Hong Kong’s public-housing planning has changed drastically over the years, with some saying that older estates are better thought out and more “people-friendly”.
Sha Tin, considered one of the more successfully planned new towns, has borne witness to the changes: 19 public housing estates have been built there between 1972 and 2011.
Now people will have the chance to judge those changes for themselves as a non-governmental organisation is about to start conducting guided tours through the district’s different neighbourhoods.
Each estate, like Lek Yuen, built in 1972, and Wo Che – the biggest public estate in Sha Tin, built in 1977 with 6,200 households – was planned with its own primary and secondary schools, cooked-food markets, gardens, locally run shops and wet market.
“It’s a very self-sustaining model of community, where residents’ needs can be fulfilled within their neighbourhood, and they don’t need to travel too far out to find what they need,” says Patrick Lee Wai-pong, Sha Tin resident and project officer at the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage, or Cache for short.
Lee is leading the tours, starting in mid-February, under the association’s “Embracing Heritage – Jockey Club Community Cultural Heritage Programme”.
The idea comes at a time when the government is gearing up to boost construction of public flats. In his policy address, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying promised to build 100,000 flats in the five years from 2018 to help meet the needs of 200,000 people on the waiting list.
Lee, who as a student wrote his university thesis on the evolution of Sha Tin’s public estates, called for the new estates to return to being more community-oriented, saying the designs for public estates in the past created more spacious and self-sustaining neighbourhoods.
“The gaps between buildings are bigger; there are more open spaces for leisure,” he said.
Older building designs, like the “twin-tower design” popular in the late 1970s, are shaped like a square doughnut with a hole in the middle to let in light.
It also meant neighbours could easily peer into flats opposite, which, while it led to some complaints about lack of privacy, also seemed to foster a sense of community, Lee said.
Since then, estates have tended to be taller and more enclosed because of pressures of a shrinking land supply and a growing population.
A Housing Authority spokeswoman said each public housing estate came with its own set of restrictions according to its location, and so facilities varied.
Wo Che resident Joshua Lam Key, 26, said the estate might be old but its facilities were more than adequate.
“The area is very well planned, with dai pai dong areas and a great community vibe,” said Lam, who grew up on Sha Tin’s public estates.
“The new ones do look prettier and are more modern, but the older ones have bigger open spaces and a warmer feeling to them.”
One big change to affect public estates within the last decade was The Link Reit’s takeover of their retail spaces, with rents rising as a result.
Lam said: “Since The Link took over, all the older shops have gone. You now find the big chain stores like Mos Burger, Giordano and Jusco here at the malls.”
He said goods were still just about affordable “but if it gets any more expensive, I won’t be able to afford it”.
A liberal studies teacher, who has taught in Sha Tin for 17 years but would not be named due to school restrictions, said the real estate investment trust had brought both good and bad changes.
“All the traditional shops are old,” she said. “The newer shops are more suitable for the students [and teachers], but a lot of childhood memories have gone.”
Cheung Man-keung, who runs the Shing Kee Noodles dai pai dong on Lek Yuen Estate, said: “In the past, it was like a protected cocoon here. Shops were to help the estate to be self-sustaining. Now, they’ll give you the shop space if you can pay the rent. It’s not about the needs of the public any more.”