Saturday, November 15, 2008

City in a Garden Revisited

Those who know me well (or even cursorily) will know my very public loathing for Peter Cooper Village/Stuyvessant Town. Robert Moses' unprovoked assault on Manhattan's Lower East Side (aka the Lower, my dukes) has blighted the otherwise magnificent skyline irreparably. The cookie-cutter towers spaced among empty grass lots were supposed to put a blighted urban 'slum' back into touch with nature (and maybe even help to reform those paupers!). But even the most manicured lawn is not nature, and all that Moses' City-in-a-Garden accomplished was to destroy the cultural, political, and economic fabric of urban society.

With this bitter pill still on my tongue, I considered my move to Tin Shui Wai in Hong Kong something of a personal challenge. Tin Shui Wai, or "City of Misery" as it it sometimes called, is the north-westernmost town in Hong Kong's expansive New Territories, and like all of Hong Kong's 'new towns,' it is vertical, isolated, and from my Brooklyn-grime-loving perspective, eerily Kafkaesque.

The 'town' consists of about fifty towers, divided into about a dozen developments. I'm living in one of the oldest ones, at eight years old. From the 18th floor, I have an expansive view of about a dozen more forty-storey buildings. What is particularly remarkable about this level of density is that Tin Shui Wai is only one of dozens of these types of developments in Hong Kong. Urban-style development as New Yorkers might consider it stopped at the pre-1890s Hong Kong border. In fact, just over half of Hong Kong's 6.9 million people live in similar-styled housing developments in the New Territories. For example, just two stops down on the metro is Tuen Mun, where 550,000 people live.

Here's the clincher:
Getting around is incredibly easy. True, the only way in or out of Tin Shui Wai is via bus or rail. I can see China from my window, but even researching how to stroll over to the waterline is an exercise in complexity. But Hong Kong has made massive investments in public transport infrastructure. Given the considerable distance between my room and Central Station on Hong Kong Island, it is a wonder that I can be there in 45 minutes. This is like living in Sheepshead Bay and getting to midtown, with one transfer, reliably in 45 minutes. The stations are clean, spacious and intuitive, trains run regularly, and the system is thoroughly utilized. Even in this distant enclave few people own cars. I know people in Williamsburg who own cars.

Gosh, I wont even go into the other environmental benefits. Suffice it to say, they are plenty.

But this raises a terrible dilemma. Sure its fun to read Jane Jacobs and fantasize about the complexity of an organic and unfettered urban culture. Social laissez-faire. But as much as I love NYC's Subway (and i love the subway), Hong Kong's works better (of course it closes at midnight, but thats another rant). Where does planning work, and where does it fail? Hong Kong is a natural stage for this question, caught between the centralized Chinese and drunk-on-liberty colonial British political cultures, and it is a question I hope to more thoroughly flesh out here in the future.


  1. any chance of you posting a picture of the transit maps from out there?


    That was the verification word. It sounded cool.

  2. massive infrastructure investment. That sounds like a good idea!!