Self-organisation: the case of Kowloon Walled City

December 7, 2012 | 0 Comments | Uncategorized

Kowloon Walled City, China is an interesting case that illustrates the process of self-organisation in urban development. Since 1898 the fortress-town of Kowloon found itself in a state of diplomatic limbo as a result an ongoing feud between the Chinese And English governments.

Previously, I argued that Jane Jacobs and Walt Disney both advocate a bottom-up oriented urban planning that focused on the needs of city’s inhabitants. While this point of view might sound attractive and even common sense to some, there is an obvious contradiction in talking about self-organised planning. Urban developments often take years to complete and involve a level of complication that cannot be achieved by cooperation between untrained residents. So one would argue that some sort of top-down planning is certainly necessary even when the needs of people are put first.

KWC-vanuit-de-luchtThis view is challenged by Kowloon Walled City. Because neither the colonial authorities of Hong Kong nor the Chinese Government exercised power over the six-acre (0,026 square kilometers  area, it developed a unique urban structure without any form of imposed planning. As the governments of Hong Kong and China increased their effort to police all sorts of crime in their respective territories, the lack of such oversight in Kowloon made it a hot spot for prostitution, gambling and drug industries. As a result the city soon gained a reputation of immorality and vice and started to attract residents and visitors from neighboring cities. Kowloon soon reached a population of 30.000 and several issues began to emerge.

First and foremost the city struggled with a limited water supply because the local well did not provide enough water. Existing water-pipelines could no longer satisfy demand and because of the indeterminate political status of Kowloon neither China nor Hong Kong ventured to upgrade the infrastructure. Organized crime stepped in and managed to tap into the Hong Kong water-pipes providing water to paying residents through countless hoses that lay about in the streets.

With the water issues fixed, Kowloon’s population started rising again. This growth was stimulated by rising real estate prices in Hong Kong and the fact that the Hong Kong police started to occasionally venture into narrow alleyways of the city. After the second world war Hong Kong tightened its attempts to police the city and managed to decrease the level of crime. At the same time, because the Walled City did not have to comply with any building standards, the shacks and 2-story houses were to give way to cement towers of seven to fifteen stories high. The city was now transforming from a centre of vice to a haven for working class poor in the 1970’s. Estimates say that Kowloon’s population reached around 300,000 at this point.

Kowloon alleyway

At the pinnacle of its existence, Kowloon was effectively a single mega-structure. Walkways, ladders, pipes and cables connected the different high rise buildings with such a density that sunlight only scarcely reached the ground level of the city. Water that dripped from the improvised water-infrastructure continuously seeped down and created an urban swamp of sorts. Kowloon was home to a variety of legal and illegal industries and housed the poorer classes.

 However, the signing of the joint declaration of 1984 that paved to way for Hong Kong’s being returned to China in 1994, Kowloon’s status changed; it was no longer without any form of management. Soon after this, the Hong Kong government was able to evict the residents and demolish the unique urban structure of Kowloon over a period of a single year in 1993. Finally the area was redeveloped as an urban park.

Kowloon Walled City provides a unique insight into what pure self-organisation would mean for urban development. Kowloon was effectively an adaptive urban organism, formed solely by the efforts of its own inhabitants without any form of imposed planning. But I would argue that this self-organisation did not achieve to create an urban environment in which most of us would feel at home. Some sort of imposed planning or organisation is necessary in order to ensure a certain standard of life. Urban designers and politicians are faced with the challenge of finding a middle ground between the extremes of self-organisation and top-down planning.

Harter, S. (2000), Hong Kong's Diry Little Secret: Clearing the Walled City of Kowloon. Journal of Urban History, Vol. 27, pp. 92 -113
Suen, M. (2008), Kowloon Megastructual. Available at: http://mathewsuen.com/writing/kowloon-mega/layout.pdf

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