Signs of Unrest

Months of protests leave a mark on Hong Kong’s streetscapes.

By Chermaine Lee

Temporary barriers became a part of the Hong Kong streetscape after antigovernment protesters dismantled the existing metal fencing. Photo by Paul Zimmerman.

Until recently, gray metal railings have been a ubiquitous element of Hong Kong’s streetscape. Installed to delineate spaces for cars and pedestrians and enhance safety, the railings have multiplied over the past decade. In 2010, the government reported 435 miles of these roadside barriers. By 2018, the number had more than doubled to 1,087 miles, according to Hong Kong’s Transport Department.

But in the wake of the recent antigovernment protest that first erupted in response to a bill that would have permitted extradition of criminals to mainland China, the metal railings have been torn apart by thousands of black-shirted protesters to use as roadblocks, and bricks have been dug up from the road for use as weapons. Along with changing political and social dynamics, Hong Kong’s urban fabric has experienced dramatic changes. What has long separated pedestrians from the roadway is suddenly gone, and the definitions of public space have become more flexible. As the government has been slow in replacing the railings, perhaps for fear of the metal bars being again used by protesters, urban designers in the city are wondering if the interim streetscape is an opportunity.

Plastic chains now serve as makeshift barriers. Photo by Paul Zimmerman.

A local landscape architect, who requested anonymity, celebrated the newfound freedom of movement. “There are benefits to streetscapes without the metal railings,” he said. Their absence reduces conflicts, eliminating congestion for pedestrians who often find themselves stuck in a bottleneck at crossings. There is now more freedom in areas of the city that were previously confined by narrow sidewalks. He noted that the galvanized steel railings were secured to posts by bolt and nut so protesters were able to remove them quickly with spanners and wrenches. “Most railings have not been replaced, and in some places, they have been temporarily substituted with a plastic chain,” he said. “The Highways Department might redesign the fixing mechanism to discourage the removal [of railings].”

Paul Zimmerman, the CEO of the nonprofit urban design center Designing Hong Kong, hopes the railings are not replaced. He says the curb is enough to demarcate space and allow pedestrians to cross the street safely. “Don’t put the guardrails back,” he says. “Why give protesters another chance to reuse them? Where there is a need to deter parking, use bollards.” The organization has been in discussions with city authorities about improving walkability by removing unnecessary railings and changing railing types. Zimmerman says the group has been successful in getting railings permanently removed at select locations following discussions with the city’s Transport Department.

Before the protests, metal railings separated the sidewalk and the street. Image courtesy Kokarev.

There have also been changes in the streets themselves. After protesters removed bricks, as a temporary measure the government poured in situ concrete where the pavers were missing, a constant reminder of the protests, observed the anonymous landscape architect. “A poignant streetscape moment is created where the poured concrete meets the paver blocks, like a metaphorical scar of the city reminding its people of this moment in history.”

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