Learning From, and Ignoring, Hong Kong

Hong Kong (right) and Kowloon, one of the many cities-within-cities that have sprung up on the island in recent decades. (Mr. Wabu/Flickr)

We’re fairly critical of the planning process here in New York, but our pal Norman Oder has us beat a thousand times over with his watchdog website The Atlantic Yards Report. Which is why we were surprised to find him writing over on Urban Omnibus about just how laudable our way of doing things can actually be, at least compared to the current vogue for Asian-style authoritarian planning, particularly that of Hong Kong. Jumping off from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s praise for Hong Kong’s “doubling down on density,” Oder points out that of the locals he’s heard from, “enough is enough.”

[T]hose from Hong Kong invoked our city’s appreciation of history (or, to them, heritage), diversity of building types, avoidance of superblocks, rich street life, and relatively robust opportunity for citizen input. As became clear, density in Hong Kong was fostered by cultural, economic, and historical factors not present in recent-day New York, including top-down planning, warp-speed growth (driven by an influx of refugees from Communist China), an empowered mass transit agency, and a disengaged citizenry.

So while there’s a good argument to build residential density in New York — our city’s towers are primarily commercial — as well as infrastructure, the lessons from Hong Kong may be more aspirational than direct.

Could you imagine the MTA being the lead planner? High-rise-induced (as opposed to merely abetted) suicides? Luxurious apartments sprawling some 750 square feet? Because these are some of the astounding realities of Hong Kong as recounted by Oder, and even to a degree by Chakrabarti. Whether this is better or worse than New York, we’ll let you decide. We’ve got fare hikes, gentrification, outrageous prices. (Okay, Hong Kong’s got us beat there.) But we’ve also got brownstones and a semblance of public input. Small victories, but victories all the same.

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