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What Instagram Pier can teach us about people-friendly design

By Carine Lai, researcher, WYNG Foundation


In 2013, the public cargo working area that would come to be known as Instagram Pier won the  “People Space” category in the Outstanding Public Space Awards, run by Hong Kong Public Space Initiative. Why was this plain industrial pier, which was not even meant to be a public open space recognised for excellence in an urban design contest? And now that it is gone, are there lessons Hong Kong can learn from it about people-friendly design? Here are three things that Instagram Pier taught us.

 

 

  • Keep it simple.

 

Instagram Pier was a working pier. It had no special recreational facilities – no play equipment, no sports pitches, not even any seating. These amenities were not necessary to make it a great place. What it offered was simplicity and flexibility. It was very different from the typical public open space in Hong Kong, which is over-designed and over-programmed. They are carved up into single-use spaces: this path is for walking, this path is for jogging, this field is for football, this slide is for children. This is not to suggest that landscape designers should not bother with any amenities and only provide bare concrete plazas; recreational facilities are necessary and desirable. But not every open space needs to be stuffed full of specialised equipment, and facilities can be designed with multiple purposes. People need flexible spaces that allow them to do many different things.

 

  • Don’t over-regulate

 

At Instagram Pier, there were no official rules, so people had to figure out how to coexist with each other on their own. People fished, rode bikes, walked dogs, skateboarded, took wedding photos and danced. While a few people did inconsiderate or dangerous things which probably contributed to the pier’s eventual closure, the remarkable thing is how well it worked for so long. Pierfrancesco Celada rarely witnessed conflicts over his five years of photographing the pier. Go to an average park, and there will be a long list of rules about the things you cannot do. This is done to avoid conflicts between different users and prevent complaints. Yet this may not have the desired effect – when there are rules for everything, this sends the message that it is the management’s job to resolve all disputes, which encourages people to complain about the smallest problems. Light touch regulation is about setting appropriate expectations. When people know that different activities can take place in the same space, they will adjust accordingly. 

  • Don’t design for the worst case scenario, offer choice

 

One reason why Instagram Pier was so beloved was because it offered stunning views and an unparalleled sense of openness and closeness to the sea. The pier protruded out into the water and for a long time was the only place on Victoria Harbour’s waterfront not surrounded by railings. It might surprise you that despite many people riding bicycles and skateboarding on the pier, nobody ever fell into the water. But this ignores a crucial element of human psychology: when an environment feels dangerous, people are more careful. This is the principle behind “shared space” road design, which is popular in The Netherlands. In a shared space, most road signs, railings and traffic lights are removed from an intersection, allowing vehicles, pedestrians, and bicycles to mix. The result is that everyone slows down, and accident rates actually decrease. 

 

In Hong Kong, public open spaces are usually designed for the worst case scenario: that a total idiot will hurt themself and sue the government. This produces boring, predictable, unengaging spaces, which are not necessarily that much safer. In the case of children’s playgrounds, experts now say that unchallenging, padded playgrounds don’t actually reduce accidents, but fail to teach children to evaluate risks. Public spaces should be free of hazards, which are unexpected dangers such as nails sticking out of benches, but people should be allowed to manage their own risks. When the government extended the official promenade to the Western Wholesale Food Market in 2018, researchers noticed that older adults and families with children tended to head towards the official promenade with railings, while young adults and groups of friends went to the cargo pier. People selected the level of risk that they were comfortable with.

These lessons are starting to be applied, cautiously, in various places around the city. Newer parks like Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park provide larger areas of green lawn that people can walk, sit, and play games on. They are extremely popular on weekends. The West Kowloon Art Park allows a wide range of activities like dog walking, cycling, kite flying and roller skating. Certain stretches of the Central to Kennedy Town waterfront now allow dogs, skateboarding, and children’s scooters. We are also starting to see some railing-free stretches of waterfront at West Kowloon and in Tsuen Wan, where the government has decided that a railing is not necessary if there are rocks gradually sloping down to the water. While none of these places can quite replace the uniqueness of Instagram Pier, they are a step in the right direction. Let’s hope that Instagram Pier is not forgotten. 

 

Image courtesy of Pierfrancesco Celada, Instagrampier project