June 18, 2017
Simon Jenkins, writing about the fire at Grenfell Tower, apparently thinks Hong Kong is “squalid”:
The lesson from Grenfell is simple: stop building residential towers | Simon Jenkins
There is no need to build high at all. The developers’ cry, that cities must build high to “survive”, is self-serving rubbish, the more absurd when their towers are left half-empty. The principal reserve of residential space in British cities is derelict land and the under-occupation of existing houses. Unless we wish to build at the squalid densities of Mumbai and Hong Kong, high buildings require space round them and extensive ground servicing.
Almost everyone in Hong Kong lives in high-rise housing (for some striking photographs, take a look at Michael Wolf’s Architecture of Density). Around 30% of the population live in rented public housing - these are high-rise, high density apartment blocks, but they are safe and certainly not squalid.
Another 17% of people live in high-rise apartments that were sold under the Home Ownership scheme. Not squalid either.
50% of the population live in private housing, the vast majority of which is in high-rise towers, which vary from small and basic to large and luxurious.
Lynsey Hanley used to live on Europe’s largest public housing estate (in Birmingham), and her excellent book “Estates” offers a very personal account of how the British government’s housing policies went horribly wrong and wrecked many people’s lives. She has a more informed - and nuanced - view of the problem:
Look at Grenfell Tower and see the terrible price of Britain’s inequality
Tower blocks are generally held to be the least popular form of housing, particularly for people raising families. [..] But that’s not to say other people don’t enjoy living there, for the astonishing views, and for their self-contained nature – which in the most successful cases creates a tight-knit community.
Problems mostly arise when housing managers fail to keep on top of repairs, safety issues, residents’ complaints and other bugbears, such as blocked bin chutes and noisy neighbours. On-site caretakers, when landlords decide they can afford to employ them, solve many of these issues.
Indeed, all Hong Kong apartment blocks have on-site caretakers / security staff and most are well managed. Hence, Hong Kong high-rise housing is safe - and not squalid. Of course you pay more for larger apartments, lower density, and more open space, but that’s true everywhere.
The lesson to learn from Grenfell Tower is not that high rise blocks are inherently unsafe, but that safety needs to be a priority. Which it clearly wasn't.
The Grenfell Action Group had previously warned about the fire threat posed by discarded rubbish
...and that parked vehicles were blocking access for the emergency services. Residents feared the council’s much-vaunted £10m two-year transformation of the tower had turned the building into a “fire trap”, warning the chief fire officer that “there is only one entry and exit to the tower block itself and, in the event of a fire, the London fire brigade could only gain access to the entrance to the building by climbing four flights of narrow stairs. On top of this, the fire escape exit on the walkway level has now been sealed. Residents of Grenfell Tower do not have any confidence that our building has been satisfactorily assessed to cope with the new improvement works.”
Or here’s the Daily Telegraph: Warnings over 'deathtrap' high-rise building cladding 'ignored' for decades
I am not aware of any major fire in a Hong Kong high-rise, whereas six people died in Lakanal House in London in 2009, and in 1991 newly installed cladding was a key factor in a fire that destroyed an apartment block in Knowsley Heights, Liverpool.
The last major building collapse here (in 2010) was a five-storey building in To Kwa Wan (built in 1957) and a 2011 government report said that 1,400 buildings that are at least 30 years old remain in 'dilapidated conditions'. But, again those will not be modern tower blocks and the main problem is that old buildings are often not maintained properly.
In 1972, 148 people were killed in major landslides as many apartment complexes and houses were wiped out but building standards have been significantly improved since then. Going back further, on Christmas Day in 1953 a major fire destroyed the Shek Kip Mei shanty town, and this prompted the government to start its public housing program. It’s probably fair to say that those early apartments were somewhat squalid, but that was 60 years ago, and things are a lot better now.
But not everywhere, as Tom Grundy noted in 2015:
Squalor in Fanling: Slum Dwellings Return to Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a wealthy place with a handsome budget surplus – many of us would presume the state takes good care of foreign torture claimants seeking refuge in our city.
However, in reality, many are forced to live in squalid slums in the rural New Territories, subsisting for years on a meagre allowance before being returned to the countries they fled. In Ping Che, Fanling, around 150 Bangladeshi asylum seekers and torture claimants reside in shameful conditions which are an affront to human rights, dignity and social justice.
So, squalor, yes. But this is not high-rise, high density housing.
Of course some people do have really tiny living spaces, most notoriously in sub-divided privately owned apartments:
Living in a squalid subdivided flat is a miserable experience for SCMP reporter
Subdivided flats can be ban gan fong (cubicle homes divided by boards, also known as "bed spaces"), tong fong (a subdivided flat with proper walls and doors), or tou fong (like tong fong but with private bathrooms). Tou fong range in quality and size, but conditions in cubicle homes are almost always abysmal.
The city's poor also live in makeshift rooftop dwellings and cage homes - wire mesh hutches stacked one on top of another - although social workers and building surveyors say these are becoming scarcer since landlords find subdivision more profitable.
So it's not the high-rise apartments that are the problem, it's the way they have been adapted.
Finally, why did Simon Jenkins choose Mumbai and Hong Kong? Well, a quick Google search produced this result:
World urban areas population and density: a 2012 update
The most dense high income world urban area is Hong Kong, at 67,000 persons per square mile or 25,900 per square kilometer. Among the urban areas with more than 2.5 million population, the second-most dense is Mumbai, at 80,100 per square mile or 30,900 per square kilometer.
But I doubt that he’s ever been to either Mumbai or Hong Kong…
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