Preserving heritage is its own reward

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2007, 12:00am

The public's outcry has been heard in various disputes over heritage: the old Central Police Station, the Star Ferry clock tower, Queen's Pier, Yau Ma Tei Market and street markets in Wan Chai and Central. In response, the government has announced that it will 'strike a balance' between development and the preservation of heritage and the environment.

Does this mean that preserving outdated government policies and institutions is obstructing the development of Hong Kong? If so, then there are ample examples to back it up.

But close examination shows a different picture. Only by using a very limited definition of 'development' can we find cases where arguments for preservation actually restricted the amount of property development at specific sites. In these places, the government's revenue potential may have been reduced, or public funds may have been needed to compensate owners who suffered losses in property value.

But there is an upside, too. Much of that 'lost' value is in fact transferred to neighbouring sites where intrinsic value increases because of the preservation of heritage. But how concerned should we be when the government cannot turn such gains into actual revenue? Is it time for Hong Kong to reinvest more of its land revenues back into the betterment of its urban environment?

The suggested trade-off between development and preservation is even more questionable when we consider Hong Kong as a whole. By looking at the two latest examples of conflict, it appears that the drive for preservation actually stimulates the socio-economic development of our city, creates new jobs and helps diversify our economy.

Queen's Pier is a case in point. Some say that keeping it in its original location by changing the design of the P2 road - a four-lane Central- Admiralty link - would delay developments planned for Central.

It was originally claimed that the pier would block the construction of P2, with the spectre that traffic congestion around Pedder and Man Yui streets would drag on.

The temporary removal of Queen's Pier is indisputably the cheapest and quickest solution to complete the underground work. The permanent removal of the pier is unnecessary.

Not only would there be no negative impact on Hong Kong's economy, but retaining Queen's Pier in situ would in fact stimulate the economy. The City Hall, the dais and Queen's Pier were aligned along the same axis, forming Edinburgh Place. It is here that so many historic events took place.

Besides colonial pomp, the complex has seen many historic protests - from the riots of 1966-1967 to the colourful events recently surrounding the demolition. So what is wrong with having a badly needed tourist attraction which comes for free?

In the case of the open-air wet market in Peel and Graham streets, it is even more obvious that preserving and revitalising this site would contribute to our economic development. The licensed hawkers in this area provide hundreds of jobs. The market is a significant attraction for tourists and provides an alternative shopping experience for local residents.

The Urban Renewal Authority is the government agent charged with enhancing and strengthening the city's social, economic and environmental fabric by revitalising areas. It should see the open-air market not as an obstacle, but an opportunity. It could create a unique property development by embracing this 150-year-old centre of economic activity.

There has been little regard for preservation in the past. But it appears that, for now at least, we are seeing more of a focus on the preservation of the city's heritage and environment.

This will contribute to the development of a vibrant, flexible and diverse economy.

Paul Zimmerman is convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District