Tiny Tuesday: Kowloon

Laws that govern land use and minimum square footage often run contrary to the goals of microhousing proponents. So what happens when you let a neighborhood develop without enforcing any building or zoning codes? You get Kowloon Walled City.

Now a neighborhood in crowded Hong Kong, Kowloon’s history begins nearly 1000 years ago as a walled fort built during the Song dynasty. The fort remained a Chinese outpost when the surrounding land was ceded to Britain in the late 19th century, and it became a haven for refugees after Japanese occupation during World War II. The walls were removed, but both Britain and China left the jurisdiction to its own devices.

Builders went wild. Apartments were stacked on top of one another and cantilevered out to meet the adjacent towers, turning streets below into tunnels. The aesthetic from outside was a 14-story windowed block of concrete. (A nearby airport restricted overall height, the one zoning law the city dared to enforce.) In the 1980s, a census documented 33,000 people living in a space of 6.5 acres. That’s over 3 million people per square mile, or 50 times the population density of Manhattan.


An alley within Kowloon Walled City. (flickr – creative commons)

If you’re a student of architecture, or if you’ve ever played SimCity, you know about the visionary self-contained communities known as arcologies. Kowloon was a real-life, unintentional arcology… and it was far from the utopia of most architects’ dreams. As this Basement Geographer article shows, living conditions were squalid. Air and water quality lagged far behind the rest of industrialized Hong Kong. Free of regulation, the hundreds of businesses within Kowloon included unlicensed doctors, drug dealers, and brothels. Sunless alleys were lit 24 hours a day by fluorescent lights. Garbage piled on rooftops because it had nowhere else to go.

In the early 1990s, shortly before Hong Kong returned to China, the city condemned Kowloon Walled City and evicted its residents. The neighborhood was demolished and is now a public park. Kowloon’s history serves as a warning to tiny-house enthusiasts that the codes exist for a reason.

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