Fresh start for decaying city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2007, 12:00am

Urban renewal has become a hot topic in recent years as the government looks to breathe new life into the city's older districts, where many neglected buildings have turned grey and are in disrepair.

Leading the fight against urban dilapidation is the quasi-government Urban Renewal Authority (URA), which inherited 25 unfinished projects from the Land Development Corporation in 2001.

With the establishment of the URA's rehabilitation programmes in 2003, 16,000 units and 178 buildings have been rehabilitated, three times as many are being redeveloped, and 200 projects are in the pipeline.

These include projects such as the preservation of 22 traditional Cantonese-style buildings in Wan Chai with a focus on structure, exterior and functionality, and the recent rehabilitation of residential blocks and urban streets in Tai Kok Tsui.

The authority will spend more than HK$30billion on the implementation of new urban renewal plans from 2006 to 2011, including the dramatic Kwun Tong Town Centre which will cost HK$25billion and affect nearly 600,000 residents.

Hong Kong has more than 11,000 buildings in old districts such as Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, Sham Shui Po and Mong Kok that do not have owners' corporations that would normally look after their upkeep. The URA provides material subsidies and educates the public in methods to maintain safety in older buildings like these. Financial help and advice are offered, as well as interest-free loans.

Iris Tam Siu-ying, the authority's executive director of planning and development, said: 'We are here to tackle the very dilapidated urban areas. We want to arrest and slow down urban decay.'

Such projects include the hugely successful Western Market in Sheung Wan. Local businessmen at first opposed development, but the preservation has revitalised the square. Business got better and soon more people were attracted to that corner of Sheung Wan.

The authority organises events there, and recently announced plans to build a Cultural Terrace on a slope opposite the Man Mo Temple.

In a nutshell, the URA preserves, redevelops, rehabilitates and revitalises urban sprawl in Hong Kong.

'We work with consultants such as conservation architects, design experts in restoring buildings, traffic engineers, and environmental engineers - the list is long,' Ms Tam said.

'Together, we aim to give a particular area a sense of place, create a sense of pride in the area and attract more business.

'It's our mission. But sometimes we have great difficulty pushing forward schemes because the very people who will benefit [from the renewal] oppose the changes we wish to make. It is almost impossible not to bring change.

Ms Tam said the authority could not ignore what people said.

'The community are stakeholders. In the past, Hong Kong people didn't mind pulling down buildings. Now it is possible that they have seen too much demolition. In certain projects, the core buildings can be preserved, such as the development of Graham Street in Central where an old-style building is structurally sound and will be worked into the design of the district.'

Gammon Construction director of human resources, Leung Pik-wah sees redevelopment and urban renewal as a team effort.

'For urban renewal, many aspects of engineering and design are needed. There can be positions for people in building services and maintenance for older districts, and, of course, the painting and refurbishment that is needed inside and out,' Ms Leung said.

'It all really depends on the scale and the nature of the project, which can include engineers from civil, building, foundation and engineering and manufacturing branches. If there is urban planning involved, roadworks will need to be done. There is a need for designers and engineers in these fields,' she said.

Gammon Construction is no stranger to redevelopment, revitalisation and preservation. It completed refurbishments and extensions for both The Peninsula Hong Kong hotel in 1994 and the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong last year.

At the height of the Mandarin Oriental contract, there were 2,100 workers on-site, including 70 Gammon specialists.

'Redevelopment is not just about the practical architectural concept and building. People who specialise in environmental protection are also needed. Many of the people looking to build, rebuild or revitalise are heavily into the environmental impact of the project,' Ms Leung said.