In cramped Hong Kong, a home under the bridge

HONG KONG -- A campaign group wants empty space under highways put to good use, but some say the idea is more insulting than ingenious.
Written by Vanessa Ko, Contributor
Energizing Kowloon East Office, a temporary district affairs office, was built in Kwun Tong under an overpass, which can be seen running above the open-air courtyard.

HONG KONG -- The expanse under an overpass in Kwun Tong, an industrial area of Hong Kong, is indeed large, and it seems to stretch forever. On one side is road traffic, and on the other is the harbor. Above, vehicles rumble by on a highway.

As with most of Hong Kong’s overpasses -- or flyovers, as they are more commonly called here -- this wall of space below is largely unused. Across town, sometimes these bridges shade crosswalks or decorative plants. Often, all there is are empty slabs of concrete.

It is in empty spaces like this that a group is campaigning for the government to build youth hostels, arts performance venues, offices for small- to mid-sized businesses and, most intriguingly, temporary housing. The group sees this unused land as an opportunity to alleviate Hong Kong’s problem of young people not being able to afford to rent in the world’s most expensive property market.

"There could be some temporary homes set up for the first few years, and during this time, the government could look into how to put space under bridges to good long-term use," said Mathias Woo, an art critic who is part of the group called Under Bridge Action, at a media conference.

Hong Kong’s expensive housing is partially the result of not having enough land to build on, which is related to a hilly topography and limits controlled by the government. So any unused land in the city center might be thought of as a valuable asset going to waste.

One project based on this concept is now completed: a district affairs office built under the overpass in Kwun Tong, which wraps dramatically around a large pylon supporting the bridge. Campaigners see this structure as a starting point that would demonstrate to the public the feasibility of using this empty space. Currently, residential units are not permitted to be built under overpasses.

The group says there are more than 1,900 such bridges, including pedestrian walkways, throughout the city. They contend that under the Kwun Tong overpass alone, 300 to 500 temporary container homes could be built in just several months, compared with the years it takes the government to build a block of public housing.

Hold on -- container homes? Under an overpass?

Mathias Woo urges critics to visit the harbor-facing overpass in Kwun Tong.

The idea that cash-strapped young people could live in metal shipping containers was bound to raise a few eyebrows, and the proposal has received much criticism in the local media.

“Young people and artists need space, and they need dignified space,” wrote one columnist on the news site Independent Media. “Senior officials should put themselves in their shoes, experience life under a bridge, and then make suggestions.”

A commentator on Commercial Radio said that noise pollution, air pollution and lack of sunlight are practical disadvantages of these spaces, but there are psychological considerations as well. “In many people’s minds, living under a bridge is connected to homelessness,” he said.

But the reality of Hong Kong’s living situations has led campaigners to claim that container homes are better than some of the existing alternatives.

Hong Kong’s high rents have forced thousands of the poor to live in tiny subdivided flats, some of them called "coffin homes" because of their size. There is also the phenomenon of “cage homes," which are cramped wire-mesh cages the length of a person, stacked two high like a bunk bed. Crammed into run-down buildings where usually more than a dozen tenants share a bathroom, cage homes often still cost more than US$175 to rent per month and have come to symbolize the dire housing situation as well as the extreme rich-poor divide in a glitzy financial center.

Homes under overpasses "would be better than 'coffin homes,' better than those homes without windows, without air, where the bathroom and kitchen are put together," Woo told the media.

Chan Yuen-han, a politician who is part of the campaign group, similarly described the container homes under the initiative as "a hundred times better than cage homes."

The lack of affordable homes for young adults is said to be contributing to increasingly late marriages and low birth rates. A study by the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups found that young people in the city tend to be economically dependent on family, primarily because they cannot afford to live alone.

In response to naysayers, Woo told SmartPlanet that they should visit the Kwun Tong site, which has a view of the water and is close to the subway system. "Architects and designers could come up with lots of livable and innovative design ideas," he said. "There are many such sites in Hong Kong that we should explore rather sitting there and making judgments without any knowledge about design in a Hong Kong context."

The group plans to conduct a thorough study of the usability of spaces under overpasses and submit a proposal to the government in coming months.

Top Photo: Hong Kong Development Bureau; Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Mathias Woo

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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