Tuesday 1 July 2014

International Garden Cities : Kowloon and Hong Kong

During a visit to Hong Kong in 2012 we were kindly shown about the Garden City suburb in Kowloon. This article gives some background to it

Hong Kong Garden City
Garden Cities may sound very English but they have inspired cities and towns throughout the world, in America, Africa, Europe, Australia and more recently China. In England people think of Letchworth and Welwyn Garden Cities as well as Hampstead Garden Suburb. The father of the Garden City movement was Ebenezer Howard who designed Letchworth and then Welwyn and published his seminal book ‘Garden Cities of To-morrow’. But Howard’s motivation was as a social reformer as much as was as a planner. Planning was a means towards social reform and social justice. Through garden city social and design principles he believed in combining the best of town and country life together and underpinned the philosophy with the principle that the town’s wealth would be held in common and its prosperity would be shared.  Letchworth was founded in 1903 as, what we would call today, a community land trust. As such these principles inspired Lenin to visit and stay in the City long before the Russian revolution.

By the 1920’s Garden City design principles were main stream and the British were implementing the principles to design new colonial cities in their empire. The Garden City Movement strongly pushed the design principles but unfortunately these more conservative figures were softer on the social principles. Howard became slightly marginised in the movement but held his principles intact. So when he received a call for help to design a new garden city suburb in Hong Kong he accepted and went.

For this request didn’t come from the colonial government or the British establishment or even from the British Hong Kong community. The call came from the non-British community wealthy, merchants from Arabia, India and China. It was a call to build a suburb for them that would be a deferential snub to their deferential British colonial masters. I expect that Howard accept the commission with glee.

The background is both simple and a chilling insight into British colonial attitudes and rule. Anyone who has visited Hong Kong will no doubt have taken the cable-car to the top of Victoria Peak to appreciate the clean air and views across the city and Victoria Harbour. But what they may not know is that under colonial rule in the 1920’s is that only people of British origin were allowed to live, or even spend the night at the top of the Peak. I am told that servants couldn’t even spend the night there. As you went lower down the Peak, Americans and then Europeans were permitted to live and other races the lower you got. This social and racial apart ide practised by the British also meant that properties were finer the higher you went.
But this group of non-British eastern merchants refused to play the deference game with the British and so boldly invited the leader of the now quintessentially British Garden City movement to design a new suburb for them .  In doing so it may have helped to break the imperial hold on the garden city movement and ideas and helped it go truly international which it did.

If you want to see the Hong Kong Garden City today, cross to Kowloon and drive up the Nathan Road and turn up Waterloo Road to Kowloon Tong. Though the original houses have all but disappeared the layout and street design is still there. You will know you have arrived when you the housing switches from high density to lower density of only three stories. There will be more greenery and with more trees. You may spot perhaps the only roundabout in Hong Kong – Letchworth had the world’s first one. The area is now home to a number of schools, kindergartens and temples. You will see the town geometric shaped parks on the boundaries of the suburb and a few occasional larger gardens. Howard was a big fan of large gardens and urban agriculture as it gave people a connection with the earth and the chance to feed themselves. The street names too change and carry the names of English counties – Cornwall Road, Dorset Road, Somerset Road, Cambridge, Oxford and Lancashire. The Garden suburb in effect runs from Boundary street to the foothills a little further north. It is not a large place and is today is home to the wealthy Hong Kong establishment but not the British.

But what we see is both a reminder and echo of the Garden City movement, a reminder of the Garden City design and layout principles and green spaces and an echo too of its radicalism as its roots lay not in paternalism or charity but in citizenship and empowerment. The pioneers and founders of this settlement felt empowered enough to claim their rights and moral citizenship in building their own settlement to audaciously challenge the British.

I am not sure what the colonial British response was to this failure to show due deference but directly bordering the garden city suburb are a number of buildings that once formed a British military barracks.

Philip Ross
Hong Kong, May 2012