Why you should care
New public spaces are emerging across the world’s most densely populated region.
As central China’s largest city, Wuhan is a major transportation hub, connecting east and west, north and south. But in 2016, the city of 10 million people decided it needed to connect its own residents better. It has since built a unique getaway — the Donghu Greenway, a 13-square-mile network of parks on Donghu Lake, the country’s largest urban lake. Today, you’ll see couples chatting, families picnicking and even meetings held in the shade of towering trees. And Wuhan isn’t alone: Across Asia, cities are reinventing the concept of the public space, using a mix of temporary and more long-term fixes to cater to a 21st-century urban landscape.
From temples to street markets to hawker centers, busy Asian cities have traditionally had ample space for people to linger. But modern development favors highways over footpaths and department stores over temple grounds. That’s forcing Asian cities to discover new public spaces — in some cases through citizen-driven initiatives, in others through government-backed efforts.
A study by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration says green space in the metropolitan area is less than 60 square feet per person, far below the regional average of around 420 square feet. Citizens are pushing back across Thailand with their own fixes, says Rawiwan Oranratmanee, a professor of architecture at Chiang Mai University. Smaller, pop-up areas have emerged as alternative public spaces, in the form of container markets that have opened around urban centers of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket in the past five years, rivaling traditional night stalls. Concerts are moving to commercial districts. Sporting an all-female DJ lineup, the Bond Women’s Festival, for example, took place in December at Promenada Chiang Mai, a sprawling modern shopping mall. In 2015, a group of architecture students plopped mats and beanbags down in the main hall of Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station, arguing the area should be available for public gatherings beyond just waiting for a train.
In China, a series of privately owned public spaces (POPS) that exist in air-conditioned department stores and supermarkets have also taken up slack in providing new areas for milling about, says Tat Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Architecture. If you go to Ikea in Beijing, you’ll see people taking naps and having lunch in the mock rooms, he points out.
Thailand’s container markets are spreading to the country’s neighbors. The first such market in Malaysia opened in Kuala Lumpur in November. In the concrete jungle of Singapore, the government has held an annual competition since 2015 called My Ideas for Public Spaces, seeking citizens’ participation in creating new POPS. But the city-state isn’t leaving the responsibility for public spaces solely to the private sector. It has committed to building 27 new hawker centers — indoor markets where anyone can sell food and goods at subsidized rents — over the next decade.
These centers are a top-down outcome of Singapore’s perpetual drive to keep streets clean, but the spaces themselves have a bottom-up character with rows of cheap food stalls and plastic seating that have made them part of the “psyche of every Singaporean,” says Randy Chan, architect and head of Singapore-based studio Zarch Collaboratives.
“This [hawker centers] is where they meet their neighbors,” says Chan.
For sure, POPS and other innovative, New Age public spaces aren’t unique to Asia. POPS was coined by Harvard professor Jerold S. Kayden in a 2000 book, but New York City has had privately owned public spaces since 1961. By 2000, there were 503 such spaces across the Big Apple. In Asia, though, where communal living has traditionally been far more common, and where lines between public and private are often still blurred, the street and religious venues have historically been the most popular public spaces. And nowhere in the world is modern urbanization disrupting traditional public spaces the way it is in Asia.
This [Singapore’s hawker centers] is where they meet their neighbors.
Randy Chan, Singapore-based architect
Nearly 200 million people moved from rural areas to Asian cities in the 21st century’s first decade, according to the World Bank. And the continent’s urbanization is now around 50 percent, up from 10 percent in 1930 — Europe took 150 years for a similar leap. It’s in response to that explosion in urban populations that cities have had to build infrastructure — highways, underpasses and subways — that has eaten into traditional public spaces. That loss, though, is being addressed by a new set of arenas for the people of Asia, which holds more than half the world’s population.
“They need new ways, new atmosphere, that fit in with their lifestyle, especially for younger generations,” says Rawiwan.
Some of the cities at the forefront of reviving public spaces also offer cautionary tales. Singapore’s obsession with keeping its streets free of hawkers is decades old, and the city-state built hawker centers to offer vendors an alternative space. But starting in the early 1990s, the government stopped building additional centers to cut spending. The enormous shopping complexes and malls that rose in Singapore couldn’t take their place — rents there are three or four times higher than at the hawker centers, says Chan. And the prices for customers aren’t as accessible, limiting the effectiveness of these high-end complexes as public spaces that even lower- and middle-income Singaporeans can access. “At the end of the day, a public space needs to be maintained,” says Chan. But the government has changed tack, agreeing to build new hawker centers. These centers enjoy a kind of “democracy” that’s hard to find at a Starbucks, says Chan.
That’s part of a broader pattern across the region “making the commercial space routine for public [use] rather than making [the public’s] routine space more commercialized,” says Tat. And one of the most effective uses of such public spaces is for political protest and demonstration. During the 2014 Umbrella Revolution protests in Hong Kong, Tat points out, demonstrators were able to occupy much of the city’s concrete and glass infrastructure.
In Thailand, the decrease in traditional public spaces has actually meant more, not fewer, opportunities for influential protests, says Rawiwan. “When people [protesters] close off the street or the space in affluent areas then everyone pays attention to them,” she says.
Yes, the future public space will be virtual, to an extent. Last year, Bangkok had the most citizens on Facebook in the world. But you can’t experience a Thai container market concert or the company of ordinary Singaporeans over a cheap meal on a social networking site. That needs physical public spaces for millions of people. Asia’s stretched cities are beginning to find the answers.