Participatory Strategies: The Reconstruction of Choi Yuen Village

Department: Architecture
Lead Architect & Planner: Wang Weijen (Wang Weijen Architecture)

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The design of Choi Yuen Village is a community re-habitation project in the New Territories of Hong Kong. Started with a protest against village re-location by the construction of High-Speed Rail Link, the movement marks a turning point in formulating alternative planning strategies for bottom-up development and grass-root participation, as well as green architecture and organic agriculture in rural Hong Kong. The project receives three regional and national design awards based on its social and community significance, including 2016 CAMA Award, which the jury is chaired by Pritzker Prize winner Wang Shu.

Facing challenges in planning and design methodologies for effective community participations, the project developed rigorous methods of “Prototypes + Variations”, moderating the dilemma between Modern Design vs. Vernacular Process, as well as Collective Form vs. Individual Needs. By formulating a typological based design mechanism, with a series of participatory strategies including Design Clinic and Recycling Pavilion, the project adopts measures for establishing green architecture and public spaces, opening up new opportunities for community design against the mainstream mode of housing development in Hong Kong.

The project completed a set of designs for 50 low-cost eco-village houses with public facilities and communal spaces, demonstrating sustainable design concepts including conservation of fishponds and orchards, allocation of 1/3 land for commune farming, establishing vehicular-free pedestrian system, natural ventilation and lighting with green roof for houses, as well as developing public infrastructures with rainwater collection and wastewater recycling systems. After a six-year-long process of negotiation, planning and design as well as temporary sheltering, the construction was finally completed in 2016.

With the support of HKU Knowledge Exchange Funding, the team is able to continue the design with villagers on improving various communal facilities, including the irrigation system for vegetable farming and planting trees for public patios. Through ten years of extensive media reports and engagements from different social groups, the project makes significant impacts to the community and professionals, demonstrating an innovative and alternative model for designing communal architecture in Hong Kong and worldwide.

Protecting Homeland
A grass-root Civic Movement

On Christmas Eve 2009, over thousands of farmers from rural Hong Kong, as well as social activists and supporters gathered at the government’s headquarters in Central, demanding their rights to stay in the land where they had settled for over 50 years, protesting against the relocation order which shall take away their farmlands due to the construction of High-Speed Rail linking Hong Kong and Beijing. Coming from a small village near Yuen Kong in Hong Kong’s Northwest New Territories, five kilometers away from the border of China, these 200 villagers, for the first time since Hong Kong’s colonial and post-colonial era, rejected the government’s resettlement proposal for moving into high-rise public housing, insisting to continue farming and their long relationships with the land.

For Hong Kong, a city that economic growth and development had always been considered as higher priority under the efficient colonial administration, the protest of Choi Yuen Village not only draws public attention over the issue on, under what circumstances can development be justified to deprive the right of habitation, and it also opens up the public debate on how metropolitan Hong Kong can still maintain its sustainable agriculture for keeping a symbiotic relationship with its rural environment. With the increasing civic concerns over the community and heritage conservation after handover in 1997, Choi Yuen Villagers’ voice of “protecting homeland” gained support from the media and the general public, particularly progressive civic groups, academia and professionals.

Voices from Vegetable Garden:
Bottom-up Planning and Re-habitation Design 

“Choi Yuen” literally means Vegetable Garden, this rural village named Vegetable paradoxically becomes the symbol of tying a grass-root based civic movement from rural vegetable farm to the green movement of urban middle class. Led by social activist YC Chan, Dick Chu and other volunteers, Choi Yuen Village Concern Group, a loosely formed grass-root organization, started to work with the villagers to prepare for the long battle. The battlefield also quickly moved from metropolitan Central back to the village  site in the New Territories. A workshop pavilion was set up in the village as the community center, while the original vegetable loading station was converted into an outdoor assemblage hall for villagers’ meeting.

Making a long term plan for village relocation was a hard decision after realizing the continuous protest and confrontation at the frontline is not getting anywhere. Centered around a dozen core members from the village, this multi-disciplinary team including academia and social workers, architects and planners, engineers and surveyors, lawyers and advocators in organic farming, helps on advising various works – from purchasing land to acquiring permit to the planning and design of village houses and finally leading to the building of a new village at the site nearby.

Two types of works were identified for dealing with intermediate and long term issues. The former was mostly related to social political issues ranging from negotiation with the Transportation Department and KCRC on concerns such as the extension of demolition date to buy time for better preparation, the condition on the provision of temporary shelters and infrastructures before a new village can be settled. The intermediate measures also include confrontational ones like organizing community petrol team during the period of protest, preventing ambush bulldozing demolition from police and the railway contractor.

For the long term planning of village, even the land negotiation for a new village site was not an easy task mainly because local politicians and developers are concerned that these Choi Yuen village farmer’s moving in may change the ecology of regional politics. After some struggles, a long trip of land sitting along the foothill of Dai Lan Mountain was finally secured, with a small creek with clear water coming down from the hill, passing through woods with orchard trees, running into a fishpond at the village front. Judging from many standards, this irregular and narrow piece of land was by no means a perfect site for new village layout, but in the eye of villagers and their supporters, this is a utopia site of idealism: a new paradigm for Hong Kong exploring self-organized planning and architectural design with strong social and environmental position.

Planning Ecological Village:
A Participatory Process

Invited by the Choi Yuen Village Concern Group, Wang Weijen Architecture was asked to take up the physical layout of the village planning and the architectural design of 50 village houses. Many were convinced by the visionary ideas and green commitment, while some others were under peer pressure or felt indebted to their progressive supporters, all villagers agreed to build their new village in an ecological sustainable manner. Through advocating campaigns and multiple debates, with many negotiations and workshops supporting various sustainable ways of planning and building their villages, few consensuses were reached among villagers and the following principles were set as guidelines for laying out the plan.

1. Commune Farm Land :

With much less area of land allocated for typical vehicular access, it is agreed that 35% of the land should be designated for public use, including a large piece of commune land for agriculture. It will be, symbolically and functionally, the collective organic farm for the Vegetable Garden Village.

2. Car free Village :

It is agreed that unlike typical suburban housing with car park and vehicular access road dominating the development, their village will only have car park spaces arranged in the village front.  A pedestrian access road of one-and-a-half meter in width leading to each dwelling unit is agreed to be sufficient for daily use, like what their original old village had.

3. Fishpond and Orchard :

Keeping the original (agri)culture landscape and existing land feature was put up for debate and it finally reached an agreement. Not only at the ideological level, it was also meant to be politically correct for respecting the history of land, and environmentally the best choice since the orchard at the village center and the fishpond at the lowest part of the village site become an ideal site for collecting filtered grey water before recycling.

4. Village Road :

The three-hundred-meter-long village road connecting village from the North Entrance to the South End is the infrastructure spine of the village,  allowing the main sewage, power and cable line to be put under. A half-meter-wide rain water ditch is arranged in parallel to the one-and-half-meter-wide pedestrian road, filled with pebbles and water plants for filtering the grey water.

5. Water Recycling :

Along this three-hundred-meter-long roadside ditch, rainwater and grey water are gathered and gradually filtered by pebbles and plants into clean water while traveling down to the fishpond for collecting and irrigation recycling. Black water is also collected separately at a large sewage tank specially treated by an organic filtering mechanism using oyster shell.

6. Infrastructural Public Spaces:

The village is organized into the north, central and south sections, each with their own commons. In addition to arrange light posts and planting trees at the road junctions and patios for moderating the village sense of scale while creating public spaces. Through transforming small neighboring infrastructure nodes into public spaces, water meter boxes are designed to build on community benches to enhance the sense of community.

The layout of village master plan was developed in parallel to the establishment of the above principles. There are 50 family units, each with 1600 square foot of plot area to be allocated along the north-south main access road. With slightly different land prices set based on the location adjacency of each lot to the village entrance. Through open discussions and small group negotiations, three groups of communities were formed each taking the north, central and south sections.

Houses at the north section will either face the large commune farmland or adjacent to a linear greenery stretching toward a patio park near the secondary village entrance, connecting to a short cut foot trail leading to the bus stop. Houses at the central section will be sharing an orchard of Longyan tree. They will also have a large old Banyan tree sit along the middle of their part of the main road. Houses at the south section will be  adjacent to the foothill of mountain with woods and also the creek taking natural water down to the village.

The three-hundred-meter-long main pedestrian road is carefully animated from the village entrance to the back mountain. Starting from the entrance mailbox patio and the village grocery shop nearby the parking lot, the road leads to the commune farmland with a village pavilion in its center. Passing the orchard junction, with an array of public nodes of big trees, benches and patios arranged alongside the pedestrian road, leading us to the South Woods and foothill of the mountain. With the southwest prevailing summer breeze sliding down from the mountain taking the fresh moisture along, the village is considered to be of good Fengshui standard: embracing the comfort of wind and water.

Designing a Design Process: Prototypes + Variations

When architects started the design work of the village houses, in addition to overcome the low budget and tight schedule, the major challenge that lay ahead was: How can we develop a design process that will lead to build up village consensus and neighborhood collation rather than divisively amplifying the differences? How can this process sustain the original vernacular quality of Choi Yuen Village and yet can be designed by architects and be built by contractors under the contemporary mechanism of building practice? Three types of dialectic relationships were identified, each with their potential dilemmas to be resolved in an integrated way during the design process.

1. Modern Design and Vernacular Process:

Under the mode of modern architecture practice, how can an architect design fifty village houses within three months of time that are still able to maintain the organic quality of vernacular houses normally developed through a long period of time ? How can we transform the model of “Prototype + Modification” in the theory of vernacular architecture into a design model that is applicable in the mode of modern housing design?

2. Collective Form and Individual Space Needs:

Under the mode of contemporary construction process, how can an architect meet the different needs of each individual household while still able to develop a set of manageable working drawings that facilitates a manageable tendering process? Instead of ending up with making 50 different units of single family house design, how can we develop a design system that allows flexibility yet still be considered by contractor as a housing project for managing the cost of construction?

3. Interactive Bottom-up and Effective Top-down:

Working with the model of contemporary decision-making process in design, how can we moderate a participatory process that accommodates a variety of inputs from different houses, and still be able to maintain professional knowledge be effectively coordinate the design into a holistic entity? Rather than adopting convenient participatory design tactics like user-design workshop for making doll house-like models, or standard procedure of group discussion with roundtable conclusions, what are the other innovative ways that we can develop in an interactive design process to accommodate sufficient feedback in a manageable manner?

After mapping out different patterns of existing village houses, and survey functional expectations of each household, two key measures were formulated for designing the design process: Prototype + Variation and the arrangement of Design Clinic. These two measures were critical to address the dilemma of collective vs. individual, as well as top-down vs. bottom-up. The final house designs not only ensure most houses face the prevailing summer wind and all rooms have windows on both sides for cross-ventilation, but also encourage most of them to be able to equip with rainwater collection pond and green-roof facilities.     

1. Prototype + Variation

The fist key measure is the establishment of three basic house prototypes, each was tailor-made for different site dimensions, orientations and layout expectations: A), the symmetrical three modular-bay horizontal block developed from the basic unit of Chinese traditional dwelling, with public hall in the central bay and kitchen on the side bay; B), the rectangular atrium block developed from the prototype of Chinese traditional shop-houses with public hall on the front and kitchen/dinning space at the back; and C), the square shape block popular among villages houses developed in Hong Kong’s New Territories after the 1970s.

After a fixed structure dimension was set for exterior form, stairway and service location, each prototype can be mirrored in plan for producing another twin type, and each type can also be further developed into more sub-types due to partition variations made for different user’s expectation on bedroom numbers or living room modules. After selecting their preferred prototypes from the three basic A, B and C types, workshops were arranged with each household to refine their partition preferences which will lead to the final adjustments on their doors, window patterns, color and material options. At the end, with the model of “Prototype + Adjustments”, the A, B and C prototypes were eventually developed into nearly 50 different variations but yet similar to three houses forms.

Different tactics were launched to facilitate the identification of villagers’ preferred types and to follow up the design process. Three types of color pamphlets were delicately printed out like developer’s sale booklet to make villagers felt like they were making their choices with great respect. Each type of pamphlet was also laid out with plans of axiomatic renderings, model images as well as tick boxes for villagers to choose from. Although the design decision was finally made in the workshop session, the pamphlets and images prepared them for the design decision-making and opened up their imaginations about spaces.

2. Design Clinic: the method of participation

Before the final production of tendering drawings, three major two-day weekend workshops were arranged for design consultation. Normally, four neighboring households were invited together at one time to take part in a one-and-a-half-hour-long workshop session. Sitting around a large table with the large-scale site model of the village and everyone’s houses placed in front of them, architects demonstrated possible building layouts within each house lot, while their future neighbors were all sitting around, giving friendly suggestions as well as making subtle negotiations on matters regarding potential blocking of views or winds. Conflicting issues were usually resolved and public interest was well-protected in this open mode of consultation.

Villagers will usually arrive early or stay behind to sit in other session’s discussions for trying to know more about the nationhood. With the six-session per day arrangement, 24 household design consultations can be completed within a day. The architect and villagers were almost behaved like making medical doctor’s clinic consultation and attending appointments. With intensive, productive and interactive workshops which last for 3 to 4 weekends, although the architects were completely exhausted, the design decision for 50 village houses were eventually confirmed for moving forward to the final drafting.

Based on the agreed layout plans and the selected house types for each house, one set of working drawing which accommodates design of 50 units’ variations was developed for the tendering process. Parallel to the architectural design, with the help from expert team members, Choiyuan Village Concern Group and villagers held meetings nearly every once a week to resolve issues concerning site formation, drainage and infrastructures including water and power supplies, waste, sewage and water recycling systems. Up to that point, even though it was challenging with various difficulties in front of us, it was an optimistic and rewarding process for the team –  considering that we were about to build the first bottom-up ecological village in Hong Kong. The real challenge for the villagers to overcome in the next two years, was the village relocation and the frustration of long-awaited construction in the temporary shelters.

Shelter Communal Space for Public Forums:
Village Process I

After nearly one year of struggles in demonstrations and protests, with support from press reportings and television documentations, the government finally decided to take action to remove the village by the end of 2010, before the new village site is ready to be moved in. Not only the architectural design had to consider the location and layout for temporary shelters in the new village site before the construction can start, including the logistics of material moving for the house construction as well as the moving out of shelters after the completion of new village, the layout plan also strategically allows the reuse of infrastructures for temporary shelters provided by the government plan, to become the permanent ones for the new village.

In January 2011, all villagers finally moved into the temporary shelter in their new site, for the first time, spending their Chinese New Year away from the old home where they grew up in. In order not to affect the future house construction, the shelters were sub-divided into north and south sections, each occupying the future open spaces in planning. Common spaces were also arranged for the temporary shelter with the first courtyard used for vegetable garden and the other courtyard used for public gathering, meeting, commune lunch and village banquet party.

In the coming two years during the village construction, this open courtyard patio became the site not only used for village public activities, but also as a classroom for facilitating Hong Kong’s community movements: weekend guided tours for rural engagement, workshops for organic farming, experience-sharing sessions for sustainable planning strategy. Through the internet website, the temporary shelter of Vegetable Garden Village not only hosted visitors coming from different districts in Hong Kong, but also attracted scholars and progressive community groups from Taiwan, China, and other cities in Asia, building a platform in sharing experiences for alternative living.

Pavilion Recycling from Architecture Biennale:
Village Process II

The village construction did not really get to start until April 2013, due to the unsettling negotiation on village access road, sewage disposal, and the construction cost and terms with contractors. To boost up the village spirit during the slow awaiting process, with the help of villagers, the architects designed a pavilion in Kowloon Park for the 2012 Hong Kong Biennale. In order to promote the idea of sustainability, the pavilion will be recycled back to the village after the exhibition. Most of the pavilion components come from recycling wastes or renewable materials: plastic bottle and recycled cement wall, recycled wood panel and steel construction, shading-fabric used for rural agriculture. It also demonstrates experiments on solar panel, rainwater-collection for fishpond and irrigation uses. Through the public event of installation, it is hoped that this ecological pavilion will become the first construction project of public spaces for the village re-habitation.

The pavilion building also intends to become a public platform for the villagers, supporting groups and all citizens, in sharing ideas of organic farming, through a self-organized bottom-up approach, and sustainable design/construction process for rural Hong Kong. Through the action of dismantling, relocating and assembling, it also aims to consolidate differences and build up consensus for everyone over the idea of sustaining the green environment and protecting the homeland.

Construction and Post-construction

The village construction finally started one year after the pavilion exhibition of Architecture biennale. After six-year-long negotiations, planning and designing, temporary sheltering and construction, the building of village houses was finally completed before the Chinese New Year of 2016. Through media reports and participations of social groups over nearly ten years, the project had made significant impacts to the potential community designs in the region.

After two years of building completion, with the support of Knowledge Exchange Funding from HKU, the architects now continue their involvements with the villagers on shaping the communities’ spaces, including the infrastructural planning of vegetable farming, water irrigation systems and tree plantations.  The making of new Choi Yuen Village is not only a struggle for the grass-root in protecting and building their new home, but also a collective opposition against the typical procedure-rationale in decision making for Hong Kong’s urban-rural environments. It introduces an alternative design-planning for a more democratic and bottom-up process in shaping our city.

Enlarge Photo: Participatory Strategies: The Reconstruction of Choi Yuen Village 1