Crafting a Corridor of Good Living
No longer content to measure success in terms of cargo shipments, Kaohsiung is expanding green spaces and opening arts districts, to remake itself as a "great city to live in."
Crafting a Corridor of Good LivingBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 502 )
As the car crosses Tongmeng Rd., the pale pink petals of the orchid tree blossoms greet the summer breeze gently caressing the riverbank.
Traffic along this road almost entirely moves at a snail's pace. No one's in a hurry, because this is the end of their journey.
Off to the right, beyond the lush vegetation, is the east bank of Love River; to the left, a suspension bridge is sheltered among the rolling hills.
Not long ago, this area was a wasteland of factories and abandoned buildings. Today it is the site of Jhong Du Wetland Park, winner of the 2012 International Real Estate Federation Prix d'Excellence – something of an architectural "Oscar" – in the Environmental (Conservation/Rehabilitation) Category.
Once upon a time, Kaohsiung was a place where "noxious fumes rose in the tropical sun, and people fled in terror from the river's flow," where blue skies were a rarity due to the long-term air pollution of heavy industry, where the locals didn't trust the tap water, even after boiling it.
But now the general impression of Kaohsiung has taken a 180-degree turn.
The city's transformation can perhaps be best gauged in the numbers of foreign and domestic tourists who have begun flocking to the city.
Last year, tourist visits reached 3.64 million, a 46-percent increase over the previous year. Of those visits, 44 percent went to foreign tourists. In the first half of this year, the number of tourist visits had already reached 2.06 million and appears likely to set another annual record by the end of this year.
One of the real bright spots on Kaohsiung's tourism scene has been the city's transformation of a disused sea freight warehouse within the city's harbor area into the Pier Two Art Center. Following on last year's stellar record of 1.54 million visitors to the arts center, visits have already reached 1.4 million in the first half of this year alone.
This has all come about because Kaohsiung has now begun to use a different yardstick by which to measure the city's worth.
"Kaohsiung has transformed its environment to become a city that's great to live in," says Wu Wen-yen, an assistant professor at I-Shou University's Department of Public Policy and Management.
No Fatted Calf for Developers
The city has gone from its past standard of measuring itself in terms of providing services to industry to a more people-centered approach. Behind that turnaround was a long, arduous period in which the city was blindly groping in the dark trying to find its way.
Looking back on Kaohsiung's history, it is apparent that it was a city born entirely to serve industry.
"Even the roads are particularly outsized, particularly broad, and that was to facilitate the transport of goods," says Su Ying-min, chairperson of National Taipei University of Technology's Department of Architecture and director of the department's Studio of Environmental Regeneration.
As heavy industry declines, however, in which direction is a lost city to go?
Replicating the experience of Taipei seemed to offer the speediest solution. A dozen or so years ago, the Kaohsiung City Government grandiosely designated 46 areas around the city where old, dilapidated structures were to be torn down to make way for "urban renewal."
Academic assessments of the plan, however, warned that with its flat population growth and declining industrial base, Kaohsiung was a loser in the globalization game. They warned that rashly demolishing aging structures would either be doomed to failure or merely set the banquet table with a fatted calf for developers to devour.
"Kaohsiung needs to adjust the city's functions, in order to revitalize and regenerate the city," Wu Wen-yen says. Urban planners are well aware that urban renewal cannot be "expedited," that it must be a gradual, step-by-step transformation.
The change is occurring on all sides; from Love River straight through to the Kaohsiung Harbor.
In the past, Love River, which runs through central Kaohsiung, was considered a "stinking sewage canal," notorious as a red light district after nightfall.
Now city residents can bicycle along the paths that line the riverbank from Lotus Pond in the north of the city all the way to the mouth of the river where it empties into the Taiwan Strait, a scenic 24.5 km ride.
The success of the Love River restoration project has prompted the city government to realign its priorities with people's needs and focus on creating public spaces.
Linking Green Spaces into a Green Corridor
Wu Hong-mo, then director of the city's Public Works Bureau, boldly recommended using billions of NT dollars worth of commercially zoned, city-owned property and turning it into an urban forest park.
"I could have instantaneously replenished the city's empty treasury by selling this 10-hectare tract of land," says cash-strapped Kaohsiung's mayor Chen Chu, who spent plenty of sleepless nights agonizing over the decision. She ultimately decided to turn the land back over to the people of the city.
Kaohsiung has subsequently opened up 233 hectares of green space as "land for public facilities," more than three times that in Taipei and New Taipei cities.
Next, walls surrounding schools and parks were brought down to turn green spaces from isolated islands into a contiguous tract.
"In this way public spaces were opened up to become landmarks for living," says architect Lu Yui, adding that the biggest change in Kaohsiung has been the city's linking of green space into a green corridor.
By "returning the land to the water," one wetland area after another appeared within the city. Jhouzai, Jhong Du, and Benhe Village wetland parks have become bastions of flood control renovation as the city faces the uncertainties of climate change.
A decade ago, average per capita green space for Kaohsiung residents was just half that of Taipei residents. A decade on, the figure has risen from 2.4 to 6.1 square meters per capita, exceeding Taipei's 5.33 square meters per person.
Kaohsiung has also expended considerable effort in public infrastructure.
The wildly colorful stained glass mosaic artwork "Dome of Light" by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata in the Kaohsiung MRT's Formosa Boulevard Station prompted the U.S-based indie travel website "BootsnAll" to rank the station second on their list of the 15 "Most Beautiful Subway Stops in the World." The city's Central Park Station, incidentally, ranked fourth.
Driven by public infrastructure, the Kaohsiung real estate market has begun to react.
Kaohsiung's developmental path has been entirely different from that of Taipei and Taichung.
"What's buoyed real estate here hasn't been development or urban renewal, but following along with public space initiatives," says Chen Wu-tsung, chairman of the Real Estate Development Association of Kaohsiung.
The next factor was the renovation of the old harbor.
A year ago, Kaohsiung City Exploratory Committee commissioner Hsu Li-ming and Lu Wei-ping, director of the city's Urban Development Bureau, spent all night discussing the post-renovation future of Kaohsiung Harbor. The night concluded with five Chinese characters inscrutably scrawled across a whiteboard: "The New Bay Area of Asia."
In the past, the city's harbor never belonged to the city's actual residents. While Kaohsiung Harbor once reigned as the world's number-three container port, it at the same time had absolutely nothing to do with the lives of the great majority of city residents. It was a guarded no-go zone surrounded by walls and off-limits to "outsiders." But the harbor's decline as a container port has conversely brought opportunity for the city.
In late May, CommonWealth Magazine reporters got a pre-opening opportunity to catch a cruise vessel that will ply the waters between Pier Two Art Center, the old Takao Harbor district and Hongmaogang Cultural Park.
"This is the first time in my life I've seen Kaohsiung from the water," one 50-something city government employee told reporters.
Beginning in 2014 the area ringing the harbor's edge and the surrounding environs will see some of the biggest changes to occur here in more than half a century.
An expanded waterfront arts, culture and music center; international passenger liner terminal and marina; a central city library; and a world trade, conference and exhibition center will all soon ring the harbor, if all goes according to plan.
In the future, ships will be able to arrive and pull up directly at the harborside conference and exhibition center to participate in international events, and the passenger terminal will offer a new port of entry for international travelers.
Aside from providing urban space with a more waterfront feel and maritime character, the focus of business will shift toward the arts. Tourism is expected to become the backbone of consumer activity, and digital content the center of high-tech production.
In September of this year, Rhythm & Hues Studios, a Hollywood visual effects and animation post-production studio, is expected to open its new facility within the Pier Two Art Center. Brogent Technologies Inc. has also invested in the Kaohsiung Software Park, further solidifying the foundations of an international-caliber digital entertainment media industry.
Old Ailments Persist as New Ills Arise
The island district of Cijin seems about to melt in the scorching heat as the height of summer arrives.
A CommonWealth Magazine crew accompanies Horizon Group CEO John Lu on a tour of one of his company's yachts, which is moored at quayside undergoing finishing touches before being put to sea. One after the other, gleaming vessels line the quay, each bearing the sleek silver "Horizon" logo – an impressive sight.
There are currently more than 630 Horizon yachts cruising the world's waterways. The Horizon Group now ranks as Asia's biggest yacht-building concern.
Around 80 percent of the yachts produced in Taiwan are built in Kaohsiung. Already, 22 of Taiwan's yacht manufacturers have expressed interest in moving into the yacht manufacturing industrial park the Kaohsiung City Government is constructing within the Nansing Project Area.
"Our yacht-building industry is not huge. But small is beautiful," says Horizon's John Lu, who grew up along the banks of Love River and ultimately relies on the sea for his living. "We should pursue diversified development of small, beautiful industries, so that the vagaries of economic crisis can't topple us in one fell swoop."
Kaohsiung is also an ideal place in which to develop recreational boating and other leisure-oriented industries. With abundant sunshine and excellent water conditions, Kending, Penghu and Siao Liouciou are just a short, pleasant sail away.
"Kaohsiung possesses some unique conditions that other cities just don't have," says Lu, full of expectation.
But there are still a number of daunting challenges to overcome.
Over the past decade, King's Group president Liu Chao-sen has spent considerable time in Shanghai, Xiamen and other cities.
"The scope of progress in Kaohsiung remains too small," he says, staring out from his 16th-floor office window across an expanse of tin roofs glinting under the tropical sun.
As far as public transport goes, Kaohsiung has only two subway lines, and the bus system is far from comprehensive. This has always been one of Kaohsiung's biggest problems.
"You know why Kaohsiung girls don't wear skirts?" one city official asks wryly. "Because they all ride scooters."
There is also no shortage of doubters who feel Kaohsiung lacks a sufficiently clear sense of direction, that it will end up all hardware and no content, creating only a new wave of structures destined to fall into disrepair and ruin.
Debt King vs. Livable City
For a city to develop, it needs industry, land, capital and population. Population is the indispensable pillar of any city. Yet population growth in Kaohsiung has stalled, with household registrations increasing by less than 40,000 people over the past decade. The city has been bleeding people as residents move north or across the Taiwan Strait. The actual residential population is far below official statistics.
Those who remain to make their way here are increasingly anxious. In 2009, Kaohsiung's unemployment rate topped out at 5.9 percent, higher than the national average of 5.85 percent. While that has improved to 4.4 percent today, Kaohsiung does not occupy a particularly favorable position among Taiwan's five major cities.
Then there is the problem of housing prices. Kaohsiung residents fear that hot money coming in from the north and from China will inflate local housing prices.
"With real estate prices getting more and more expensive, who'll be able to afford a house in the future?" Lin Shu-ling, a resident of the old downtown area, worries.
According to real estate industry assessments, around 30 percent of real estate transactions in Kaohsiung in recent years have been concluded with investors from up north.
In the area surrounding the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, one of the city's hottest neighborhoods, one ping of floor space (app. 36 square feet) would set you back about NT$150,000 four or five years ago. Today that figure stands at more than NT$200,000.
Kaohsiung is also facing a perilous fiscal situation. The Ministry of Finance recently released its first-ever "local debt alarm." Kaohsiung was rated the "debt king," with NT$212.9 billion in liabilities, or an average of NT$76,000 per resident, significantly higher than the NT$62,000 per capita average in Taipei.
Ultimately, a gleaming city that's a "great place to live" cannot get by on a pretty facade alone. It must come up with more ways to support itself. Kaohsiung urgently needs to seek out businesses to come and generate new development in the city.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy