The scene in the 1999 romantic comedy Notting Hill where William Thacker and Anna Scott — played by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts respectively — scale a fence to trespass on a private garden is arguably one of the most memorable moments in the film, if not in the history of the genre. While Rosmead Gardens is entirely private, it serves as a great example of the many mini parks and green areas scattered throughout neighbourhoods or working districts in London and other big cities such as New York and Seoul, for residents to rest and relax.
Ng Ping Ho, director of hospitality group Kindness of Strangers, who manages HSS Pocket Park, vividly recalls his visit to Paley Park in New York in 2011. “It is just a courtyard in between skyscrapers that has features like a fountain, trees, tables and chairs. At any time of the day, you will see office workers having lunch or just relaxing and playing with their phones. What makes Paley Park interesting is, it is privately owned, not government-owned. But it was established just to give the public space.”
At the time, though, Ng had not thought about building such an establishment on his own. He just liked going to recreational places, especially with family members, but the visit certainly stirred something in him. So how did he finally decide to set up a pocket park at High Street Studios in Jalan Tun H S Lee, Kuala Lumpur?
“I have had this building since the 2000s and our first major renovation was in 2009. We converted three of the shophouses into a backpackers’ hostel [called BackHome] before expanding it by two more lots because it was doing very well. Our architect then had the idea to create a courtyard as we wanted some light and better ventilation. We noticed the area becoming everyone’s favourite.
“When guests or customers of the surrounding retail outlets stepped into the courtyard, they couldn’t believe a space like this existed. It’s so noisy and congested outside, but so peaceful inside. Because of the way the buildings are [situated], it doesn’t get too hot in here.”
The lush garden has always been there, but it was mostly opened to BackHome lodgers and patrons of LOKL Coffee Co. As Thacker says before agreeing to Scott’s idea to intrude on Rosmead Gardens, “Only the people who live round the edges are allowed in.”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Ng had to make the hard decision to shut BackHome down. “People would still go to a hotel when travelling was allowed after the Movement Control Order [was lifted]. But there’s no way they would opt for a backpackers’ hostel because they would not want to share a room with strangers.”
Ng noticed the rapid changes the area was undergoing, so he decided to apply for a grant from the Downtown Kuala Lumpur Grants Programme in 2021 by Think City — a social purpose organisation dedicated to making cities more liveable and sustainable — to do up the now-vacant premises and change the use of High Street Studios. “The requirement for the grantee is to implement programmes or build things that will benefit the community.”
Thus, the idea for HSS Pocket Park was born. While the yard was available to specific users before, it has now been transformed into a public space where anyone can drop by, put their feet up and enjoy a breather.
“There are more new restaurants, bars and cafés opening in Jalan Sultan in Chinatown. But if you just want a spot to relax, you can’t find any. I have two kids, a 10- and seven-year-old. When I bring them around here, the biggest issue is, they don’t really have a place to sit freely when they are tired. So I wanted a space that had no obligations — you don’t have to buy or do something to rest.”
The year-long renovation — which included the ideation, planning and designing process — of the pocket park was completed last December. Ng employed Urban Agenda, which was responsible for the redevelopment of REXKL and The Five in Damansara Heights, to revamp the area to ensure it was public-friendly and had all the elements needed for a park.
A lot of the work revolved around complementing the original space and its commodities by adding new facilities and furniture. A variety of seating arrangements accommodates small or big groups but the focal point of the area is definitely the long pine green table that can comfortably seat more than 10 people.
HSS Pocket Park scores a bonus point for its location, which is right in the middle of town. It is less than a five-minute walk from the Masjid Jamek LRT station, while a 15-minute stroll from the property takes you to the buzzing Petaling Street Market or other tourist spots and hipster cafés in Chinatown.
Owing to its strategic location, Ng built this place with people from all walks of life in mind. One unique feature of this pocket park is that it has bicycle stands, which are normally erected in spacious public sites.
“After the pandemic, there was real interest in cycling from just about everyone, hobbyists and families alike. We created a bit of parking space for them to come in and leave their bikes here so they can roam around the area.”
When it comes to landscaping, the plant lover had a lot of plans for the garden but had to be realistic with the tight funds allocated for the project. “I had this list of people I wanted to work with but the budget was so low.”
Eventually, he collaborated with an in-house architect, a Thai based in Malaysia who was initially on board for another assignment. “She heard about HSS Pocket Park and got excited to participate in it. So she basically planned everything for the space.”
Their goal was to ensure the park would appeal to the community. “We live in Malaysia. When it’s hot, nobody wants to be outside, no matter how beautiful the place is. Our priority was to make sure the park looked soft and calming. A lot of it focuses on the journey when people walk in. What do they want to see? What’s the use of the space? Is it used for events or just for people to relax?”
Instead of covering the ground with grass, they placed geotextile and gravel over the cement flooring. For city dwellers looking for a nearby area to escape the skyscrapers and concrete jungle, this is the place they want to be for fresh air and to soothe their eyes with overflowing greenery. Tropical flora such as fiddle-leaf figs, spider plants, ferns and elephant ears can be found in abudance.
“We needed this place to be lush with trees thriving from the ground and elsewhere. We knew this space doesn’t get much sun, so we were focused on plants that would grow in such an environment. We couldn’t go with edibles like sayur because they need bright sunlight, although that was what I wanted initially.”
As the yard is surrounded by retail outlets and offices, security was also an issue. “When we opened up the main entrance, we had problems like people walking in and stealing things. This is not the safest area.” So a security guard is now stationed at the main entrance to monitor visitors and the premises.
“I would really like to see a wide range of people use the park. I want to see an office worker having a sandwich here during lunchtime, or families sitting down with their kids for a while. There’s a school nearby, so students can drop by to do their schoolwork or just de-stress.”
The small local businesses at High Street Studios can also benefit from the pocket park as those who visit may also drop by establishments such as bookstore Riwayat, LOKL Coffee Co, Gahara Batik and music store Gambus. “Commercially, it makes sense for us because if we encourage people to come, we are also encouraging them to browse. It is a win-win situation.”
Ng’s wish from this project is rather simple yet compelling. “If it is successful, I hope it can inspire other business owners or developers to build more of these kinds of spaces in our country. We can’t always wait for the government to initiate public spots. If you’re a developer, and you have a chance to devote some of your land to the public, then why not do it?”
This article first appeared on Oct 16, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.