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Instagram Pier and the Right to the City

By Carine Lai, researcher, WYNG Foundation

What is the “right to the city”? The phrase comes from the title of a book written by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968. In it, he critiqued the commodification of urban space, which he characterised as a conflict between “use values” (i.e. the value of a space to its users) and “exchange values” (i.e. the value of a space as an commodity). 


He criticised politicians, corporations and architects for building cities to maximise economic growth, while ignoring the needs of the people who lived in them. While he was writing about 1960s France, these problems are a product of industrialised capitalist economies, and we can certainly find plenty of examples in present-day Hong Kong. 350 square foot flats advertised as having 500 square feet, old neighbourhoods demolished to make way for luxury flats for absent investors, and shopping malls with nowhere to sit are all examples of places built for profits, not people. 


Lefebvre proposed “the right to the city” to put the everyday lives of urban residents at the centre of urban development. In the 1990s, social movements and grassroots organisations around the world embraced this concept to call for a more just, inclusive and sustainable form of urbanisation. As a result of this activism, it was acknowledged in the New Urban Agenda for sustainable cities adopted at the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in 2016.  


The right to the city is a collective, participatory right. As the economic geographer David Harvey wrote, “The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire.” Here in Hong Kong, we are far away from achieving this vision. Hong Kong’s urban planning system is very top-down. Not only is the entire Town Planning Board appointed by the Chief Executive, many big picture planning decisions appears to have already been made by the time the public sees them on local Outline Zoning Plans.  When public consultations are held, discussions are limited to predefined questions and feedback seems to disappear into a black box.


Despite these barriers, people have managed to make themselves heard in small but significant ways. Instagram Pier is one such example. Lefebvre wrote that people should not only have a right to formal participation in decision-making, they should also be able to appropriate space, i.e. to access, use, and modify it according to their own needs. At the pier, people took a space that was not meant for them, and through daily, sustained, inventive use, made it their own. 

It was probably not a coincidence that Kennedy Town, where Instagram Pier is located, became a locus for some of Hong Kong’s most active public space advocacy in recent years. In 2015-17, community concern groups campaigned to save the Cadogan Street Temporary Garden, a small park with the only unfenced lawn in the neighbourhood, from redevelopment into residential buildings. It was a rare success; in 2017, the Town Planning Board rejected the redevelopment proposal and kept the park’s zoning as open space. A year later, community groups again successfully convinced the District Council and the Development Bureau to scale down plans to turn decommissioned berths at the pier into a community garden, a plan that would have reduced public access. After intense public objections, the government scaled down the garden by 80%, leaving the rest to be redeveloped into an open promenade.


The new promenade at Belcher Bay reflects, to the extent that the government will allow, the flexibility of the former cargo pier. Its design is radically simple, with temporary furniture and blue plastic pallets that people can move around as they please. Its rules are much more relaxed than usual: children wheel the pallets around as though they were shopping carts in an empty car park, while teenagers practise skateboard tricks and residents walk their dogs. Simply by existing, Instagram pier made an unexpected impact by demonstrating new possibilities and shifting mindsets. 


If you look carefully, you might notice other places where people are quietly asserting their right to the city by adapting spaces to their own purposes. It might be an old sofa at a bus stop, a collection of Buddha statues on a hillside, a wooden ladder down to a swimming shack, or a bamboo mahjong shelter built by neighbourhood elderly folk. In doing so, they are telling us what they need. As a society, we could ignore them and carry on producing urban space according to the logic of our capitalistic, top-down bureaucracy. Or we could listen. 


Image courtesy of Pierfrancesco Celada, Instagrampier project