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Messy UrbanismUnderstanding the "Other" Cities of Asia$

Manish Chalana

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789888208333

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888208333.001.0001

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Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

(p.137) Chapter 8 Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong
Messy Urbanism

Kin Wai Michael Siu

Mingjie Zhu

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Stable, unstable and neutral are three key states of equilibrium to explain a situation. Densely populated urban areas cannot be sufficiently and adequately understood and described by using the only two extreme states of equilibrium, stable and unstable. Instead, there is a middle or third sphere that exists between two poles: neutral. Using Hong Kong, a densely populated urban city, as a core case study and with the supplement of similar cases happened in other cities, this chapter explores the neutral equilibrium of city space. The discussion is based on the findings of long-term and intensive field observations in public spaces. The tactical interactions among different city users and their creative re-construction of spaces to fit their needs and preferences are the focus of the discussion. The chapter argues that city space exists in a neutral state of equilibrium, a dynamic and active situation similar to a cone continuously rolling on a surface. It is a stable but also unstably state of everyday living with continuous transformation through different interactions among city users as well as the environments.

Keywords:   Neutral equilibrium, Tactical interactions, Public space, Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong


Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.0 Map and aerial photographs of Hong Kong and the study site.

Illustrations by Weijia Wang.

In the early 1970s, Russell Ackoff (1974) called modern cities a kind of mess: every issue is interrelated to and interacts with other issues, there is no clear “solution,” there are no universal objective parameters, and sometimes those working on the problems are actually the ones who are creating them. Similarly, Rem Koolhaas (1977) has argued that life in any metropolis represents a culture of congestion and is full of disorder and uncertainty. Yoshinobu Ashihara (1992), a Japanese architect, offered us yet another view of urban messiness using Tokyo’s example to illustrate the various hidden orders resulting from pragmatic needs of the residents, rather than from imposed controls by the government.

These propositions and interpretations of city life stand in sharp contrast to the modernist planning paradigm, which pursues a rational approach based on economic efficiency. This development-oriented approach often results in the neglect of the needs and aspirations of ordinary residents during the design and planning process. Hong Kong is one such city in which tight regulations and the planning and redevelopment authority tends not to seriously consider the complexity of everyday life and the needs and aspirations of its ordinary people (Leung 2004; Siu 2001). During the process of urban renewal led by the Hong Kong Urban Renewal Authority in recent years, increasing numbers of complaints had been made about projects mainly catering to the interests and benefit of developers and landlords, whereas the needs of non–property owners are generally ignored or given a lower priority. This has led to an increasing desire to build a better-quality living community in which the needs of ordinary people come first.

The theory of everyday life has been discussed widely by sociologists, including Henri Lefebvre (1984; 1991) and Michel Maffesoli (1996). In his book The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (1988) holds that in a modern society, everyday life is distinct from other practices of daily existence because it is repetitive and unconscious. He makes a distinction between strategies and tactics: strategies belong to institutions and power structures—the producers, whereas tactics arise from the adaption of consumers to the environment—actions in a constant state of reassessment and correction, based directly on observation of the actual environment. In (p.138) addition to the theory of everyday life, the discourse of phenomenology also provides us with a way to consider the user of space and the place. The noted phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (1964) conceptualized “being” as a “return to things”—a perspective that promotes a comprehensive understanding of living space and user habits, stepping back from any presupposed attitudes and assumptions in the realm of everyday experience or conceptual perspectives and explanations (RTHK 2005).

In a development-oriented urban society like Hong Kong, however, few plans and designs consider the practice of everyday life. Designers addressing design problems related to the public interest tend to follow legal standards and conventional protocols, which may not meet the actual needs and preferences of the majority of users (Kwok 1998). A re-examination of urban space from the perspective of the everyday life of ordinary residents leads us to more humanistic and user-centered considerations, ensuring that individuals’ needs are not overlooked but are treated as relevant and integral to the desired outcomes.

Everyday public life entails many types of conflict (Hsia 1994; Sennett 1970; Weber 2011). Different stakeholders, such as policy makers, city managers, and ordinary people, tend to have different understandings of and perspectives on urban life because of their different interests and purposes. Currently, policy makers in Hong Kong have generally been seeking economic growth and return, and believe that the design of urban space should serve this end. They see rational planning as the only proper means of directing a community toward the ideal of social harmony. In contrast, however, ordinary people are more concerned with issues relating to their everyday life and personal well-being; they criticize the development-oriented approach that seems to give a free hand to policy makers, planners, and developers (Kwok 1998). When these different interests interweave within public space, the space becomes insurgent when citizens undertake actions and challenge conventional views on how urban areas are defined and used (Hou 2010). Wherever there is public space, there is conflict and confrontation, and some are witness to constant guerrilla wars (Siu 2007). The state of space is never still; its power dynamics are constantly changing. In the space of insurgency, the features of “messiness” amplify.

Lately, the Hong Kong government appears to have recognized this desire for supporting everyday life spaces. As indicated in Hong Kong 2030: Planning Vision and Strategy Strategic Environmental Assessment, the city’s past economic successes and prosperity have created not only higher standards of living but also a growing desire in the community for a better living environment (Planning Department 2007). This report indicates that we need to understand what constitutes a desirable living environment and what people really want. In other words, the needs and wants of ordinary residents should be agreed upon and considered in urban design and planning to accommodate practices of everyday life. In fact, in those micro urban spaces, such as back alleys, substreets, corner spaces, and so on, messiness is a key feature. (p.139) To understand the operational mechanism of messiness in urban space is crucial for promoting user-centric urban design and policymaking.

In this chapter we observe public space, specifically business streets in Hong Kong. Through studying the case of Flower Market Road in Hong Kong, we attempt to rethink the everyday messiness of a street: it is not only a physical passage for pedestrians and traffic but also a place for social interactions. Furthermore, we discuss how different stakeholders interact with one another and with the space, and how the space eventually reaches a “neutral equilibrium” through their tactical interactions.

Streets and Public Spaces in Hong Kong

Paths—the streets, sidewalks, trails, and other channels along which people travel—are a key component of any city’s image (Lynch 1960). In Hong Kong, the streets enhance the image of the city and express the authentic urban life, especially in the older districts where they showcase local culture and historical references. In that regard, a street is less a means of physical passage or circulation and more a carrier of human activities and interactions and integral to the ways of life of local residents. Hong Kong has many streets that are closely related to the daily lives of residents. Battery Street, for example, contains a jade market selling traditional ornaments at bargain prices; Kausu Street has a wholesale fruit market where people gather to watch workers move large volumes of fruit with rapid speed; Temple Street is famous for its night market, with more than two hundred stalls selling all sorts of traditional, cultural, and everyday items; and Sai Yeung Choi Street South is a gathering place for buskers and street performers and a hot spot where local residents and visitors from the Chinese mainland can buy fashionable cosmetics and digital products.

However, challenges to urban streets and street culture are increasing, and urban development and daily street life remain at odds. Under the current program of urban renewal, many street vendors and markets with long histories and abundant local flavor have been forced to relocate from their traditional locations. Cases include Sheung Wan (a long-standing flea market), Gilman Street (a variety of shops selling cotton prints), and Lee Tung Street (local shops, including some that produce unique Chinese traditional wedding invitation cards). In ancient times street vendors made great contributions to urban prosperity, and even today they continue to enhance shopping diversity and complement the shopping malls, department stores, chain stores, and supermarkets. The positive economic contributions and functional role of these street vendors cannot be ignored, however often the government considers them to be “troublemakers,” going with the middle-class residents’ aspiration for a clean, orderly, and efficient city (McGee 1973). As a result of government enforcement, the number of unlicensed vendors (commonly called illegal hawkers) in Hong (p.140) Kong has gradually declined in recent years, and this decline is expected to continue (Figure 8.1).

Shop front extensions (SFEs) have been a very common phenomenon in Hong Kong. These broadly refer to the occupation by shops (including food premises) of public spaces in front of or adjacent to their premises for the purpose of conducting or facilitating business activities (Home Affairs Department 2014). The Hong Kong government maintains that such extensions occur at the expense of road access, safety, and environmental hygiene and impact the overall quality of city life. In 2014, there were forty-five places considered to be “black spots” in terms of the excessiveness of SFEs. These are mainly located in commercial areas and old districts such as Kowloon, Wan Chai, and Mong Kok. In these places, boxes of tissue paper and milk powder pile out of pharmacies, fruit stalls occupy footpaths, and alfresco dining areas extend out from restaurants. In recent years the Hong Kong government has made additional efforts to manage SFEs without giving much consideration to the needs of the shopkeepers and potential impacts to the local economy.

As an immigrant city, demands from new and different city users in Hong Kong are emerging. For example, newcomers from the Chinese mainland and immigrants from foreign countries require housing as well as public environments. At the same time, increasing numbers of senior citizens living in Hong Kong seek better living communities (including public spaces) for themselves, while tourists wish to experience an attractive city with local characteristics. These seemingly conflicting demands raise new challenges for the city—how can the design of cityscapes accommodate

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.1 The number of unlicensed vendors from 1994 to 2013.

Source: Government of Hong Kong SAR, Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

(p.141) the needs of different users in the future, and what appropriate, democratic design practices are available to facilitate the design process?

With regard to tackling the complexity and messiness of everyday life in the city, the design and planning of Hong Kong’s public spaces are still in their infancy. The government’s primary concern has largely been with the quantity rather than the quality of public space (Leung and Siu 2005). There is a growing need for public spaces with a degree of “user-fitness” (Siu 2003). In a nutshell, design should serve the needs of everyday life as well as the aspirations of multiple user groups, rather than focusing just on making the city more efficient.

Case Study: Flower Market Road

Flower Market Road is presented as a case study here to illustrate the constant conflict in the practice of everyday public life. Flower Market Road is a public space that reflects many user expectations, needs, preferences, values, interactions, conflicts, and opportunities. This study focuses on the various stakeholders in the Flower Market Road and their interactions with each other and with the environment. The stakeholders here include the shopkeepers, customers, residents, and the city government, mainly Hawker Control Teams (also called General Affairs Teams) and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD). By observing the daily routines of stakeholders, especially those of shop owners and shopkeepers, we learn about their operations, particularly how they engage everyday tactics to resolve problems of insufficient space and social conflicts. Through this research, we seek to understand the background of Flower Market Road, in terms of its history, culture, development, and future plans for the street; the situation of the Flower Market at different times of the day (before opening, during operational hours, during closing and after closing); and the conflicts between the various stakeholders and the diverse tactics used to arrive at a neutral equilibrium around street use. We also aim to identify the possibility of integrating individual activities into the urban environment and its implications for urban design. This case study provides us with a deeper understanding of the social and political interactions and the tactics of ordinary people in a controlled public space.

The research team carried out ethnographic fieldwork on weekdays and weekend days from 2013 to 2014. We observed the street and took photos and videos at different times throughout the day. These photos and videos became the primary materials for analysis, but data from secondary sources were also included. We collected and reviewed information from newspapers to understand the reporting of conflicts occurring at the Flower Market Road. We also conducted participant observations by posing as customers and speaking with shop owners and shopkeepers casually to (p.142) learn about their daily operations and gather their views on the current policies and the street environment.

The Flower Market is located in the northeast part of Mong Kok, within walking distance from the mass transit railway station. Mong Kok, meaning “prosperous point” in Chinese, epitomizes the local culture of Hong Kong. It was once a village with a long history of planting flowers and is now characterized by a mix of old and new retail shops and themed shopping streets with a great variety of consumer products at affordable prices. The themed streets include Tung Choi Street, Sneaker Street, Temple Street, Bird Street, Fa Yuen Street, Goldfish Street, Tile Street, Photocopy Street, and Flower Market Road. These streets present a unique side of Hong Kong and are some of the most popular shopping areas for both tourists and residents. Like other older districts, however, Mong Kok also faces many urban issues, such as a lack of publicly accessible open space, heavily used roadways, and a lack of greenery.

The Flower Market contains wholesale and retail businesses, with more than a hundred shops, of which fifty are flower shops. Four side streets make up the remainder of the market, Yuen Po Street, Yuen Ngai Street, Prince Edward Road West, and Flower Market Road (Figure 8.2). The Flower Market area is a mix of commercial and residential areas where shops on the ground floor sell flowers, trees, plants, vases, containers, seeds, and garden tools.

The market has a rich history. About a hundred years ago, a flower market was established near the ancient village of Mong Kok where flowers were cultivated;

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.2 Vendors selling their wares on a footpath.

Photograph by Kin Wai Michael Siu and Mingjie Zhu.

(p.143) today’s Flower Market is still in the same location on the Flower Market Road. Many of the florist businesses are still family run and have been selling flowers for decades. Flower Market is its official English name. Locals call it Fa Hui (花墟‎), which better expresses the traditional image of a local market place. In Cantonese, hui (墟‎) refers to small-scale local markets for commercial activities which operates occasionally. It is currently still an aspect of local economic and social life in Hong Kong for instant flower markets and dawn markets in some districts though it is not as popular as before.

Flowers are used to express many different cultural meanings (Goody 1993; Hyde 2005). They are widely used in different social practices, such as decoration, medicine, and cooking and for their scent. They are also linked with establishing, maintaining, and even ending relationships, both with the living and with the dead (Goody 1993). In Hong Kong, flowers are in high demand during festivals and on special occasions. The Chinese New Year is the most important festival for displaying flowers. People believe that flowers and blossoms represent prosperity. During the New Year festival, flocks of locals throng the streets to buy flowers. On Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and during the Ching Ming Memorial Festival and other important events, most city streets including the Flower Market Road is bustling with activities and shoppers. Although a small piece of a much larger urban fabric, the Flower Market plays an important role in the daily life of the city dwellers.

The architectural setting and buildings in the Flower Market have been recognized as cultural property and classified as Grade 2 historical buildings by the Antiquities Advisory Board in 2009. The building type is called tong lau (唐樓‎) in Cantonese and consists of a row of four attached dwelling units. Shops occupy the ground floors with residences above. The tong lau in the Flower Market are prewar tenement buildings built by a Belgian company in the early 1930s and were considered to be modern flats for the middle class at that time. After World War II, ten of the sixteen buildings were preserved, and these now form the largest collection of attached tenement buildings in Hong Kong.

Space Conflicts and Tactics in the Flower Market

The main conflicts in the Flower Market are those caused by competition over space. Most shop owners complain, with reason, that there is inadequate space for their wares. As plants require sunlight to remain healthy, shop owners have to move them out of the shops along both sides of the footpath, leaving only a narrow pathway for pedestrians (Figure 8.3). In response, a recent government information campaign urged shops to provide a “route for people to pass through” (Town Planning Board 2011). Also, delivery vehicles come to the market three times a day (morning, noon, and afternoon) to deliver fresh flowers. These vehicles inevitably occupy the parking (p.144)

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.3 A narrow pathway on Flower Market Street.

Photograph by Kin Wai Michael Siu and Mingjie Zhu.

spaces of private cars owned by residents of the district, which leads to conflicts. The Hawker Control Teams of the FEHD, which is the main official enforcement agencies in the Flower Market, patrols the street twice a day to look for street obstructions and impose fines (Table 8.1).

Tension among shopkeepers, Hawker Control Teams, and residents of the Flower Market area has been ongoing as a result of the mix of commercial and residential usage. Residents find it inconvenient to walk through the streets because of the obstructions due to flowers and goods, and the streets are constantly wet because the shopkeepers need to water their pots and spray the flowers. Residents also complain that the flower shops cause environmental hygiene problems because they produce a large quantity of organic debris. According to statistics from the FEHD and the Hong Kong Police Force, there have been 277 anonymous complaints about SFEs in the Flower Market during the three years leading up to April 2013 (Apple Daily 2013). As shop owners are being warned and fined much more frequently than before, there was a strong protest early in 2014 to complain about this government policy, which is seen by shop owners and business supporters as unreasonable and unfair.

Faced with a fixed amount of space and tight regulations, shopkeepers in the Flower Market have developed their own tactics to make their business space highly efficient and effective. They install sunshades and parasols to prevent plants from getting too much sunshine at certain times of the day; they know how to move flowerpots in and (p.145)

Table 8.1 Daily routines in the Flower Market. Photographs by Kin Wai Michael Siu and Mingjie Zhu.


Around 6:00 a.m., most of the wholesale flower markets are open. Flowers are put into buckets in front of the shops. Female workers carry flowers into the shops and chat with each other. It seems to be a happy social time for them.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

The shops on Flower Market Road are still closed. The whole street is peaceful and orderly.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong


Most of the shops and stalls on Flower Market Road open at 9:30. Before opening, they need to prepare for business, setting up flowers, pots, and containers inside and outside, cutting branches and watering the flowers. The preparations are completed around 9:00, and the streets begin to get busy. The flow of vehicles and pedestrians increases.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong


After 9:30, more people come to the market and the whole area starts to get busy. Most of the shops have two shop assistants, one preparing the flowers and the other selling them to customers. Around 11:30 a.m., a Hawker Control Team patrols the street to check the shop front extensions.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong


In the afternoon, there are still many customers. At around 14:00, tired shopkeepers rest in their shops. Quite a few of them appear to be bored; as business is not as busy as before, they play games on their mobile phones or chat with their neighbors and regular customers. Around 16:00, Hawker Control Team officers again come to the market to see whether the flowers and plants have blocked the streets. As the business day ends, customers are more able to haggle over the price of goods.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

(p.146) 19:30–22:00

Business hours last until 19:30. Shop owners and shopkeepers spend about half an hour moving flowers inside and then clean the crosswalks in front of the shops. Scrap collectors appear on the street to collect any cartons and other profitable refuse. Around 20:00, government watering carts arrive and clean the whole street. The last shop closes around 22:00.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong


The Flower Market is peaceful and silent at night until the early morning.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.4 On the two sides of the street, there are different types of flower displays, made of various materials such as plastic boxes, steel frames, and wooden pallets. This setting provides additional space for storing and displaying flowers and bonsai. The display normally occupies half of the pedestrian footpath, and this tactical spatial arrangement appears to be appreciated by customers as they can choose flowers much more easily.

Photograph by Kin Wai Michael Siu and Mingjie Zhu.

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.5 A woman drags a flowerpot back to her shop very quickly and easily using an iron hook. It takes her twenty minutes to close the shop. Very little rubbish is left on the street after the close of business.

Photograph by Kin Wai Michael Siu and Mingjie Zhu.

(p.147) out in a quick and efficient way, they use carts to store and display their flowers, and they have their own methods to prevent theft overnight (Figures 8.4 and 8.5).

SFEs are common in the Flower Market because the market was designed with “standard” dimensions for typical retail. There was no consideration of the special needs of the shops in the Flower Market, for example, additional light and storage room for plants and materials and working space to deal with flowers and trees. The current design is insufficient in meeting the needs of the users.

Furthermore, shop owners and officials have different understandings of “efficiency.” For the shop owners and shopkeepers, efficiency means having as much space as possible; for the government and its officials, efficiency implies that spaces are ordered and organized and do not contravene ordinances (e.g., land-use ordinances and business-operation ordinances). Because of these different expectations, conflicts and confrontations over space are inevitable. Another major cause of conflict involves the different expectations regarding environmental quality between the shop owners and the residents living in the upper floors and nearby. The former see the street as a place to carry out their business activities, whereas for the latter it is place for daily living with convenient access. Because of these different expectations, conflicts ensue.

Discussion: Neutral Equilibrium in Public Spaces

In physics there are three states of equilibrium of a body—stable, unstable, and neutral equilibrium (Fundamental Physics 2015) In a stable equilibrium, a small deviation of the body from this state leads to the emergence of forces or moments of force that tend to return the body to the state of equilibrium. In an unstable equilibrium, a small deviation of the body from the equilibrium state gives rise to forces that tend to increase this deviation. In a neutral equilibrium, the body remains in equilibrium despite small deviations (Figure 8.6).

Neutral Equilibrium in Public Space: Mong Kok Flower Market, Hong Kong

Figure 8.6 Three states of equilibrium.

Figure by Kin Wai Michael Siu.

(p.148) In the case of Flower Market Road, the various stakeholders have their own tactics to maintain a state of neutral equilibrium. Equilibrium theory suggests that when the city government makes a strict policy for a space and enforces this policy, the space should presumably be in a stable equilibrium. However, as users of the space are more concerned with their personal interests, they develop tactics against the policy, the equilibrium state of the space becomes unstable, and messiness is thus produced. Yet, as described in this chapter, the various stakeholders have actually attempted to maintain a careful balance between regulatory control and everyday needs to avoid the escalation of conflicts. The space is thus set to be in a state of neutral equilibrium—between multiple stakeholders to keep the messiness within a controllable range.

Specifically, as the government (the policy makers and officials) set up and implement strict command-and-control policies and regulations forbidding the obstruction of streets (the existing regulations state that any person or vehicle that obstructs a public place and causes inconvenience or danger is liable to a fine of HK$5,000 or imprisonment for three months, see Summary Offences Ordinance, Cap 228 s 4A, Obstruction of Public Places), it is also aware that such a policy and its implementation can potentially result in dissatisfaction and unrest. Therefore, a flexible approach to enforcement is adopted, recognizing that different situations and occasions call for different kinds of interventions.

For example, an agreement between the government and shop owners states that during closure of the road on festival days, shops may extend their business areas beyond the yellow hatched markings on the street (normally a forbidden area), on the condition that emergency vehicle and pedestrian access are not obstructed. This policy has been implemented in the Yau-Tsim-Mong District since 2007. The government also uses mass media to encourage shop owners to give room for the public to pass, which is more a method of persuasion than a warning. To review its policies and practices, the Home Affairs Department has carried out public consultations since March 2014 on whether to adopt fixed penalties for street obstruction.

During their daily operations, Hawker Control Teams usually give verbal warnings to hawkers before taking the standard path of enforcement and seizure to reduce the level of disruptions to the merchants. Hawker Control Team operations are monitored by the Office of the Ombudsman Hong Kong. However, the executive summary of a recent investigation into regulatory measures and enforcement actions against street obstruction by shops has criticized the predominant but ineffective use of warnings by Hawker Control Teams.

Compared with law enforcement officers, shop owners are still the weaker side in this semiguerrilla warfare. Most merchants have suffered from increased competition from other vendors, soaring rents, and Hawker Control Teams patrolling at irregular intervals. In the past two years, shop owners have observed that pressure from the (p.149) public and from government policy is becoming stronger than before. As statistics from the Office of the Ombudsman Hong Kong show, the proportion of prosecutions and warnings was 1:8 in 2011 and 1:6 in 2013. Thus, shop owners and business supporters decided to take more active and direct actions to express their views and needs. For example, they have protested more explicitly against the summons (Apple Daily 2014a; 2014b) while still making sure the situation is under control.

Shop owners know that by extending their business areas they are confronting not only the government but also local residents. They also know that their views and expectations are quite different from those of most residents as well as visitors from other districts. Thus, although shop owners and shopkeepers try to occupy more public space for business, they also try to minimize confrontation by cleaning the public areas after use. When shopkeepers notice that nearby residents are less tolerant of obstructions created by their wares, they reduce their business areas slightly to provide more space in which people can move.

According to our observations and interviews, residents living in the Flower Market area have different attitudes toward street obstruction. Some residents complained that the obstructions caused them inconvenience and occasionally forced them to walk on the road, which is dangerous, particularly for children, older people, and people with disabilities. A recent public opinion poll carried out by the Democratic Party of Hong Kong revealed that 93 percent of respondents hoped that the government would take stronger enforcement measures. Meanwhile, other residents were more positive about the situation. Some of those interviewed said that the current spatial practice of the Flower Market creates the feeling and atmosphere of a traditional flower market. The flowers along both sides of the footpath allow customers and visitors to feel as if they are immersed in a sea of flowers. One woman said that she was quite happy living in a fragrant and blooming environment, so the obstruction of the space did not matter to her at all. Regardless of their views, however, residents seldom give support or make complaints directly to shop owners. They understand that such a direct expression of their views might have serious consequences. They are thus more likely to express their views indirectly to district councillors in an effort to maintain their preferred living environment.

According to our observations of the Flower Market Road, the neutral equilibrium of space and spatial uses constitute an art of compromise. In other words, the spatial tactics are collective responses, or a creative reception of space, by the users (Siu 2003). These tactics are not individually stable. Furthermore, they interact with each other and undergo continuous and rapid transformations. As stated above, all of these creative, ordinary daily acts reflect the diverse and dynamic desires, needs, and preferences of different users of the street, and they all become an active driving force for a livable place.

(p.150) Conclusion

As many urban and social researchers have indicated, users are and should be the key factor in any consideration of a place. It is the activity and interaction of people that gives meaning to a space (Castells 1983; Hamel, Lustiger-Thaler, and Mayer 2000; Jacobs 1961; Karp, Yoels and Vann 2004; Martens and Keul 2005). According to reader response theory, a literary work is not an object that stands by itself and offers the same view to each reader every time. On the contrary, reading is always situated within specific conditions and a rereading often actualizes a different work (Baldick 1990; Cuddon 1998; Iser 1978). Users do not always do exactly what the professionals expect them to. This type of response, in de Certeau’s (1988) words, is a reception, tactic, or creative act. Instead of performing as expected, users redefine the meaning, function, and boundary of a space, forcing it to adapt to real life. People develop their own methods, including reconstruction, reterritorialization, rebuilding, reestablishing, reordering, and so on to make spaces more livable (Siu 2013). In the Flower Market, we find that different “readers,” namely shopkeepers, city managers, customers, and residents, have different responses to the environment and the space. The case study findings described above illustrate that the weak will not follow or rely on a prescribed mode of operation when they negotiate their place in the public realm. They employ tactics that are vary over time time-varying and are adaptive and dynamic.

Space is both social and political (Hou 2010; Low and Smith 2006; Serreli 2013). It is full of constant interactions, confrontations, and conflicts (Heywood 2011; Siu 2013; Steger 2012). Once there is conflict, the equilibrium of a space will immediately change, so there is not an absolutely stable space. When a situation becomes unstable, different stakeholders may compromise with each other to achieve a balanced result. We refer to such a balance in space and in spatial practice as a neutral equilibrium.

In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that although professionals can design a physical space based on longstanding assumptions, methods, and techniques while policy makers can formulate policies according to statistical data, they cannot completely control or effectively predict the diverse and dynamic responses of the users of public space. The users have their own spatial interpretations according to their own desires, needs, and preferences. They are not just passive readers but active participants and actors who ensure consciously and unconsciously that a space remains in a neutral equilibrium.

Hong Kong is a densely populated city with many competing demands in a very limited amount of space. What, then, defines the quality of life in such a space-hungry city? To answer this question, we must first ask, What is the meaning of space? What is the main purpose of city management and urban development? According to the case study discussed above, city management and urban development must (p.151) maintain a dynamic balance in terms of physical, social, economic, and cultural matters rather than discounting the matters as messiness and wiping them out of the city. Additionally, we cannot ignore the demands, well-being, and quality of daily life of urban dwellers. To address the conflict arising from the incompatibility of city management and development and the reality of urban life, we should adopt an open attitude so that the real issues may be identified. Furthermore, we must observe city life through a microscopic, everyday lens and pay more attention to the informal use of public space and how people adapt a city to their own ends.

Ultimately, design is not merely a matter of addressing objective and functional goals. It is more about lives that are full of diverse and evolving variables and influences from traditions, religions, customs, experiences, habits, needs, wants, preferences, desires, fantasies, and dreams. We should recognize that there is no perfect situation or golden rule for design especially in addressing complexity of urban issues including messiness. The binary perception of messiness and order may oversimplify the complexity of user interactions. Furthermore, to tackle the phenomena and perceptions of urban messiness, continuous involvement and participation of users in the design process is needed to move toward a design outcome that is user driven and democratic.


We would like to thank the Hong Kong Research Grants Council’s General Research Fund (RGC Ref: 546209), which supported the study. We also thank the School of Design and Research Institute for Sustainable Urban Development of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) for the partial research grants, and the PolyU and Tongji University’s Joint PhD Programme for research support. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology provided a visiting research scholarship during the final preparation of this chapter. Weijia Wang gave assistance in preparing selected images.


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