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Fairview’s town center is designed with three main components: a community shopping mall to provide daily necessities and dining options, a recreational club for sports and leisure featuring nine tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool, and the largest private manmade lakes in Hong Kong, famous for its dozens of swans that call it home.

Endless skyscrapers, narrow streets, hanging neon signs amidst the concrete jungle. Welcome to Hong Kong’s urban fabric, both fascinating in its vibrancy, and overwhelming in its density. But in this hyper-dense city lies Fairview Park, a pioneering residential development in complete contrast to Hong Kong’s urbanity.

Built in phases from the late 1970s through the 1980s, Fairview Park is the largest low-density suburban estate in Hong Kong, with a built gross floor area (GFA) of 5 million square feet (464,515 sq m) spanning across a site area of 13 million square feet (1,207,740 sq m). The estate has more than 5,000 houses, most two stories high, and built within the well-planned community that nearly 20,000 residents now call it home. But most importantly, Fairview Park is regarded as the ground-breaking project that introduced North American-style, suburban house living concept to middle-class Hong Kong families.

Located in the northwest part of the city called the ‘New Territories’, historically this area was sparsely populated by agricultural villages and far removed from the urban core. However, the Hong Kong government’s recently announced the Northern Metropolis urban development plan, earmarked right around Fairview Park, has brought renewed interest to the area.

The development remains a unique proposition today for middle-class families and retirees who value its natural setting with ample outdoor space and a suburban lifestyle. However, in no other time has Fairview Park’s suburban environment been more treasured than during the COVID-19 pandemic, when personal space and outdoor environment became more valued , especially in contrast to the densely packed apartments where most Hong Kong live.

Clifford Wong’s Legacy

The visionary behind Fairview Park is Clifford Wong, the architect-turned-developer who introduced a different mode of living to a city mostly housed in mid- to high-rises. Wong spent most of his childhood in Hong Kong, then studied architecture at McGill University in Canada, graduating in 1960. During his time there, Wong witnessed the suburban boom in North America that was growing in full speed in the 1950s and ‘60s. He was inspired by the concept that middle-class families can own a standalone house with front and back yards and a car garage, all within a well-planned community built from scratch. Thus, Wong founded Fairland Holdings in the 1970s as the development company to realize this vision.

The concept of the North American suburban lifestyle was novel to Wong, and certainly the same for most Hong Kong residents at the time. Amongst this context, Wong envisioned the complete antithesis to the typical high-density Hong Kong housing model, where the suburban planned community presented high-quality personal space along with an ample quantity of outdoor space. The idea of such suburban typology was also influenced by the site’s surrounding environment. An amalgamation of several former fish farms and marshlands, the site lies adjacent to the famous Mai Po Wetlands, a protected nature reserve managed by the World Wildlife Fund and renowned for hosting migratory birds throughout the seasons. As such, building height for the general area was restricted to preserve natural sightlines and bird flightpaths.

The estate’s planning and design revolved around the concept of a largely self-sufficient community. Traveling by car to Hong Kong’s central business district (CBD) at that time in the ‘70s, before the network of highways was built, took over an hour. Today that time is cut to just over 20 minutes by car.

New murals and street level retail bring life to the town center.

A Town Center

Because of its relative isolation from the CBD, many daily amenities were included for the convenience of the residents and nearby areas. Three public schools were built inside the estate, as well as a church and fire station. A town center was also envisioned at the geographic center of Fairview Park as a leisure and daily amenities hub for residents and surrounding community. The town center is designed with three main components: a 100,000 square feet (9,290 sq m) community shopping mall to provide daily necessities and dining options, a 50,000 square feet (4,645) recreational club for sports and leisure featuring nine tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool, and the largest private manmade lakes in Hong Kong, famous for its dozens of swans that call it home.

Fairview Park itself was positioned for middle-class families and retirees who value the natural environment and ample space. Most of the 5,000 houses were designed as two-story, three-bedroom, semi-detached houses, with around 850 square feet GFA per house, which was considered quite generous as middle-class housing by Hong Kong standards back then and today. It is interesting to note the first batch of sales launched around 1978 had a listing price of HKD 120,000 (around USD $15,000), but by the third phase of sales in 1982, the houses were listed for HKD 550,000 (around USD $70,000). This reflected both Fairland’s increased confidence as the project launched, and the quickening pace of house price inflation in Hong Kong as the city became an Asian financial center.

The architectural design of the houses referenced typical American suburban typology at the time, from the pitched roof to general form of the houses. The main feature celebrating the suburban lifestyle is the open-air front and back yards for each house. Residents often enjoy growing their own gardens in the yards and even host neighborhood sales for their home-grown fruits and vegetables. Another classic suburban feature is a dedicated covered car parking space for each house. Although not quite the spacious garages seen in Western suburbia, it was nonetheless a dream for middle class families to own a car and proper parking space next to their homes.

Trail Blazing

Fairview Park is also noteworthy as the earliest adopter of prefabrication construction in Hong Kong. Prefabrication technology was at its infancy in the 1970s, but Wong felt the project’s large scale provided a good opportunity for this method. To ensure a high quality of workmanship, Fairland set up its own cement manufacturing plant for prefabricating components. However, there were only a few contractors at the time capable of meeting the standards for prefabrication, and consequently the construction costs were higher than expected compared with conventional in-situ construction.

By the late 1980s as Fairview Park matured with most phases completed and occupied, Wong’s vision of a suburban community for the middle class had finally became a completed reality. The project became a landmark in Hong Kong as the earliest and largest low-density suburban community in the city, with a population of nearly 20,000. Over the decades, Fairview Park served as a unique proposition to Hong Kong families who enjoyed the environment outside the  dense urbanity of Hong Kong. Sadly, Wong passed away in 1987 from cancer and never had the chance to enjoy the estate’s full completion. The community center at Fairview Park Church—Clifford C.F. Wong Community Centre— was dedicated in his memory and to honor his achievement.

The estate’s development over the 1980s coincided with China’s creation of the city of Shenzhen, right across the border from Hong Kong, and just a few kilometers away from Fairview Park. Shenzhen was founded as a manufacturing and trading city and, due to Fairview Park’s close proximity a short 15-minute drive from the border, many residents were factory or business owners who traveled across the border to Shenzhen on a daily or weekly basis. Today, the rows of skyscrapers in Shenzhen can easily be seen from the estate, providing an interesting reflection of the city’s rapid transformation into China’s technology hub.

Fairview Park’s Transformation

Fairview Park remains a popular living destination with families and retirees today. Even though the individual houses were all sold by the 1990s, Fairland continued to own and operate the Town Center shopping mall and country club, and manage the estate’s daily operations. As a reflection of the outdoor environment, a unique open-air design consisting of multiple blocks connected by outdoor pedestrian walkways was adopted for the Town Center shopping mall—The antithetical  of typical shopping malls in Hong Kong, which are usually completely indoors. At the Town Center, most of the shops instead faced the open ‘street’ creating a retail village similar in concept to the lifestyle retail centers popular in California during the 1980s and ‘90s.

But 35 years after opening, the Town Center was showing its age, so in 2018, Fairland undertook a major refurbishment and repositioning of the shopping mall, upgrading its aging buildings and amenities to better serve the community. Fairland set out some key goals in the refurbishment project—to refresh its look and feel, reorient shop frontage, revamp tenant mix, and provide more amenities for the community. The overall theme was to further celebrate Fairview Park’s unique natural and green environment, and to create a more vibrant community retail and services hub.

The multiple blocks format, mostly blank, offered much exterior wall frontage, so Fairland designed a customized green geometric pattern, and applied it to visible locations on the walls to add visual interest and reinforce the overall green theme. Live bamboo planter walls were also added to hide previously blank parapet walls, contributing to the natural feel of the environment. On two highly visible wall corners, Fairland invited two Hong Kong mural artists to design the Town Centre’s new landmark murals, with its popular lake and swans as the art theme. Even today many visitors take a pause to admire the murals and snap photos of them.

Homes use modular construction to help keep costs in check.

Retail Renewal

The next major transformation was the shopfronts for one of the retail blocks. The ground-floor shops originally faced inward toward a narrow and uninviting corridor, while the exterior-facing façade was mostly walled off. Fairland made the bold move to open up the exterior walls and flip the orientation of the shopfront openings toward the outer “street.”

The results significantly improved the shops’ visibility and accessibility, allowing customers to easily see the shops activity and products from the streets, and increased leasable area by extending the shop space into the former corridor while adding to the vibrancy of the Town Center. Most impressively, with meticulous construction planning and coordination with shop tenants, just a small area was cordoned off for the entrance repositioning works, allowing most tenants to continue business throughout the renovation without needing to vacate.

The project was not limited to just physical improvements, as Fairland also revamped the tenant mix to better serve the daily needs of the community. Three new restaurants were introduced, adding more food and beverage options, and increased the overall footfall and energy of the Town Center.

The Town Center also had many tutorial and education businesses that were scattered throughout the various blocks, without a coherent tenant placement strategy. Fairland took the opportunity to coordinate with all such tenants and relocated them into a dedicated ‘learning’ space on the upper floor, creating not just a stronger tenant theme, but also adding synergies amongst the education businesses and customer parents.

Community Building

Furthering a sense of community at the Town Center was also one of Fairland’s key goals in the repositioning project. The Town Center had a large but aging square plaza for events and gatherings, and Fairland resurfaced the area and added a large artificial lawn where children today enjoy sitting around and playing. Simple improvements to amenities such as adding shaded seating benches and organizing more festive events and weekend markets, fostered a sense that the Town Center was not just a destination for shops and services, but also a place for families and friends to gather casually and enjoy the unique natural environment.

The refurbishment and repositioning project completed in early 2020, coinciding with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although there were some disruptions, the Town Center remained a popular destination for residents from Fairview Park and nearby areas to shop and spend time together. This is in part from the transformed spaces and improved tenant-mix, but also because the spacious outdoors environment was especially attractive during the pandemic, compared with most of Hong Kong’s more densely packed indoor shopping malls. In fact, during 2020 to 2022, Fairland was able to consistently increase tenant rents on average 10 percent to 12 percent upon renewal, even as high street luxury retail rents fell significantly, reflecting the resilient demand and spending power from a focused residential community.

Fairview Park’s Future

Hong Kong’s housing shortage continues to challenge the city as a key social issue. Although Fairview Park was built during a time when limited land supply was not yet a major factor, it nonetheless serves as an example of when both government and developer are willing to take a daring step and consider a different mode of living other than the hyper-dense model.

Today, Hong Kong faces not just unaffordable housing prices, but also shrinking apartment sizes to compensate for the high unit costs. Typical mass-market three-bedroom apartments today range between 500 to 700 square feet and sell for anywhere between $1 million to $2 million USD. As such, the focus has always been on increasing housing quantity, but at the expense of living quality.

Fairview Park was conceived as a community for the middle class that emphasized the quality of housing and residents’ living experience, and proved the concept could be successful when the right factors come together, such as reasonable land prices and a mindset to explore housing innovations.

Clifford Wong took inspiration from Western suburbia and reinterpreted into Hong Kong’s context, and even though today’s situation may be difficult to recreate the same scale and generosity of space, the spirit of Fairview Park as a living typology remains relevant. With the government’s recent Northern Metropolis plan to develop the area near Fairview Park into a new residential and technology hub, it is perhaps a good opportunity to revisit Fairview Park as an inspiration, to take a more daring path in offering the city a higher quality of living.

DOUGLAS WU is executive director of Hong Kong-based Fairland Holdings and chair of ULI HK YLG.