H6 CONET – A place for the community that can be shared and enjoyed by the public
Urban renewal is never merely about the transformation of the hardware, such as redeveloping old buildings and improving the built environment. Instead, it is more important to let those living in the neighbourhood embrace the uniqueness and vibrancy of the vicinity and promote the community’s long-term development. Recently, I visited H6 CONET, a community space operated by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) in the bustling Central district, with two secondary school students taking part in the “Be a Government Official for a Day” programme. We were briefed by colleagues of the URA on how they integrate a district’s local characteristics and cultural landscape in undertaking urban renewal development projects to create an environment with distinct local characteristics and enhance the community’s sense of belonging.
Adding in the “place-making” elements
H6 CONET (Note), occupying an area of about 2 600 square metres, was designated for “Government, Institution or Community” uses by the former Land Development Corporation in the implementation of the redevelopment project of “The Center”. In 2017, the URA gave the place a facelift and re-designed the original facilities. By adding in some “place-making” elements, H6 CONET was transformed into a diverse community space which can be shared by the public. In addition to greening and leisure seating area, venues for different events and activities are also available for community groups and the public in H6 CONET. The daily visitor count of H6 CONET has more than doubled from some 4 000 visitors daily in the initial period after its opening to over 8 000 by now.
The city’s shortcut to adjoining streets
As told by Mr AU Chun-ho, Wilfred, Director (Planning and Design) of the URA, H6 CONET is located in the business district of Central, a pedestrian-friendly spatial design was therefore incorporated in its re-planning process to open up entrances and exits to enhance connectivity with six adjoining streets, namely Gilman Street, Gilman's Bazaar, Wing On Street, Tung Man Street, Hing Lung Street and Tit Hong Lane, making the place more accessible, spacious and walkable. Moreover, artists were engaged to create massive murals inside H6 CONET to showcase the features and history of the six streets such as the former dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls) at Gilman Street and the textile shops on Wong On Street. Display panels providing information about the history of the streets, such as how the evolution of the coastline along Victoria Harbour affected the outlook of the district, were installed on the streets to highlight the district’s unique background.
Releasing space for community activities
At present, H6 CONET is becoming a part of the “Centralians’” daily life. During the visit, we saw many citizens relaxing, having lunch, watching television or enjoying free Wi-Fi service, etc. at the place. There are office spaces for social services organisations, and multi-function rooms and venues of different sizes for exhibitions and performances are also open for reservation by organisations or groups to hold a diversity of community activities. Since its opening, H6 CONET has hosted over 80 cultural and art exhibitions, music performances and workshops, etc. and the average utilisation rate of the exhibition venues has exceeded 80 percent. Mr AU says that the URA is trying to make good use of the space of H6 CONET to launch suitable activities that best serve the needs of the community.
During our visit, we also took the Central-Mid-Levels escalator to the area around Peel Street/Graham Street in Central to see the URA’s efforts of preserving local history and culture while implementing redevelopment projects. Mr AU says that the URA has been gradually moving from the previous project-led approach to a planning-led one in undertaking urban renewal developments. By the planning-led approach, it means that in planning the design of the overall layout and public space, the URA will integrate the characteristics of the local district into the development and revitalise the community by applying the place-making concept so as to ensure that the local elements and historical buildings can be preserved and passed on.
Characteristics of century-old street market preserved
Taking the Peel Street/Graham Street redevelopment project as an example, the century-old street market was an essential local characteristic of Central. In pursuing redevelopment, the URA has endeavoured to preserve the street ambience as far as practicable and maintain the market vibrancy by, for example, providing a market block for fresh food shops to continue with their businesses. On the other hand, the URA has preserved the four pre-war shop-houses including Wing Woo Grocery at 120 Wellington Street and the façade of 26A-C Graham Street so that the local features can be retained.
Redevelopment of a place can never be like erasing with a rubber
I agree with Mr AU that redevelopment of a place can never be like erasing with a rubber, that is to remove everything in it and replace them with your own things. The H6 CONET project and the renewal process of the Central and Western District manage to incorporate the local historical and cultural characteristics into the planning to form a combination of the “New” and the “Old”; while open space and facilities are flexibly adapted to serve different needs to develop community bonding. I hope that, with years of experience in urban renewal, the URA will keep up good communication with various stakeholders in undertaking urban renewal projects to create a better urban living environment for the people.
28 July, 2019