Waterfront blues

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am

Many of you may have visited Dubai. If so, you may have come away filled with admiration for some of its stunning modern architecture, and for its vigorous determination to provide the best of 21st-century living. Or you may simply dismiss it as a soulless, glitzy, concrete jungle. But, either way, one cannot fail to be impressed by the bold strategy of Dubai's leaders in pursuit of a 'life after oil' - whether by building homes for the mega rich and providing all the trappings which such people are presumed to hanker after; or by pursuing such tourism projects as the Dubailand theme park, which will be twice the size of Disney World in Florida.

And last month Dubai confirmed another mega plan, to build a canal looping for 75km through the desert. Added to the projects already under way to build marinas and offshore archipelagos such as 'Palm Islands' and 'The World', Dubai will eventually have supplemented its original natural coastline of some 70km to provide a total waterfrontage of, according to one estimate, an astonishing 2,000km. This additional shoreline will be predominantly for residential or recreational use, in recognition that people like to live or relax next to a stretch of water.

Contrast that with Hong Kong. We are naturally endowed with huge amounts of shoreline. To be fair, geography renders much of it unusable, other than at considerable cost. However, even those parts which are usable have too often been reserved, not just for port facilities (for which there is plainly no alternative), but for roads, bus stations, lorry parks, prisons industrial estates, offices, sports grounds and even a windowless cultural centre. Natural bays have been land-filled (so reducing the available waterfrontage), or roads have been built in front of them, such as the North Lantau highway.

We even filled in the Tamar dock basin, which had provided a four-sided waterfront. Where a net addition to the waterfront is created, as in the case of Chek Lap Kok, it is seldom for living.

Of course, a comparison with Dubai in terms of developmental opportunity is far from fair. Dubai has shallow water offshore, making it relatively easy to 'build' new islands; and the proposed canal only has to be dug through relatively flat desert. In Hong Kong, there have never been many flat areas of land available, other than through reclamation.

Yet there does appear to be a telling comparison between the mindsets of the two administrations. Dubai, endowed with a relatively short coastline, came to realise that waterfront exploitation is one of the keys to providing an attractive living environment in a place which has few other natural selling points. Hong Kong, blessed with an abundant coastline, has never got to grips with exploiting that potential to the full. There is enough coastline to allow at least some extra residential or tourist development along its length (we still do not have even one decent resort hotel). Access and provision of transport links may present costly challenges, especially with regard to the outlying islands. But, if we have the finance and the engineering expertise to build a bridge to Macau, then surely we should be able to set something aside to meet those other challenges, which could enhance the quality of life for future generations. And, by the same token, surely we could now find somewhere other than along the shoreline to build our roads, even if it means burying some of them.

The sad plight of much of our shoreline is largely the inheritance from some 50 years of inept planning, and a consequence of the understandable tendency to go for the cheapest option. It would not be fair to blame the present administration. Indeed, the official mindset is at last showing signs of changing. Mistakes of the past cannot be rectified overnight, but at least we should now make sure that no more mistakes are made. We have to compete with places like Dubai in fields such as finance, tourism, and business and trade conventions, and in the quest to attract or retain a certain class of resident.

It may be many years before we know whether Dubai's overall plans for a life after oil have succeeded. But, sitting in Hong Kong today, one cannot but be a little envious of a place which has so imaginative a strategy for its shoreline and where the leadership exudes such confidence in taking that forward.

Tony Latter is a senior research fellow of the HK Institute of Economics and Business Strategy. tlatter@hku.hk