Some Reflections from Hong Kong #UmbrellaMovement - By Prof. Luca Bertolini
Publication date 15-03-2015
I spent my sabbatical in Hong Kong. With both extreme human densities and breathtaking natural landscapes, Hong Kong is an overwhelming city. This much I knew, and this alone would have made the stay a unique experience. Nothing however, had prepared me for the massive social movement and occupation of public spaces that was born, grew beyond all expectations, and reached a provisional end while I was there: Occupy Central, aka #UmbrellaMovement. Several times I visited the occupied sites, as well as following the developments daily in the media, and discussing them with locals of diverging views and backgrounds. The site visits especially made a profound impression on me, and fuelled thoughts that stretched beyond the event.
Let me start with the contrast between Hong Kong before and during the umbrella movement. The contrast could hardly have been greater. Hong Kong is a city with a chronic shortage of public space. In part this shortage is a quantitative matter, because the extreme land value mean that space is a scarce resource with multiple claims on it. However, the shortage of public space in Hong Kong is also a qualitative matter, since public spaces are highly functional as movement channels for motorised traffic and pedestrian access to indoor facilities, but highly dysfunctional as places to meet, contemplate, or express oneself. What the occupied sites brought was exactly the opposite: instead of space to pass through, they brought space to walk along, stop, look, think, talk and act.
To me, nothing is more at odds with the spirit of the umbrella movement than the images of violent confrontations that the media sent around the world. These were incredibly rare moments. The true images are those of encampments with tents, common facilities (as the pop-up library in the picture), and above all, the innumerable displays of ideas (banners, posters, post-its, artworks) and people discussing these ideas or making these displays. This overwhelming outpouring of critical thinking and creativity was perhaps the most impressive in its contrast with pre-occupy Hong Kong. It was as if the city was just waiting for this opportunity – or any opportunity – to let loose a prodigious wealth of expression that was there, but could not find places to manifest itself. Once a ‘place’ was found – this outpouring became caught in a process of self-reinforcement and re-generation. What a contrast to the city I saw prior to the occupation - whose only purpose had seemed to be money making and money spending!
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the present outlook is the seeming waste of this immense output of thinking and expression, the lack of response and the absence of dialogue. In many ways, Hong Kong has been incredibly successful in the past. Its successes were never equally shared, but did give hope of a better life to many. However, the city is now facing daunting challenges. Hong Kong is already one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, while its current status of being the financial and logistical gateway to China is being eroded as the repeated mantra that China ‘needs’ Hong Kong to fuel its dynamism and fulfill its ambitions is showing an illusion. In the face of these enormous challenges the very least one might wish for is a debate.
Nevertheless, this city is not unique. All cities have their daunting challenges, and face increasing uncertainty about their place in a rapidly changing world. All cities, and the people in them, will succeed or fail depending on the ways they find for coping with their ever evolving challenges. It is the core task of planners to keep searching for ways of supporting this process. We need to be creative and as critical of ourselves as we demand others to be. In most, if not all cases, keeping to the ways that have worked in the past, or seem to work now, will not be of much help in the future.
Luca Bertolini is Professor of Urban Planning at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research and advisory board member of the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam. His research and teaching focus on the integration of transport and land use planning, on methods for supporting the option-generation phase of the planning process, on concepts for coping with uncertainty in planning, and on ways of enhancing theory-practice interaction. His main publication topics include planning for sustainable accessibility in urban regions, conceptualising urbanism in the network society, and the application of evolutionary theories to planning.
This is an abridged version of an Editorial published by Taylor & Francis Group in Planning & Theory, available online.