The Instagram Pier: Negotiating Public Space in Hong Kong

Photographers and walkers at the Instagram Pier. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou
Who creates public spaces and what gives life to them? Grace Yixian Zhou examines the photogenic Sai Wan Pier, a vibrant yet contested waterfront site in Hong Kong, as an emblem of the wider struggle for the future of public space in the city.

Located on the west side of Hong Kong Island, the Western District Public Cargo Working Area, or Sai Wan Pier, received the highest number of public votes for the city’s first Public Space Awards in 2013 and won the special category of “People Space.”1Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, “Results of HK’s First Public Space Awards Are Out,” January 12, 2014. To some extent it defies our common notion of what a great public space should be: managed by the HKSAR Marine Department, who only officially allow entrance to relevant staff, the pier has somehow become a lively spot where people enjoy great freedom in using and defining space. After the pier’s occasional cargo work ends at sunset, it is filled with people engaged in various activities — taking a walk, taking photographs, fishing, walking dogs, cycling, skateboarding, and simply sitting and appreciating the view — many of which are not even allowed in other so-called public spaces in Hong Kong. There are no railings around the pier, which is surrounded by the sea on three sides with an open sky above. Wooden pallets are scattered around, serving as informal seating. Stacks of brightly colored oil drums, graffiti-covered shipping containers, old lampposts and caution barriers fill up the narrow strip of land and have all become props for creative photography and social media posts. After rain, the uneven ground makes a stunning “sky mirror,” through which groups of photography enthusiasts capture their shots of the spectacular sunset at Victoria Harbour. The pier thus received the nickname of “Instagram Pier”, a status that has been reinforced by a dedicated account on the social media platform that curates creative images of the locale.2See @insta_pier on Instagram, created by the Italian photographer Pierfrancesco Celada. He also published a book of image collections of the pier. See https://www.pierfrancescocelada.com/. On the Instagram Pier, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instagram_Pier.

Collage of pictures taken at the pier. Photos: Grace Yixian Zhou.

Zachary Neal defines public spaces as “all areas that are open and accessible to all members of the public in a society, in principle though not necessarily in practice.”3Zachary P. Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” in Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space, ed. Anthony M. Orum, and Zachary P. Neal (New York: Routledge, 2010), 203. But the Instagram Pier is public not in principle but in practice, if only temporarily. This peculiar case raises some important questions: Who creates public spaces? How do different forces shape public spaces in terms of their “publicness” (that is, the degree to which they are open and accessible to all)?4In this article, “publicness” primarily refers to the physical quality of a public space, i.e. being accessible, open, and available to all members of the public, absent of restrictions or barriers to entry and use. It also refers to the collective ownership and participation in shaping and managing public spaces. What gives life to public spaces, their spatial features or the people they engage? How can we produce more of them and make them better? This article attempts to investigate these questions from the perspective of Hong Kong, centering on the example of Sai Wan Pier.

Wooden boards as informal seating; close touch with the sea. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Graffiti on abandoned containers. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Photography lovers capturing sunset at the “Sky Mirror” Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
The Making of a “Public Space” Under Threat

The coexistence of cargo work and recreation at the pier primarily reflects socio-economic transitions. The Cargo Working Area, commissioned in 1981, was extremely busy during the 1980s, when export goods from mainland China would transit here for freighters. As land transportation became more convenient, and the pier could no longer accommodate larger modern cargo ships, it was gradually freed up and began to attract recreational activities.5Jonathan Leung 梁仲禮, “街知巷聞:西環天空之鏡倒影碼頭風光時 [Known to all: Sai Wan sky mirror and reflection pier] ,” Mingpao明報, July 3, 2016. Nowadays most of the cargo work ends at noon or in the early afternoon, after which the pier becomes an ideal waterfront park. The fact that the surrounding area lacks sufficient public parks, the opening of the West Island subway line, plus word of mouth and social media posts, together make the pier all the more popular.

However, the pier is under constant threat of potential transformation and loss of “publicness” precisely due to the local authorities’ perception of what a public space should be. The Central & Western District Council recognized its inevitable transition and started to consider including it as part of the Signature Project Scheme of the Harbourfront Enhancement and Revitalisation Plan.6Central & Western District Office, “Signature Project Scheme (SPS) in Central & Western (C&W) District” and “Western Harbourfront Conceptual Master Plan (Conceptual Master Plan)” Findings of the Questionnaire Survey, 2014. According to the conceptual master plan, various recreational facilities were to be built as part of the promenade, including a water jet garden, a landmark viewing platform, an open-air theater, an urban beach, and artificial climbing walls. The area would also be fenced off, of course.7Central & Western District Office,《西區海濱概念性總體規劃》及《中西區社區重點項目計劃》問卷調查 [Questionnaire for Western District Harbourfront conceptual master plan and Central & Western District Signature Project Scheme], 2013. The pier was to turn into “an attractive, vibrant and accessible waterfront” and “a new iconic landmark of Western Gateway of Hong Kong.” Such a proposal, though seemingly benign enough, has encountered strong opposition among locals. Later, the District Council proposed releasing a marginal area at the pier for temporary “leisure farming and gardening,” but this received criticism as well.8Central & Western District Secretariat, “Strongly request for securing a community garden in the Central and Western District harbourfront,” C&WDC Paper No. 27/2017 – Annex I. This area (about 5,900 m2) was excluded from the boundary of the cargo working area in 2016, and reopened as part of a waterfront promenade in October 2020. The Marine Department also posted notices repeatedly warning the public not to enter the area, stating that anyone who enters would risk a fine of HK$10,000 and six months in jail, but this was never implemented. In 2018, the waterfront next to the pier in front of a wholesale food market was transformed into a formal park as part of the Central and Western District Promenade, with the pier fortunately left unchanged. However, in March 2021, the Marine Department abruptly closed off the pier to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic.9Central & Western District Office, “Operation and Management of the Western District Public Cargo Working Area,” C&WDC Paper No. 42/2021 – Annex I.

The cargo dock’s transformation into a vibrant public space therefore results from a combination of factors: diminishing cargo operations, lenient management, people’s creative capacities, and social media promotion. Yet its status as a public space is also very fragile. Local authorities are constantly putting forward proposals to render it under control and to regulate people’s free use of the pier; and since the Marine Department decided to close it off strictly, it is no longer public anymore.

Rendering of the revitalized pier. Image: Central & Western District Office.
The wholesale food market area was transformed into part of the promenade, with some amenities added but the pier fenced off. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Controlled and Orderly Public Space and Its People

To make sense of the battle surrounding the pier, one must understand the bigger picture of public space in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been renowned for its “miracle economy” in the 1970s and ’80s, its compact urban development, and its exorbitant land prices, all of which gave rise to its peculiar urban form characterized by both the technocratic rationality of modernism and the pervasive commodification of postmodernism. Technocratic rationality, for Henri Lefebvre, represents and orders spatial and social life through abstraction and quantification, based on the Cartesian notion of time and space as homogenous and infinitely divisible.10Japhy Wilson, “‘The Devastating Conquest of the Lived by the Conceived’: The Concept of Abstract Space in the Work of Henri Lefebvre,” Space and Culture 16, no. 3 (2013): 364–380. As Rob Kitchin puts it, “the technocratic mode of urban governance… presumes that all aspects of a city can be measured and monitored,” and technical solutions provide answers to all problems.11Rob Kitchin, “The Real-time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” GeoJournal 79 (2014): 9. This is widely seen throughout Hong Kong. Since colonial times, its government has exerted overt control of the public sphere, from over-engineering in urban design and planning (e.g., the uniform seawalls all around the harbor and standardized sidewalk railings throughout the city), to excessive rules and regulations regarding behavior in “public space,” such as prohibiting ball games, flying kites, riding bicycles, skateboarding, walking dogs, and walking on the grass. Ironically, as Zachary Neal notes, “the creation of public space can lead to its loss.” 12Zachary P. Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” in Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space, ed. Anthony M. Orum and Zachary P. Neal (New York: Routledge, 2010), 203. Order and rationality, as the rationale behind such rules, are part and parcel of the governing principle of Hong Kong, leading to order and cleanliness as the official aesthetic.13Janet Ng, Paradigm City: Space, Culture, and Capitalism in Hong Kong (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 80. After all, Hong Kong emerged from and has long been governed by a developmentalist ideology, therefore stability and predictability are crucial to the everyday socio-economic operations of the city, as well as a “good business climate.” Moreover, civic order and even obedience is deemed important for the international image of Hong Kong, so much so that the world is often impressed by the orderliness of its crowds at protests.

Signage prohibiting various activities are widely seen across designated public spaces in Hong Kong. Photo: Cramoanier, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Standardized sidewalk railings in Hong Kong in 2018 totaled 1,500 kilometers, equal to the distance between New York and Jacksonville, FL. Photo: Bloomberg.

On the other hand, due to the state’s reliance on selling land for its fiscal revenue and strong urban entrepreneurialism, old neighborhoods are constantly under threat of being transformed or demolished as a result of urban renewal projects that would “upgrade” the physical environment accompanied by soaring land prices. Therefore, the corporatization and commodification of landscapes are unavoidable, with more and more public spaces turned into “benign places of consumerism,” generating revenue for the government and “economic prosperity” for the city14Lisa Law, “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong,” Urban Studies 39, no. 9 (2002): 1626. — for instance, replacing lively public space on the ground with fancy buildings and “ambivalent” public spaces like rooftop gardens and ubiquitous shopping malls, where corporate power has control over the use of space; and gentrifying old neighborhoods where family businesses are being replaced by new boutiques. Worse still, public spaces are sometimes not really seen as places for lingering or passive recreation, but rather as a means to increase the flow of capital and commodities: just look at how much of the designated “public spaces” are actually footbridges, shopping malls, or simply tiny openings between skyscrapers.15Hiu Tung Poon 潘曉彤, “公用新構思築發共創空間 [New ideas for public use: creating public spaces together],” Sing Tao Daily星島日報, September 8, 2016. In short, public space in Hong Kong is oftentimes de facto “a controlled and orderly retreat where a properly behaved public might experience the spectacle of the city.”16Don Mitchell, “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public and Democracy,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85 (1995): 110.

Shopping malls are the most common “public spaces” found in Hong Kong. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Creating an Oeuvre in the Age of “Mass-Authorship”

What makes the Sai Wan Pier distinctive, therefore, is its openness to all, its close contact with the harbor, and the tremendous civic freedom it offers for using, defining, and even designing space. To some extent it exhibits Lefebvre’s idea of the “everyday” in its humble and prosaic qualities, its public spontaneity, its vibrant accessibility, and its lack of technocratic design and maintenance.17Mary McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life: An Introduction,” In Architecture of the Everyday, ed. Deborah Berke and Steven Harris (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 9–29.Hence, it is unsurprising to see the government put forward a proposal to render the pier under the control of its governing ideology; equally unsurprising is such popular outcry regarding the “conceptual master plan” and other attempts to formalize the pier as part of the ongoing “systematization” and “rationalization” of the contemporary city.

In a sense, the pier is an example of what Amy Zhang et al. define as “accidental wanghong” — a place that was discovered, promoted on social media, and then came to be named after its wanghong (or online celebrity) status.18Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/wanghong-urbanism/. It emerged as a spectacle by exhibiting “everydayness” and “alterity”, standing in high contrast to the prevailing order and rationality that governs urban life in Hong Kong. This also echoes a few other cases of how sites have accidentally become wanghong.19See, for example, how Changsha Wenheyou became wanghong because of its nostalgic “alterity” in ibid., and how an unglamorous takeaway restaurant became a site of viral sensation due to its “everydayness” in Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Introduction: Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 1 (March 2023), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2023/03/intro-urban-digital-spectacle/. But the cyclical interaction that Zhang et al describe is yet to complete: the dominating forces at play did not ride the social media hype but tried to go a traditional way of providing supposedly desirable public space. Precisely because of this, the pier then became even more wanghong for its rareness and fragility.

The public has played a significant role in making this urban-digital spectacle. Lefebvre argues that the city is an oeuvre, “a work in which all its citizens participate,” and therefore the right to the city primarily includes “the right to freedom, to individualization in socialization,” and “to participation and appropriation.”20Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford Press, 2003), 12–41. In this sense, Hong Kong people are exercising their right to the city through active involvement in producing a public space out of a cargo dock. In the constant negotiations among themselves, such as on how to accommodate various activities and programs simultaneously, and even on consuming and producing the pier through urban-digital interactions, “the city as an oeuvre” emerges, and a new civil order is created that is different from the top-down, officially imposed “order.” In this sense, we are witnessing “an age of mass-authorship” with such a rise of bottom-up, participatory, and inclusive spatial practices.21Xiaoxuan Lu, “The Era of Mass-Authorship,” Landscape Architecture Frontiers 8, no. 5 (2020): 164–165.

This explains what people are really opposing and what may potentially threaten the publicness of the pier: its uniqueness being replaced by uniformity as governed by technocratic rationality; the fear that their spatial freedom may be restrained and their right to the city compromised due to over-engineering and over-management; and commercialization brought about by the renewal plans which might draw in shops and tourists while crowding out local residents.

Similar top-down urban renewal projects to transform public spaces have met with constant contestation. For example, the Central & Western Concern Group has played a major role in campaigning against such projects. According to Katty Law, one of the founders and conveners of the group, historical buildings and neighborhoods should be preserved as visual artifacts of history. Otherwise, she argues, our future generations will never have the chance to understand, or even imagine, the distant past of Victoria City, as well as the bitter struggles of Chinese people under British rule.22Ming Chi, Chan陳銘智. “羅雅寧瞓身保育舊建築10年:「住中環唔代表我信奉中環價值!」” [Katty Law devoted to preservation of old buildings for 10 years: living in Central doesn’t mean I believe in the Central spirit!]. Hong Kong 01, October 24, 2016. Other campaigns are concerned about the risk posed to the unique sense of community by future visions of old neighborhoods. For example, the Sai Wan Concern Group has been explaining the rezoning plans to local residents and organizing community projects with a bottom-up approach, highlighting people’s rights in the decision-making process as an alternative to the official top-down process.23Karen Cheung, “West Side Story: The fight to preserve heritage and curb gentrification in Western District,” Hong Kong Free Press, March 17, 2016, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/03/17/west-side-story-the-fight-to-preserve-heritage-and-curb-gentrification-in-western-district/.

In this sense, the controversies surrounding the Sai Wan Pier can be regarded as part of the greater struggle of grassroots voices versus top-down official plans, and the appeal for people’s right to public spaces and collective identity versus the developmentalist, profit-driven urban renewal mentality. Public space in Hong Kong, therefore, may be seen as an intricate play between multiple forces: it is primarily shaped by technocratic governance and commercialization, while individuals and activist groups creatively negotiate and vehemently fight for it through the small cracks in between state authority and market power.

Public Space is Where Multiplicity of “the Public” is Manifested and Questioned

With that said, the role of public space in Hong Kong might be subtly different from the common notion. Neal provides a three-part framework for analyzing the nature of public space as a “facilitator of civil order”, as “a site for power and resistance,” and as “a stage for art, theater and performance.”24Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” 201. Yet these do not seem to fit the Hong Kong case very well, where the planning of public open spaces has been primarily associated with lifestyle and recreation since the colonial years, with the emphasis on western lifestyle in pre-WWII times, then on active recreation in post-war era, and turning to passive recreation in the contemporary age.25Man-Wai Darren Cheung, “Land Supply and Land-use Planning of Public Open Space in Hong Kong” (PhD diss., University of Hong Kong, 2015). Moreover, prohibitive property prices and land shortages have rendered the average housing conditions undesirable, driving many to go outside to do whatever cannot be done in their tiny homes. Citizens’ hopes for public space are fairly practical, according to the questionnaire carried out by Central & Western District Council: for example, greening, fitness equipment for elderly people, children’s play equipment, restrooms, or just a public square. The demand for leisure and recreational facilities seems most prominent compared to other “higher-order values” including expression of equality and civic identity. Given such collective sentiments, it is understandable why some shopping malls may be regarded as places of communal identity where the Hong Kong lifestyle of leisure and mass consumption could be cultivated and fulfilled.26Cecilia Chu, “Narrating the Mall City,” in Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, ed. Stefan Al (University of Hawaii Press, 2016), 83–90.

Result of the questionnaire for the question “what kinds of facilities at the piers and waterfront promenade in WWFM in future do you hope for?” Source: Central & Western District Office.

Not everyone is against the official proposals for the pier, often for more practical reasons. The concern for leisure and recreation as primary uses of public space has led some to support it, for more facilities would be guaranteed. For example, pet lovers would call for a pet corner if the pier is to turn into a waterfront park. Others agree with the safety-first principle, saying that railings will offer necessary protection, especially for young kids riding bicycles. Some landlords might look forward to the commercial value brought about by the “iconic landmark.” Indeed, despite the possibly inadequate sample size and survey method, the questionnaire carried out by Central & Western District Council shows that over 80 percent of the 374 respondents supported the proposed conceptual master plan, 86 percent supported building an observation deck, 87 percent would like an amphitheater, and 81 percent preferred recreational facilities such as urban beaches, climbing walls, and basketball courts. Short on-site interviews also indicate that most middle-aged or senior residents were either indifferent or supportive toward the proposal. Considering people’s misbehavior at the pier, some also suggested that its closure was understandable.

In short, there appears to be a gap among the public regarding their hope for the future of the pier, yet ironically both the government and the grassroots groups frequently appeal to “the public” to justify their positions. The District Council conducts public consultations to ostensibly collect public opinion, and refers to the rules and regulations as being for “the public good”; opponents also appear to stand for “the public interest,” citing “collective memory” and “civic identity” as reasons for their campaigns. However, the notion of “the public” is problematic in itself: people have different preferences and reasonable disagreements on how to shape public spaces, and it is important to avoid false representation and overgeneralization. The pursuit of the coarse, native “public space” of the pier may be, in a sense, part of the younger generation’s pursuit of experience consumption and differential aesthetics – in essence, “alterity” leading to wanghong urbanism – whereas “child-friendly,” “family-friendly” and “elder-friendly” spaces and functions are nowhere to be found.

The importance of public spaces lies in the fact that they are where the diversity of what constitutes “the public” is most visible and where the idealized notion of “the public interest” is questioned.27Linda McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). If the public is seen as a whole, it is almost impossible to avoid designing for the single use of “one public.” Perhaps we should design “multimodal public spaces” that satisfy not only “all members of the public” but “all members of all publics.”28Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” 204. Building and forming “publicness” is therefore a continuous endeavor, which requires not only searching for the common ground, but also embodying differences.

Spatial Experience Cannot Be Fully “Designed”

On the other hand, to what extent can space and functions be designed? According to Lefebvre, “technocratic modernity” obliterates spontaneity and social exchange; instead, he calls for “multifunctional” and “transfunctional” designs that could “generate new forms of urban contact and sociability.”29McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life,” 25. But spatial development can be seen as the dialectic between static physical conditions and dynamic user habits: people’s spatial experience cannot merely be “designed,” and some “sanitized and sterile harborfront promenades” can also enjoy high popularity.30Ng, Paradigm City.

Some examples include the Kwun Tong Promenade, which was transformed from a cargo working area as well. The long and narrow strip of land lies right next to a flyover in an old industrial district and has been revitalized by adding vast areas of grass, performance areas, fitness facilities for children and elderly people, as well as art installations inspired by its industrial past. People seem to be enjoying themselves there wholeheartedly on a Sunday afternoon, exercising their creative capacities. Another case is the Stanley Promenade and Plaza, which won the best public space award in 2013 for its “successful public-private integration with great variety of activities and users.” The judges found it contains all the important elements needed for a successful public space — a waterfront, streets, piazzas, an open sky, restaurants, diverse activities — and evolves throughout the day, accommodating both scheduled performances/commercial events and spontaneous events by the public. People’s creative agency can be unexpectedly powerful — this is demonstrated, for example, in the way the public uses the Sai Wan Pier, taking creative advantage of its institutional loopholes to explore spatial and temporal possibilities.

Children’s play facilities at Kwun Tong Promenade. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Lawn camping at Kwun Tong Promenade. Photo: Grace Yixian Zhou.
Stanley Plaza. Photo: Outstanding Public Space Awards.

As for social exchange, it is not necessarily determined by spatial arrangements. Don Mitchell challenges the assumption that provision of public space will generate a vibrant public sphere: for instance, even in a place as free as Sai Wan Pier, people mostly socialize within their own groups only.31Mitchell, “Hyde Park,” 12–41. The “public sphere” in the Habermasian sense requires political and social conditions that go far beyond the physical realm. Also, certain features of the proposed promenade, such as an open-air theater, will possibly enhance “triangulation”, creating “a linkage between people” and encouraging them to talk to each other through external stimuli like events or performances.32William Hollingsworth Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Washington, DC: The Conservation Foundation, 1980). In this way, the systematization of public spaces might actually be beneficial for socialization.

Therefore, for designers and managers, it may be more important to provide more open, inclusive, and multi-dimensional spaces and facilities based on a full understanding of people’s environmental behavior, with more enabling and less restrictive features. People’s spatial behavior and the lifestyle and identity behind cannot be designed, but can only be observed, respected, and guided.

Lessons for Urban Transformations: Keep Negotiating and Questioning

What lessons can we learn from the disputes surrounding Sai Wan Pier? First, while the value of order and rationality deserves to be acknowledged, we should also explore the potential in the everyday: when people have demonstrated great spontaneity and creativity in shaping public spaces, so be it – designers and managers need to reflect more on the oftentimes idealized attempts of spatial or even social engineering, and to pay more attention to how people actually use the space. Common techniques include observation, questionnaires, and public consultations, yet judging from the questionnaires by Central & Western District Council, they reach the level of “informing” and “consultation” at best on Sherry Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation,” where citizens have the right to hear and be heard in principle, but there is no guarantee that their views actually matter.33Sherry R. Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, no. 4 (1969): 216–224. “To hear” is tricky, since these projects are already well-designed, and public participation at a later stage is often of a tokenistic nature. “To be heard” is even more difficult, since many of the questions asked are too specific, as if leading to expected answers. Respondents are given very limited options to choose from, which tends to generate designs for a single purpose instead of the multiple functions that people demand.

Admittedly, the grassroots campaigns to counter urban renewal in Hong Kong represent a long-term attempt to resist technocratic rationality and the overarching forces of commercialization through negotiating people’s right to the city and collective identity. Such constant questioning is often the first step toward greater citizen participation. Yet there are limitations to these groups as well. First, the representativeness of their appeals is questionable. People do have diverse needs, and requirements such as a well-planned, rationalized city, a child/elder-friendly park, or even a well-managed shopping mall are consistent with the interests and wishes of many. Also, the unpredictable individual itineraries and therefore the inherent human agency cannot be overlooked. Socio-economic factors also shape the spatial forms in turn: when grassroots groups accuse designers of destroying “native public spaces,” they too fall in the trap of “spatial determinism” — same as believing that good design is the cure to all problems. More importantly, once the groups “succeed” in their appeals, what’s next? For example, the Central and Western Concern Group fought hard to save the Police Married Quarters from demolition, which was transformed from a modernist dormitory building into a design hub, but later suffered from an “identity crisis” of promoting design talent versus maintaining itself through commercial value.34Catherine Lai, “Grumblings at PMQ over design hub’s identity crisis and management decisions,” Hong Kong Free Press, July 17, 2016, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/07/17/grumbles-at-pmq-over-design-hubs-identity-crisis-and-management-decisions/. It is much easier to break something down than it is to build it. In a way, the everydayness of Sai Wan Pier may point to future possibilities for spontaneous urban transformations.

The Police Married Quarters during events, drawing crowds of visitors. Photo: Hong Kong Free Press/Catherine Lai.

Past experience has shown that once something is established as the model, no matter how benign its original goal was, often it just gets co-opted by complex forces and deviates from the original intention. This applies to, for example, modernist housing projects, which had socially progressive goals yet ended up being seen as inhuman, as well as postmodernist architecture, which aimed to bring plurality and diversity to the standardized modernist cities, but ended up commodifying everything. Perhaps the “everyday” which is so highly praised here cannot be exempt from the overwhelming force of commodification. In fact, as the name of “Instagram Pier” spreads, the influx of visitors would likely disrupt the original peace at the pier, accelerating gentrification in surrounding neighborhoods. Commercial photography might grab this opportunity for unique wedding photos, yet paradoxically, true uniqueness is replaced by similar pursuits of “uniqueness.”35Italian photographer Pierfrancesco Celada, who went to the pier frequently, noted that people came to the pier to create very similar photos: “a constant repetition of poses and situations is played out by a never-ending supply of interchangeable actors.” See Daniel Stone, “Welcome to Hong Kong’s ‘Instagram Pier’,” National Geographic, October 19, 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/10/welcome-to-hong-kongs-instagram-pier/.

At the pier, photographers create seemingly unique but extremely similar works – a proof of the digital-urban interactions. Image: Pierfrancesco Celada.

In this sense, perhaps the state of constant pursuit aiming at but not reaching the goal is the most valuable; as Lefebvre comments, the initial value of modernity lies in its “relentless questioning of social life.”36McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life,” 28. Perhaps it is reasonable that the society is always in trial and error and therefore in flux. After all, long-term stability can be stifling and often degenerates into new forms of systematization and bureaucracy. Since social and spatial processes interact in dynamic ways, the world does not operate on a binary of top-down versus bottom-up, government versus grassroots, preservation versus renewal. Urban redevelopment is an ongoing, spiraling process, and the appeal of public space lies in its unpredictability, interactivity, and the complex forces at play.

John Friedmann once famously asked, “Planning for whom, with whom, against whom?” When talking about public spaces, many often resort to slogans like “Harborfront for the people.” Yet maybe we should first think deeper about what it means: Who constitute “the people”? What do “the people” really want and how can we know that? When “public space” is produced, who benefits and who is excluded? What does “for the people” imply for planning and design practices?

Notes

Notes
1 Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, “Results of HK’s First Public Space Awards Are Out,” January 12, 2014.
2 See @insta_pier on Instagram, created by the Italian photographer Pierfrancesco Celada. He also published a book of image collections of the pier. See https://www.pierfrancescocelada.com/. On the Instagram Pier, see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instagram_Pier.
3 Zachary P. Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” in Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space, ed. Anthony M. Orum, and Zachary P. Neal (New York: Routledge, 2010), 203.
4 In this article, “publicness” primarily refers to the physical quality of a public space, i.e. being accessible, open, and available to all members of the public, absent of restrictions or barriers to entry and use. It also refers to the collective ownership and participation in shaping and managing public spaces.
5 Jonathan Leung 梁仲禮, “街知巷聞:西環天空之鏡倒影碼頭風光時 [Known to all: Sai Wan sky mirror and reflection pier] ,” Mingpao明報, July 3, 2016.
6 Central & Western District Office, “Signature Project Scheme (SPS) in Central & Western (C&W) District” and “Western Harbourfront Conceptual Master Plan (Conceptual Master Plan)” Findings of the Questionnaire Survey, 2014.
7 Central & Western District Office,《西區海濱概念性總體規劃》及《中西區社區重點項目計劃》問卷調查 [Questionnaire for Western District Harbourfront conceptual master plan and Central & Western District Signature Project Scheme], 2013.
8 Central & Western District Secretariat, “Strongly request for securing a community garden in the Central and Western District harbourfront,” C&WDC Paper No. 27/2017 – Annex I. This area (about 5,900 m2) was excluded from the boundary of the cargo working area in 2016, and reopened as part of a waterfront promenade in October 2020.
9 Central & Western District Office, “Operation and Management of the Western District Public Cargo Working Area,” C&WDC Paper No. 42/2021 – Annex I.
10 Japhy Wilson, “‘The Devastating Conquest of the Lived by the Conceived’: The Concept of Abstract Space in the Work of Henri Lefebvre,” Space and Culture 16, no. 3 (2013): 364–380.
11 Rob Kitchin, “The Real-time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism,” GeoJournal 79 (2014): 9.
12 Zachary P. Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” in Common Ground? Readings and Reflections on Public Space, ed. Anthony M. Orum and Zachary P. Neal (New York: Routledge, 2010), 203.
13 Janet Ng, Paradigm City: Space, Culture, and Capitalism in Hong Kong (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 80.
14 Lisa Law, “Defying Disappearance: Cosmopolitan Public Spaces in Hong Kong,” Urban Studies 39, no. 9 (2002): 1626.
15 Hiu Tung Poon 潘曉彤, “公用新構思築發共創空間 [New ideas for public use: creating public spaces together],” Sing Tao Daily星島日報, September 8, 2016.
16 Don Mitchell, “The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public and Democracy,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85 (1995): 110.
17 Mary McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life: An Introduction,” In Architecture of the Everyday, ed. Deborah Berke and Steven Harris (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997), 9–29.
18 Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Wanghong Urbanism: Towards a New Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2022/11/wanghong-urbanism/.
19 See, for example, how Changsha Wenheyou became wanghong because of its nostalgic “alterity” in ibid., and how an unglamorous takeaway restaurant became a site of viral sensation due to its “everydayness” in Amy Y. Zhang, Asa Roast, and Carwyn Morris, “Introduction: Urban-Digital Spectacle,” Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 1 (March 2023), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2023/03/intro-urban-digital-spectacle/.
20 Don Mitchell, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space (New York: Guilford Press, 2003), 12–41.
21 Xiaoxuan Lu, “The Era of Mass-Authorship,” Landscape Architecture Frontiers 8, no. 5 (2020): 164–165.
22 Ming Chi, Chan陳銘智. “羅雅寧瞓身保育舊建築10年:「住中環唔代表我信奉中環價值!」” [Katty Law devoted to preservation of old buildings for 10 years: living in Central doesn’t mean I believe in the Central spirit!]. Hong Kong 01, October 24, 2016.
23 Karen Cheung, “West Side Story: The fight to preserve heritage and curb gentrification in Western District,” Hong Kong Free Press, March 17, 2016, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/03/17/west-side-story-the-fight-to-preserve-heritage-and-curb-gentrification-in-western-district/.
24 Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” 201.
25 Man-Wai Darren Cheung, “Land Supply and Land-use Planning of Public Open Space in Hong Kong” (PhD diss., University of Hong Kong, 2015).
26 Cecilia Chu, “Narrating the Mall City,” in Mall City: Hong Kong’s Dreamworlds of Consumption, ed. Stefan Al (University of Hawaii Press, 2016), 83–90.
27 Linda McDowell, Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).
28 Neal, “Relocating Public Space,” 204.
29 McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life,” 25.
30 Ng, Paradigm City.
31 Mitchell, “Hyde Park,” 12–41.
32 William Hollingsworth Whyte, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (Washington, DC: The Conservation Foundation, 1980).
33 Sherry R. Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, no. 4 (1969): 216–224.
34 Catherine Lai, “Grumblings at PMQ over design hub’s identity crisis and management decisions,” Hong Kong Free Press, July 17, 2016, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/07/17/grumbles-at-pmq-over-design-hubs-identity-crisis-and-management-decisions/.
35 Italian photographer Pierfrancesco Celada, who went to the pier frequently, noted that people came to the pier to create very similar photos: “a constant repetition of poses and situations is played out by a never-ending supply of interchangeable actors.” See Daniel Stone, “Welcome to Hong Kong’s ‘Instagram Pier’,” National Geographic, October 19, 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/10/welcome-to-hong-kongs-instagram-pier/.
36 McLeod, “Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life,” 28.
Zhou, Grace Yixian. "The Instagram Pier: Negotiating Public Space in Hong Kong." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023).
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