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Production of Space, Urban Planning, Right to the City and Place Governance

NG Mee Kam

Key Research Question
Post-1997 Hong Kong has become an increasingly interesting laboratory for civil society activism. Once a politically apathetic society, post-colonial Hong Kongers, especially the younger generations, have become keen advocates in many controversial planning issues ranging from Central Harbour reclamation to urban renewal, construction of the high-speed rail, conservation of King Yin Lei, Blue House and West Wing of the Central Government Offices in Government Hill, etc.

Through Henri Lefebvre’s production of triadic space construct and Patsy Healey’s institutional analysis framework and with funding support from two ongoing General Research Fund (GRF) grants, Mee Kam Ng tries to understand the role of urban planning in the course of space production in Hong Kong and examine whether citizens’ movements to exert their right to the city have transformed the mode of place governance. She wants to identify how spatial practices such as planning systems and mechanisms produce plans (conceived spaces or spaces of representation) and how do these plans affect people’s lived spaces (representational spaces). More specifically, she wants to see if and how civil society movements, networks and mobilizations would transform the mode of governance in a place.

In order to better understand the dialectical relationships of triadic spaces (spatial practices, conceived spaces and lived spaces), two thick urban renewal case studies are conducted: the century-old Graham and Peel Street markets in Hong Kong and the squatter-turned conservation area, Treasure Hill, in Taipei. Besides physically visiting the two communities over time, semi-structured interviews have been carried out with the concerned parties including local residents, shop keepers, hawkers, government planners, academics and social activists, etc.

Besides the production of plans and civic movements, place governance is determined by formal legal, policy and administrative frameworks as well as informal networks and processes which may be designed to privilege the rights of certain stakeholders. To have a concrete understanding of the operational impacts of the formal and informal institutional processes, the Town Planning Ordinance, in particular, the delayed implementation of the 14-year old comprehensive review of the Ordinance is thoroughly studied. Two controversial planning cases at the community level, the fight against “walled buildings” and the case of the Mega-Tower saga in Wan Chai will be carried out to examine the impacts, if any, of the delayed amendment of the Ordinance on the emergence, unfolding and consequences of these “right to the city” movements.

Preliminary Observations
Both of the Hong Kong and Taipei urban renewal cases prove that civil society activism, especially with the aid of enlightened elites and planning-related professionals, can change the conceived plans made by the government or renewal agency. The extent of changes, however, is determined by how entrenched the (re)development concepts have been in society and whether these hegemonic thoughts have been successfully challenged and demystified by social activists and public intellectuals. Changes to the conceived plans, however, are different from institutional changes. According to Healey (2007, pp.21-2), institutional changes involve three levels: actors challenging or developing agenda and concepts in specific episodes; modifications of governance processes and eventually changes in governance cultures. While specific episodes of social movements and civic activism abound in Hong Kong and the demand of community engagement from the enlightened elites has changed the top-down planning cultures and in a sense, forced the government to adopt community engagement throughout the planning process, the hard core formal institutional set up underlined by legislation and policies proves very difficult to be transformed. Perhaps, a stronger movement, a more empowered community with greater planning capacity to protect their “lived spaces” would be required to initiate further changes to the rather fortified formal planning institutions in Hong Kong.

Fig. 1 Research team interviewing Mrs Yan in Graham Street on 6 July 2010.


Fig. 2 Mee Kam Ng interviewing Ms. Chan in Treasure Hill, Taipei, 12 August 2010.


Fig. 3 The Century-old Graham Street Market


Fig. 4 Treasure Hill: once a squatter was rehabilitated and became Taipei's first Conservation area

Related Publications

Journal publication and book chapter
Ng, M.K., “Who got the controversial urban planning job done?: an institutional perspective”, in Cheng, J., Evaluation of the Donald Tsang Administration, forthcoming.
Ng, M.K. (2011), “Power and rationality: the politics of harbour reclamation in Hong Kong”, Environment and Planning C, Vol.29, pp.677-692.
Tang, W-S, Lee, J. and Ng, M.K. (2011), “Public engagement as a tool of hegemony: the case of designing New Central Harbour Front in Hong Kong”, Critical Sociology, 1-18.
Ng, M.K., Tang, W.S., Lee, J.W.Y. and Leung, D. (2010), “Spatial practice, conceived space and lived space: Hong Kong’s ‘piers saga’ through the Lefebvrian lens’, Planning Perspectives, Vol.25, No.4, pp.411-431.
Ng, M.K. (2010), “Place-making battlefields: three empty reclaimed sites in Victoria Haroubr,” disP—The Planning Review, 180, 1, 2010, pp.8-17.


Conference paper
Ng, M.K. (2011), “Delayed amendment of an outdated Town Planning Ordinance: evolving politics of place governance in Hong Kong,” paper presented at the First Global Conference, Space and Place: Exploring Critical Issues, organised by, 14-16 Sept. 2011, Oxford: Mansfield College.
Ng, M.K. (2011), “Urban regeneration as a matter of life and death in Hong Kong and Taipei: two struggles, two outcomes?” paper presented at the World Planning School Congress 2011, 4-8 July 2011, Perth, Western Australia.
Ng, M.K. (2011), “Whose utopia? A tale of two urban regeneration battles in Hong Kong and Taipei,” paper presented at the International Workshop on Urban Utopianism, 12-14 May 2011, co-organised by the Department of Geography, Hong Kong Baptist University and Urban Research Plaza, Osaka City University, Japan, Lam Woo International Conference Centre, Shaw Campus, Hong Kong Baptist University.
Ng, M.K. (2010), “Politics of place making in Asia’s world city,” paper presented at the International Planning History Society Conference, 12-15 July 2010, Istanbul, Turkey.