Under the bridge: a space conundrum

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There are almost 2,000 flyovers and walkways snaking their way around Hong Kong. And most of them have a wealth of space underneath which could be developed. Shirley Zhao explores the possibility of under-bridge communities 

A long, seemingly endless overpass stretches along the harbour in East Kowloon, shading underneath it large empty spaces which are untouched by traffic, be it passing nearby or racing overhead. Few people walk under this highway – the Kwun Tong Bypass – so these spaces are devoid of life, looking like giant holes in the shadows of a post-industrial town. There could be whole communities built in these gaps. But so far the notion hasn’t really been investigated. Until now, that is. Land is undeniably expensive in the fragrant harbour. So it’s not surprising that these under-bridge areas have begun to catch the eye of those who yearn to tackle the city’s space and wealth problems. Homes, shops and workplaces could be built in these areas, going some way to solving our city’s property crisis and helping to find places for the poor to temporarily live in some sort of comfort.

There are more than 1,200 overpasses and around 700 footbridges in Hong Kong. And nearly all of the spaces under these structures have been left vacant and unpopulated. But, in February, a group was founded to campaign for better use of these areas. Things could yet change. 

“Land is very precious everywhere,” says legislative councillor Chan Yuenhan, one of the three co-founders of Under Bridge Action. “So far, the government hasn’t planned anything for the spaces under bridges. It’s a waste of land resources and the old development mindset needs to be changed.”

Under Bridge Action believes these expanses of land could provide precious venues for art performances, offices for artists and designers, libraries, entertainment facilities, youth hostels and temporary residential places. According to the group, spaces under flyovers such as the Island Eastern Corridor, the old Kai Tak airport overpass and bridges in the Central and Western districts have great potential for development because they cover large areas and are close to the harbour and MTR stations.

“Nowadays, many artists, young people and local businesses have been forced out of where they live or run their businesses because of rising rents,” says Chan. “The under-bridge spaces can provide a fast solution for them to live, work, exhibit or sell.”

Under Bridge Action suggests the government spends the additional $100 million that has been set aside for each district for community development projects on creating temporary housing made of shipping containers under the bridges, with NGOs acting as ‘non-profit making developers’ and managers. According to the group, each container can provide around three 150sq ft units with the rents reduced by half and living conditions ‘100 times better’ than in subdivided units. The group estimates the cost of installing 150 such units to be around $15m. It cites the area under the Kwun Tong Bypass as an example, saying 300 to 500 temporary container homes could be built there in just several months, compared with the years it will take for the government to construct public housing.

About 100,000 Hong Kong people and families are in tiny subdivided units, illegal rooftop structures and ‘cage homes’ – wire mesh cells which are stacked on top of each other and crammed into old apartments. The rents in these inadequate units usually range from about $1,000 to several thousand a month, depending on their size and location. A recent survey by the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee shows that the average rent of a subdivided unit is about $3,000.

So Under Bridge Action’s suggestion is noble and seems to be an obvious way forward. However, it has also attracted much criticism over the past few weeks. “They seem to have gone too far,” writes a columnist on news website Independent Media. “Do they want to chase the homeless people away from under the bridges while they’re accommodating young people?”

Blogger Kursk criticises lawmaker Chan for forgetting ‘the hardship of the humble people’. “In fact, it’s absolutely possible to turn shipping containers into housing or offices,” he writes in a blog post. “The biggest problem of underbridge spaces is the noise and the emissions from the cars on and around the overpasses.”

Yiu Man-hin, a resident of private housing estate Metro Harbour View, which sits right next to an overpass in Tai Kok Tsui, Mong Kok, doesn’t like the suggestion either. “Those who will live in containers are from a mixture of backgrounds,” he says. “And inserting containers
under the overpass will block the air flow.”

Art critic Mathias Woo Yanwai, co-founder of Under Bridge Action, argues that the noisiest areas around overpasses are the places beside them instead of overhead and underneath. He also says advanced technology and innovative designs can turn the spaces into environments suitable for living.

“Hong Kong has so many bridges,” he says. “Different underbridge spaces can be suitable for different uses. The government should establish a database which stores information on the different qualities of bridges. It should also study the possible ways of using them and make better plans.”

Having been homeless for seven years, Michael Chung, 45, sleeps in front of the Sham Shui Po Jade Market under the West Kowloon Corridor. He doesn’t have a stable income, earning a few hundred dollars a month doing odd jobs. He only has a handful of belongings. And he hasn’t changed clothes for over a month now because he says it’s difficult to find a place to wash his clothes and hang
them to dry. He likes the idea of building container homes, as long as the rents are affordable or the government subsidises them for the homeless.

“At least we can have a shelter to protect us through wind and rain,” says Chung. “For us homeless, having a shelter means we will have some dignity. We could also find a stable job if we lived in the container homes because many companies require their employees to have proof of a permanent address.”

Under the Kwun Tong Bypass, the temporary office of the Energising Kowloon East project is a two-storey building made of shipping containers, featuring offices around a central courtyard and an information centre. It only took six months to design and build. Other organisations such as WWF Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Federation of Women also built their offices under overpasses. In Kwun Tong, another under-bridge patch has been developed into an open-air venue for music, art and cultural events, and exhibitions. The Hong Kong Architecture Centre is also applying to the government for permission to build its headquarters under a flyover in Sheung Wan.

However, in one of his blog entries, Homes Underneath Flyovers?, the Secretary for Development, Paul Chan Mopo, lists out the difficulties of
developing the under-bridge spaces, citing stipulations from the existing Planning Standards and Guidelines, where installations such as cooked food stalls, community centres with residential or daycare services, residential developments and supermarkets are not allowed under bridges.

“Of course,” he says in the entry, “we will review the guidelines from time to time so as to meet changing society and planning needs.”

Under Bridge Action is now conducting a thorough study of the usability of spaces under overpasses and will soon submit a proposal to the government. The group hopes to get the government’s response within half a year.

“The government’s urban renewal plans have almost destroyed many of the city’s old industries,” says Woo. “A lot of old auto repair places and recycling shops will soon be demolished. Where can these businesses go? Some people may hate the idea of using under-bridge spaces but at least it provides one more option when there aren’t many choices left.”

Under-bridge Developments around the world
Underpass Park, Toronto, Canada
This 2.5 acre public park lies beneath two riverfront overpasses near the city’s downtown area. Its first phase opened in August last year, featuring basketball courts, a playground, a skate park and a public art piece. It cost around C$6 million ($46m) to install. The second phase, providing the park with green spaces, is currently under construction and is expected to be finished later this year, at a cost of C$3.5m.

Under the Freeway Flea Market, Wallace, Idaho, USA
Opening every August in a small town with a population of less than 800, this three-day flea market event has been going on for eight years. In the market, more than 80 vendors are usually on hand, selling antiques, firearms and ‘everything from A to Z’.

Street Children Home, Caracas, Venezuela
A shelter for homeless children, this project, created in the unused space under one of the city’s main highways, was completed in 2001. It provides a main dormitory for more than 30 street children, an external garden for growing corn, a rooftop workshop and rooftop basketball and football playing areas.

Stanica Cultural Centre, Zilina, Slovakia
Underneath a flyover in Slovakia’s fourth largest city, this auditorium and theatre was built out of 3,000 plastic beer crates and 800 hay bales by 120 volunteers. The centre, which opened in 2009, cost 7,000 ($70,000) and, according to the builders, was completed without any official permission. The aim of the project, say the builders, is to show a fresh solution to authorities when it comes to spending large sums of money on huge national and municipal cultural projects.

A8ernA, Zaanstad, the Netherlands
This awardwinning urban renewal project covers an area under the city’s major highway overpass and is aimed at restoring connections between the two sides of the city which are split by the flyover. It also hopes to revitalise a dying space which is ‘literally and symbolically in the shadow of the flyover’. It cost 2.7m ($27m) to install and consists of a graffiti zone, a skateboard park, a break dance stage, ping-pong tables, football fields, a basketball court, a supermarket, a fishmonger, a florist, a car park and a marina.

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