Welcome embrace of a living city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2007, 12:00am

It has taken the loss of many heritage streets and buildings and the sustained effort of activists and concerned citizens to push Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to declare his administration's conservation position.

Perhaps the most significant is the switch from preservation to revitalisation to meet community needs. Conservation in the context of a living city should be less about preserving individual buildings as dead monuments and more about the living heritage of established communities that give Hong Kong's urban experience such enchanting qualities.

It is encouraging to see that three high-profile conservation proposals - the Central police station compound, the old Aberdeen police quarters and the street market in Wan Chai - have been earmarked as pilot projects for revitalisation.

If they can be shown to be economically viable, it will help dispel the assumption that development must entail the demolition and redevelopment of older buildings.

The policy address also calls for the Urban Renewal Authority to 'extend the scope of historic building protection to cover pre-war buildings'. There is nothing new about this, as the official conservation focus has always been on pre-war buildings. The problem is surviving pre-war buildings in urban areas are relatively few in number and most are isolated single buildings.

Hong Kong's built-heritage future actually lies in the early post-war buildings that still exist in relatively large numbers and in building groups. These will provide the basis for developing conservation streets and districts with a consistent and distinctive architectural character.

By and large, the emphasis still leans towards the conservation of hardware, but it has touched upon such software as orienting conservation to cater to community needs and protecting intangible heritage.

This will probably meet the near-term expectations of the people. To meet the longer-term ones, future policy addresses should look into integrating heritage conservation with the business and creative-industry sectors to develop financing and creative adaptive-reuse strategies.

Lee Ho-yin is director of the architectural conservation programme at HKU