It was probably inevitable that the budget for the West Kowloon Cultural District park would be cut. With projected cost overruns for the arts hub that are expected to be compounded by delays on the MTR’s high-speed railway, Norman Foster’s vision of an urban forest has now been replaced with a series of open lawns.
Unlike essential transport infrastructure or iconic arts venues, the park can be seen as a mere extra. This is both unfortunate and ironic as it was probably the only aspect of the contentious project that consistently received strong public support.
The architectural team responsible for the park defended the new, less expensive design by saying “this is a park in a cultural district, not a replica of nature”. They went on to highlight the numerous performance and exhibition venues that would be provided, including an outdoor stage and black box performance space, a large lawn where events can be held, an arts pavilion, and more event spaces on the waterfront.
But, to borrow a phrase, they can’t see the wood for the trees. While they are correct to point out that trees alone do not make a good park, neither does having a cultural theme.
What makes a successful urban park is the usability of the space and the diversity of activities. This is especially important for a park located at the tip of a peninsula, cut off by major roads from nearby neighbourhoods.
One major benefit of Foster’s forest would have been the effect on the microclimate. Hong Kong’s climate is swelteringly hot from June to September, and the extensive tree cover would have made the heat bearable during these months. The danger of a park consisting of big lawns is that it will be avoided during the summer.
Additionally, performance and exhibition spaces are all well and good, but there needs to be other things to do when they are not in use. People need a reason to go, even when there are no special events scheduled.
New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge Park offers an excellent example of a vibrant waterfront park. It has barbecue pits and bicycle paths, children’s playgrounds, even a tiny temporary swimming pool, and caters to paddle-boarding, kayaking, fishing, ball sports and roller skating. There is a small beach with artificial tidal pools, where visitors can learn about marine ecology. There are also cafes, bars and ice cream shops dotted along the waterfront, which offers a view of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. All kinds of recreational and educational activities take place regularly, from movie nights to bird-watching and astronomy.
It is encouraging that the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is considering a liberal and flexible approach to park management. Instead of long lists of rules, people are likely to be allowed to sit on the grass, bring pets and have picnics. This will be a good start.
However, in addition to thinking about what people can do that won’t break the rules, the authority should go further to expand the list of possibilities and plan for the activities. Hong Kong has a rare chance to create a world-class park. We should not let it go to waste.