We Own The City? Or Don’t We?

Jessica wrote this piece for the HKIA Journal 2013 • Issue 66 about our collaboration with the University of Hong Kong #weownthecity
by Jessica Niles DeHoff

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When architect and professor Tris Kee took a trip to Amsterdam last year, she was not expecting it to have an impact on her professional year to come. A Hong Kong native who lived and worked in the Netherlands for several years, Kee had returned to Amsterdam for a simple vacation. Like most architects, however, Kee often incorporates some aspect of “architourism” into her trips, and this was no exception. She stopped into the offices of ARCAM (the Architecture Center of Amsterdam) and viewed “We Own the City,” an exhibition exploring grass-roots design initiatives in the city.

As the director of Hong Kong University’s Community Project Workshop, Kee was immediately interested and knew that she had to bring this exhibition to Hong Kong. Thus began a several-months-long collaboration with ARCAM and its partner in creating the exhibition,CITIES, an Amsterdam-based “research unit for urban observers.”

On March 7, the modified exhibition opened in Hong Kong with a one-day symposium that brought together local and international architects and planners. Symposium speakers ranged from government officials, including the Consul General of the Netherlands – who pointed out that both Hong and Amsterdam rely on reclaimed land – and the director of Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority, to high-profile architects and academics.

Ada Fung, Deputy Director of Hong Kong’s Housing Authority, described her department’s efforts to engage with their project’s tenants and surrounding communities as a two-way street: listening to resident opinions is important, she stressed, but so is communicating the design intent of the project and the Housing Authority’s receptivity to public opinion. Under her leadership, the Housing Authority has even sought to bring financial partners and construction workers into the process.

Perhaps the most forceful speaker of the day was Peter Cookson Smith, a noted academic and President of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. He cautioned against too much redevelopment – which tends to be Hong Kong’s default mode of building – by pointing out that “if we redevelop we won’t have communities – we won’t have anybody to plan with” and moreover the city will lose areas of contrast and heritage. Though the Hong Kong Government is beginning to engage in the process of public consultation, he feels that more engagement is needed; as of now, “the process is discredited – it makes the public cynical.” Cookson Smith suggested that “we need to give more credence to the social processes

of the city” and focus on process rather than product.

The exhibition remained on view until March 21, 2013 displaying urban development and community planning initiatives in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. The venue, the headquarters of the Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), was an appropriate environment in which to appreciate the show. The Community Planning Workshop is now working with CITIES on a book outlining methods for top-down and bottom- up design collaboration; it should be published later this year.



About the author

Jessica Niles DeHoff

Jessica Niles DeHoff is an American architect currently teaching at the University of Hong Kong. She recently worked with the curatorial team for Tri-ciprocal Cities: The Time, The Place, The People, for the 2012 Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture.


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