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Kowloon – Once the Densest Place on Earth

Kowloon Walled City circa 1989. Photo by  Jidanni / Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Kowloon Walled City circa 1989. Photo by Jidanni / Wikimedia Creative Commons.

A fantastic series of photos of the old Kowloon Walled City (Hong Kong) has been circulating recently. These were taken over five years by Greg Girard and Ian Lamboth before the city was raised in 1992, to be replaced by a park that occupies the space. The photos may be seen at Girard’s website here.

The largely informal city had between 33,000 – 50,000 residents (sources disagree) in the .026 square km (1/100 of a sq.mile)  area just before the government announced evictions, citing unsanitary conditions, according to a report in Mail Online. That’s a density of about 1.5 million per square kilometer.

I love the photo above because of its juxtaposition of the two approaches to dense living – the unplanned city in the foreground and the planned city in the background. It’s a picture of the ideals and failures of modernism, in a Jane Jacobs vs. Le Corbusier sense.

Kowloon area today. Less dense, slightly more planned and ordered. Photo by Tsim Sha Tsui / Creative Commons.

Kowloon area today. Less dense, slightly more planned and ordered. Photo by Tsim Sha Tsui / Creative Commons.

The Mail Online has a good writeup. The  interesting thing is that the evictions elicited resistance and protests from many residents. They didn’t find the conditions unlivable; their communities inside the tiny apartments and narrow passageways were their own. This isn’t the first time accounts from residents in slum-like density  have expressed a preference for those conditions over other relocation to less dense and/or more “humane” housing. For example, see Dharavi: Documenting Informalities or the novel Shantaram for experiences of living in Mumbai slums.

Not Mumbai, but a similar density in Bangalore.

Not Mumbai, but a similar density in Bangalore.

 

 

Both books depict incredibly complex cultures and support systems that allow co-dependent residents to live very close together. For comparison, the density of Dharavi in Mumbai is about 1/3 of Kowloon, at 500,000 per square kilometer. Beyond the visible squalor, the slums – like Kowloon – have tight-knit social and familial networks that make the density work.oday, well-paid tech workers will sometimes choose to live in their hometown slums because of their roots. This isn’t to glorify or justify the existence of such squalor, but it points to a mitigating factor in the concept of livability. Amount of space, quality of space, or number of rooms are less important to some than the context in which their living arrangements are set.

I suspect Jane Jacobs would not be surprised.

 

 

One Response

  1. […] the back where there is more available space is reminiscent of the construction you might find in informal cities. Much development in Asia today, for instance, occurs in gaps in streetfronts of similar size, […]

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