Particularly in Hong Kong, urban renewal has usually been seen as a process of gentrification, or simply of making physical changes to neighbourhoods and redeveloping dilapidated buildings.
In her contribution to the Cities and Governance webinar series, Professor Mee Kam Ng who is Vice-chairman of the Department of Geography and Resource Management, and the Director of the Urban Studies Programme, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, challenged this approach.
Prof Ng advocated putting the strengthening of communities, and the well-being of individuals, first and acknowledging that humans can still flourish in older urban buildings and spaces. Central to her argument was the concept of ‘kainos’.
Kainos and community
The kainos version of urban renewal involves the internal transformation of a community. Prof Ng described this type of transformation as one grounded in place-based knowledge that produces ‘planet, place and people friendly’ environmental qualities that nourish people’s multifaceted well-being.
The long-established World Health Organisation’s definition holds that health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. Prof Ng said that for humans to flourish we also require distributive justice, environmental flourishing, conviviality of social and cultural life, and inclusion in public life – and these requirements imply the need for a more sophisticated and sensitive approach to urban and territorial planning, and urban renewal. “It’s very important to understand the relationship between space, place and human flourishing,” she said.
In order to flourish, we need places where we can relate to each other. These places come to have meaning for us, and become part of our identity and have significance for our well-being.
So along with an emphasis on biophilic elements, such as trees, plants, grass, natural and man-made water features, the design of urban spaces, and the planning of transport and movement networks, has to prioritise sociopetal spaces, where areas, buildings, rooms and furniture, are designed to bring people together.
Prof Ng pointed out that place-making takes time and old locations can have a great potential for self-renewal. She then went on to describe the kainos approach suitable in four different types of district.
Urban renewal for districts with strong social and economic capital
The first instance considered was a district whose buildings and infrastructure are ageing, but which has good Kainos qualities, and strong social and economic capital. In this case, Prof Ng recommended that planners leave the community alone to take care of itself, apart from, possibly, helping it strengthen the natural elements in the environment. “Maybe they just need to add some green spaces and improve biodiversity,” she suggested.
Prof Ng characterised her next example as the most difficult to handle. Here she described an area that, again, benefitted from strong social and economic capital, but in this instance was physically dilapidated. Handle with care was the essence of Prof Ng’s advice, as within such a decaying environment was a strong community, something that it takes a long time to build. She did, though, have some specific measures to be considered for a kainos-type renewal. She recommended unslumming by improving the internal living environment, putting rules and regulations in place to restrict the sub-division of homes, and making property maintenance obligatory. Prof Ng also advocated rehabilitating buildings to preserve their lives, and for local communities to be encouraged, and facilitated by legislative, administrative and financial means, to renew their buildings and facilities, through the establishment of co-operative housing and a process of land re-adjustment, in order to maintain existing social ties and networks.
Urban renewal for districts with weak social and economic capital
In areas where the community ties are weak, there are few economic activities, and the buildings and facilities are old, a renewal process based on kainos principles would seek to establish sustainable communities, encourage diversity and difference, and knit separate parts of the area together with public buildings and open spaces. Diversity could manifest itself in a range of economic and social activities, and in differing built forms, Prof Ng said. “Diversity breeds diversity.”
The creation of streets markets, for example, can bring vitality to such a district by combining economic and social functions, and helping to foster a stronger community network.
The simplest type of district to tackle, Prof Ng said, was one in which the buildings and facilities are falling apart, the social ties and the sense of community are weak, and there is little economic capital. Here, the residents usually have few problems with being relocated, and the area can be rebuilt with kainos qualities. At a district level, the aim would be to generate vitality and variety on the streets, introduce biophilic elements to green the environment, integrate traffic and transport into the planning, and ensure new buildings are designed with sustainability in mind. Existing buildings with re-use potential can be adapted to improve the quality of their internal living spaces.
In both these instances, whether the buildings are merely old or they’re dilapidated, Prof Ng said the goal is to green the environment, construct sociopetal spaces, and create sustainable communities with kainos qualities.