Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Buildings do not age gracefully in Hong Kong

Last Friday, just after lunchtime, a rundown housing block collapsed in Ma Tau Wai Road, in Hung Hom, killing four and injuring two. Had it happened at night, the number of victims would have been considerably higher, as the five-storey building had been partitioned into small cubicles and housed a large number of low-income families.

The walkup was built in the 1950s, and has been described by the local media and government officials as an "old" building.
OLD??? I wonder whether they would use the same adjective to describe a person of the same age, and call for the demise of anybody older than 50. Let's stick to the analogy of buildings and bodies, because it looks like this particular building caved under the weight of neglect and abuse, phenomena experienced by many other tenement houses in Hong Kong.
So, take a 50 year old person who has been subjected to all forms of abuse, the most common one being "work till you drop, breath toxic air and eat junk food", chances are s/he would be in a worse shape than someone who takes frequent holidays, lives in a more salubrious part of the world, and has enough money to eat a balanced diet.

In the developed world, only in Hong Kong buildings have a shorter life expectancy than people.

Instead of just pointing the finger at the age of these buildings, and calling for their immediate demolition, as the media and the URA have been doing, we should consider why buildings of this age are in such poor shape. We would then discover that their shape has been altered by illegal structures, balconies have been turned into extra rooms, small flats turned into even smaller flats, each one with its bathroom, kitchen and heavy appliances, adding a lot of extra weight to the structure, and that a family of four lives in less than 300 sf, while single people live in 100 sf cubicles.

Poverty and greedy property owners are the causes of this collapse, not the age of a building.

Unless people are paid a decent wage for their work, and a decent pension when they retire, unless the government forces property owners to maintain and repair their buildings, instead of letting them crumble in the hope of a generous pay-out from the URA, housing standards in HK will continue to be worse than what we see in shanty towns.

This collapse has given ammunition to the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) to tear down anything older than 50 years and allow developers to replace it with a 'podium and tower' 40-storey monster.

I would rather see nice old blocks given a new lease of life...because they have far more stories to tell than any sterile, unimaginative, excessively tall and expensive housing blocks that would otherwise replace them, blocking air flow, and driving low-income families to the fringes of our city.

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