Kowloon "Walled City" started in an area the size of one large city block in Hong Kong, from an old military fort. After its Japanese occupation during WWII a political loophole between Chinese and British administrations drew an increasing number of squatters to inhabit the area and build new settlements. The absence of regulations quickly made it a haven for criminals and drug addicts, but also businesses, factories, dentistry clinics... Police raids curbed the Triads initial domination of the Walled City in the 1970s, but municipal services and regulations were mostly absent, save for basic garbage collection, mail delivery and one official potable water well in the later years. Before the eviction of its population and demolition in 1993, the Walled City was home to over 35,000 souls - a density of population of 1,225,000 people / km2. . Without enforcement of urban planning or building code for decades, the streets gradually disappeared into the monolithic mass of buildings morphing together, replaced by a maze of corridors and alleys serving minuscule businesses and apartments, allowing one to cross the entire city without walking on solid ground. . Commonsense community rules replaced laws that were in effect in the rest of the city: power was illegally tapped from Hong Kong's grid to power lighting and micro-factories, trash was dumped on rooftops, or piled on the lowest levels alleys, around open-air drains. The only building rule was a limit to the units height to comply with the nearby airport flight paths, and the interdiction to rely on open flame for heating or lighting. Although they were living in very poor conditions, the population was extremely busy, most people operating 1-man businesses or small factories, sold cheap materials, ingrediens and products to the rest of Hong Kong, and organized the community with shared day cares, schools, and resting areas on the rooftops. . Sources: Book: City of Darkness - Life In Kowloon Walled City (Ian Lambot, Greg Girard) http://www.greggirard.com/work/kowloon-walled-city--13 http://blokink.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/kowloon-walled-city-words-with-stu-easton/ http://coilhouse.net/2008/08/kowloon-walled-city-the-modern-pirate-utopia/
What are the three key lessons you learned?
1) Not unlike Nature abhorring a vacuum, the city fabric will fill any void, be it regulatory, spatial or economic.
2)The absence of government oversight prompts a spontaneous set of rules, illustrating in order the risks any dense city has to mitigate:
- escape form oppression (initial squatters were refugees from Japanese occupation or after China's revolution),
- fire (one of the few of the City's rule was to ban open flames despite the total lack of natural light in most of its units)
- organized crime (the Walled City housed many opium dens, brothels and gambling parlors before police crackdowns and raids in the 1970s)
- Economic value (Kowloon Walled City's tapping of Hong Kong's power grid, poor sanitary conditions or being an eyesore were necessary evils that took decades before considered not worth it anymore)
3)Density and a looser form a government boosted efficiency. Limited amounts of power, space and regulations showed necessary to enable a large active community, however only dignity really sets the limit to how crammed, cheap and liberal we want our cities to be.
Describe a "good failure" in your process.
The good that arose from this political management failure is the spontaneous organization that emerged in such a densely packed area. Because such a concentration did not impact labor, Kowloon became an extremely efficient place on many aspects.
What was the biggest challenge or biggest surprise?
One of the challenges that Kowloon Walled City represented was that it stood between the interests and susceptibilities of two super powers, which both found more comfortable to let the area rule itself, making it a government-forgotten place.
Another challenge, which is also quite a surprise, is that the community developed into a poor and unsanitary yet productive ecosystem, and proved a valued source of cheap labor for Hong Kong.
How would you describe your project to a small child?
Kowloon Walled City stood between the Chinese and British jurisdictions and none took responsibility for it. With no planning nor regulations, it grew to an extremely densely packed, and poor yet busy community. Basic infrastructure spontaneously developed, and the City operated for decades before being torn down.