city in establishing a greater number of routes and new locally-engaged transport hubs in return for the rights for blanket advertisement [in keeping with the city’s accepted character and culture] at these mid-block sites? More fundamentally, incremental improvements to the public realm, such as greater shade coverage, real-time traffic updates and the design of more sociable waiting areas, would not only provide a richer sidewalk culture, but improve user experience, heighten confidence and more importantly increase use.

Simple beautification: measures usually scorned upon in other cities for their superficiality would not only improve the public realm but complement the idea of place perfectly, making a real world difference to those who have to walk Los Angeles’ streets, while putting the noses of those who dismiss the city just a little further out of joint. Los Angeles does not need saving – far from it – but it should endeavour to offer its residents and visitors alike a better urban, pedestrian experience. Though in true Los Angeles fashion it may just go on defying its critics.

All photographs by Charles Critchell

Gezi Park and why public space matters

by Francesca Perry


Although the biggest and most crucial story to come out of the Istanbul protests is the completely shocking and violent police treatment of the peaceful protesters, one that I find so gripping is the unity of citizens to protect and defend their public space.

Much of the Occupy movement has seen the use of space to protest against non-spatial issues, but this is about protecting the public realm itself and what it stands for: sharing the city, civic freedom, urban wellbeing, belief in the very public it creates a space for. Beyond protecting trees, this is about the democratic right to the city.

Space is where it starts. Space to think, to be, to interact. Working in public consultation for urban regeneration as I do, I passionately defend a community’s say in how their city develops and what their city means. To not take into account the needs and lives of the public is to dismiss the citizens entirely from the notion of a city. It is the citizens that make these places into cities. The streets, the squares, the parks – these are our spaces where we can be human, together. They are worth defending, worth protecting. Turkey’s police response across the country to these protests cast themselves as villains of civility and urban life itself.

Many have written about the dangers of privatising public space, even when it remains ‘open’. To replace democratic public realm with controlled space drains the city of its vitality and honesty. Spaces are increasingly surveilled, commercialised and exclusive, welcoming a restricted public of appropriately behaved consumers. Through these processes, neoliberal interests are prioritised at the expense of social justice.

But this is not new: public space has and always will be contested. What has happened with Gezi Park reminded me of People’s Park in Berkeley, 1969. When protesters tried to defend the park from redevelopment, ‘Bloody Thursday’ ensued, in which police fired tear gas, killed a student and were authorised to use whatever methods they chose against the protesters. For two weeks, Governor Reagan kept 2,700 National Guard troops in Berkeley, who continued to use teargas against even small demonstrations.

People's Park

After years of contestation, confrontation and threats of development, the People’s Park remains just that: a park for all. It continues to be defended as a democratic place of political activism, unmediated interaction and access.

Such egalitarian public space is needed to facilitate social interaction, inclusion, representation, political mobilisation and expression. To sacrifice not just the space, but the democracy of the city itself, is the perfect example of how misguided urbanisation will lead to cities running themselves in to the ground – or rather, into the air conditioned tomb of a shopping mall.


With thanks to Izzy Finkel, writer, editor and friend based in London and Istanbul.

See her article in Salon: ‘Istanbul Protest is – and is not – about the trees’