How the densely populated city of Hong Kong is turning social spaces into magnificent micro parks

Space is hard to come by in Hong Kong, but a new initiative is seeing the radical transformation of tiny public spaces into bright, welcoming hangouts.

In a nod to the neighbourhood's history as Kowloon's former red light district, half the garden is a shock of pink.

Photograph by Design Trust
By Lee Cobaj
Published 19 Nov 2021, 06:00 GMT, Updated 3 Jan 2022, 15:43 GMT

Carving out space for parks and gardens in one of the most densely populated cities in the world is no easy feat. In Hong Kong, public spaces are squeezed between skyscrapers, under flyovers and into oddly shaped corners of land. Among the nearly 2,000 parks dotted across the city, nearly five hundred are pocket-parks — officially known as rest gardens or sitting-out areas — many of them measuring just half the size of a tennis court.

“Hong Kong's unique landscape has given rise to different scales and sizes of parks,” says Marisa Yiu, co-founder of Hong Kong's Design Trust Futures Studio. “These spaces are critical in a city with this kind of urban density.” More than just a place to idle, Hong Kong's micro-parks are important social spaces, providing an escape for people shoehorned into cramped apartments in the world's most expensive housing market. Pass by any park in the morning and you'll find pensioners practicing tai chi, reading the newspapers and playing mahjong. In the evening, young couples cuddle behind the dangling roots of banyan trees. Every Sunday, the parks are filled with the picnics and singing of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines enjoying their day off.

Until recently, all the parks looked pretty much the same; same tiles, same park benches, same playground equipment, same plants and trees. Then, in 2017, the newly established Design Trust Futures Studio caught the eye of the government with its 'Small Is Meaningful' exhibition, which imagined rubbish skips as flower beds and miniature gardens being delivered to homes by Uber. A few thousand miles of red tape later and the Design Trust team were tasked with revamping four of Hong Kong's small parks into thoroughly modern micro-parks, each with its own identity.

The first to be unveiled, in April 2021, was Yi Pei Square in Tsuen Wan at the end of the red MTR subway line. The square originated in the early 1970s, at a time when there was a huge rush to build homes for the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were escaping China for Hong Kong's shores. Housing blocks were thrown up and outdoor spaces were an afterthought. Sandwiched on four sides by eight-storey sub-divided tenements, Yi Pei Square was one such gloomy space, with hardly anywhere to sit and no playground for the children living in the surrounding blocks. Swing by now, however, and you'll find swirls of red, yellow and blue flooring delineating areas for play, rest, quiet conversation and lively gatherings, and a playground filled with objects and openings that invite children to swing, climb, jump and hide, as well as facilities for differently abled children, a rarity in Hong Kong. The effect on the neighbourhood has been wholly positive if the delighted whoops of the children are anything to go by.

Read more: Is it lights out for Hong Kong's neon signs? How citizens are fighting to save the city's luminous heritage

Set on a dark lot between old low-rise apartment blocks flanked by bus stops, old theatres, traditional Cantonese restaurants and vintage neon signs, the second micro-park, Portland Street Rest Garden, was frequented by the disenfranchised and often used as an unofficial public toilet. Post-Design Trust transformation, it caters to a different market — the elderly. In a nod to the neighbourhood's history as Kowloon's former red light district, half the garden is a shock of pink — flamingo-pink floor tiles, bubblegum-pink pergolas, strawberry terrazzo benches, fuchsia modular stools and Barbie-bright Chinese chessboards. The other half features an updated version of the old design, a reference to the dynamic flow of old and new in Hong Kong. The amount of seating has quadrupled, jasmine plants and purple fountain grass add scent, and the garden is now a hive of activity for older people.

Two more Design Trust parks will be unveiled over the next year, but the project has already proved so successful that the government has green-lit the rejuvenation of a further 170 parks and playgrounds over the next five years. “People are coming from different districts to see the parks,” says Yui. “They’re making people happy — even the bureaucrats are smiling.”

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