Hong Kong’s colorful new ‘pocket parks’ are revitalizing public spaces

CNN  — 

Bright pink and scattered with octagonal stools, Portland Street Rest Garden is an Instagrammer’s dream. But this park, wedged between two high rises on a bustling Hong Kong street, isn’t filled with influencers posing for photos: instead, local retirees play checkers on fuchsia gameboards, while elderly neighbors gossip on the rose-colored benches, purple grass swaying in the planters behind.

While 75% of Hong Kong’s territory, which includes more than 200 islands, is made up of lush jungle and country parks, urban Hong Kong is short on space. Its residents have just 2.7 square meters (29.1 square feet) of public space per person, according to non-profit think tank Civic Exchange — compared to 5.8 to 7.6 square meters (62.4 to 81.8 square foot) per person in other dense Asian metropolises like Singapore, Tokyo, and Shanghai. There’s a correlation between access to nature and good mental health, with people living closer to public open spaces reporting less anxiety than those living further away.

The designers split Portland Street Rest Garden down the middle, restoring one side in the style of a 1980s park, while the other was given a bright pink look.

Parks like the one on Portland Street can therefore offer a reprieve from the compact towers most people live in.

Its eye-catching design is the result of a makeover by Design Trust, a non-profit that supports design-based programs. The organization has been redesigning four of the city’s micro parks in a bid to make a “macro transformation” to public space, said Marisa Yiu, co-founder and executive director of Design Trust.

In contrast to other parks in the city, many of which have the same, generic look — neutral tiles or concrete slabs, fenced-off greenery, and single-seat benches — Design Trust wanted to break the mold, by creating distinct designs that could showcase communities’ “unique stories.”

Working alongside the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which manages public parks in Hong Kong, four different teams conceptualized the redesign of the the micro parks. At Portland Street, the redesign increased seating capacity from 16 to 81 people, and greenery by 26%.

Play is for the people

Design concepts for the parks were created in 2018, but the pandemic meant the LCSD and the Architectural Services Department didn’t begin construction until 2021. The project, called “Play is for the people,” centered around fun.

“Play should be accessible for all ages, whether it’s adults playing chess or kids running around,” said Yiu.

The team behind Yi Pei Square, at the park. From left to right: Kay Chan, Stephen Ip, Jonathan Mak, Christopher Choi, and Design Trust founder Marisa Yiu.

And play is indeed at the center of the project’s first park, Yi Pei Square, in Tsuen Wan, which opened in April 2021. The long, thin courtyard is surrounded by apartment blocks and was a paved area, mostly used as a footpath. But Design Trust transformed the 930-square-meter (10,010-square-foot) site into a “communal living room” with play areas, exercise zones and benches.

Involving the community was a key part of the process. Creating prototypes of different elements of the park, the team held exhibitions in co-working spaces and malls to test their ideas and engaged residents in feedback sessions where children suggested games, and the shape and size of playground structures, like the slide which was widened to allow them to race down it two at a time. “The designers learned a lot about how people live,” said Yiu. “What you see now in Yi Pei Square is generated by the community.”

At the park on Portland Street, which opened in September 2021, the design team wanted to modernize the site while still highlighting the area’s history.

To balance out the bold color, the team decided to split the 376-square-meter (4,047-square-foot) park in half with a zig-zag line down the center: while one side is Barbie-pink, the other is restored to look like a typical Hong Kong rest garden from the 1980s, complete with hexagonal geometry, bamboo and shaded seating areas.

For the designers, pink was the perfect choice to revitalize the park: it inspires joy and compassion, and contrasts with the greenery of the foliage, to create a vibrant yet relaxing atmosphere, said Yiu.

“The designers were so empowered by this color that it just made sense,” she added.

The design for Portland Street Rest Garden is now divided in two, showcasing the old, restored style and the new, modern pink design.

Locals appear happy with the results. Septuagenarian Mr. Kong, who only gave his surname, says he likes the park’s new layout. A resident in this neighborhood for decades, he visits daily and says it is cleaner than before. Meanwhile Peter, who is in his sixties and eats his lunch in the park most days, says he’s grateful that people have access to this kind of space outside their homes.

Short on space

Bringing new ideas on how to design public spaces can be challenging. Some examples Yiu points to found throughout the city — such as benches and chairs with barriers, or at sloping angles — can actually discourage people from lounging or relaxing, adding that it has taken time to convince planners to embrace more flexible spaces, such as benches without barriers, or moveable furniture.

From left to right: Co-founder and executive director of the Design Trust, Marisa Yiu, and Ricky Lai, Kam Fai Hung and Xavier Tsang who were part of the design team behind Portland Street Rest Garden.

And the teams are constantly learning from how the parks are being used, and adapting their current and future designs accordingly. For example, at Portland Street, tables and chairs have suffered from chipped paint. Now, Design Trust is exploring more resilient paint and coating materials. “These are the things that you can’t do without testing, and trial and error,” said Yiu.

The Design Trust isn’t the only organization getting creative with Hong Kong’s limited space. In May 2022, the city’s first rooftop skatepark opened at H.A.N.D.S shopping mall in Tuen Mun, joining the existing rooftop basketball court designed by One Bite Studio. Other basketball courts across the city have been decorated with colorful designs too, including Shek Lei Grind Court which used 20,000 pairs of recycled Nike sneakers for its rubber surface.

The government has green-lit the rejuvenation of a further 170 parks and playgrounds in a five-year project. While this won’t be in collaboration with HKDT, Yiu said that the micro park pilot has helped to “mobilize and accelerate” the new policy. A spokesperson from the LCSD said that innovative designs would make parks more attractive, and along with projects such as an inclusive playground built at Tuen Mun Park, the experience and design processes from the micro park pilot will help to “implement the transformation of public play spaces.”

Yi Pei Square has space for children to play, as well as an exercise zone for elderly people and areas to socialize and gather.

Heritage through design

Design Trust’s third park, Hamilton Street in Yau Ma Tei, is set to open in October, while the fourth will open by the end of the year. The design team for Hamilton Park is commemorating the area’s rich history of craftsmanship.

Home to historic buildings and temples, the area has many “sifu,” or master craftspeople, whose businesses have survived generations. Design Trust identified local craftspeople to produce elements of the park, such as copper lighting fixtures, as well as signage made from the distinctive chopping boards seen at butchers around the city.

The preservation of an old banyan tree on the park’s edge is another nod to the past, while a large table in the center of the park serves as a focal point for the community to gather.

According to Yiu, the cost of each park is the same per square meter as the generic parks seen elsewhere around the city — except for Yi Pei Square, which received some extra funding.

The designers commissioned work from local craftsman, such as this sign made from a chopping board, typically seen in butcher shops around the city.

She hopes that these prototype pocket parks will inspire cities to think more creatively about the design of public spaces and step away from the “cookie cutter formula.”

“We don’t want 20,000 pink parks,” Yiu said. “Design Trust is really looking at Hong Kong’s heritage, the challenges of a park’s context, but also health and wellbeing, and sustainable futures. Each park has a way to engage differently. It’s a cultural responsibility for everyone to be involved.”

The story has been updated to clarify Design Trust’s role in working with craftspeople at Hamilton Street Park.