Charting a new course for the harbour
A Planning Department report completed in April lays out sweeping plans for development of the waterfront on both sides of Hong Kong's Harbour. The report calls for housing, hotels, museums, parks and outdoor plazas linked by broad promenades and with better pedestrian access from inland areas. It represents the most holistic view of harbourfront development yet, but its weakness is that it takes the government's extensive reclamation plans as a starting point. Now that those reclamations have been thrown into doubt - by last week's court ruling banning inessential reclamation in the Wan Chai North project, by the government's own reassessment of housing needs and by the World Trade Organisation recommendation that the Central reclamation project be resubmitted for public tender - it is time to take up a key proposal contained in the Planning Department study.
That proposal is for the establishment of a harbour authority, a body which will be tasked with planning, co-ordinating and managing use of the harbour. The report lays out several options, including a statutory body such as the one that exists in Sydney, with the power to own land and draw income from harbour development in order to support its own operation. Alternatively, a non-statutory body, possibly a high-level committee, could draw membership from the many government departments and help expedite the process of decision-making and development.
Crucial to any harbour authority or committee would be involvement of the public and of groups not affiliated with the government and its planning offices. The Wan Chai reclamation decision came about because of the dogged commitment of one group, the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, but there are many other environmental groups in Hong Kong which have been active in advocating alternative models of development in the harbour and along the waterfront. A broadly constituted body that represents much of the community can help ensure that whatever development takes place will be in the interests of the majority who live in Hong Kong. The years of effort devoted to the harbour study do not have to be wasted. The new group could take the study as a starting point for discussion, and the best ideas, including those calling for public use of the harbour to receive priority over commercial uses, can still be preserved.
Throughout Hong Kong's history, the harbour has been considered an efficient and ready source of new land on which to develop. This approach has helped Hong Kong to grow quickly, though at the expense of the harbour and its waters. Now that the era of rampant reclamation is, rightly, nearing its end, a harbour authority that has citizen involvement could help us find the way forward.