Urban planning

Seize the chance for a world-class waterfront

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 May, 2008, 12:00am


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Hong Kong citizens have been badly conned over the Central Harbourfront. First we were told that there was an 'overriding public need' for a Central-Wan Chai bypass and the MTR Sha Tin-Central rail link. This necessitated reclamation work, which destroyed such well-loved landmarks as the Star Ferry and Queen's piers.

Then we were told the bypass would go underground, which raised the question: why was the reclamation needed at all?

Now we are told that neither the bypass nor the MTR's cross-harbour section will go ahead, at least not until after the reclamation and the new government complex at Tamar are complete. At that point, the whole area will be dug up again for the road and rail tunnels to go in - but only if the government wins yet another judicial review to stop the underpass. The only winner is the government, which gets its grandiose new headquarters at Tamar.

Leaving all that aside, and accepting the central reclamation for what it is, Hong Kong is now offered a historic opportunity: a green-field site on which to create a world-class harbourfront. What city would not relish this opportunity? What government would not make sure of an optimal outcome, whatever it takes?

Let us consider what others have achieved: HafenCity in Hamburg, Darling Harbour in Sydney, Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco, Boat Quay in Singapore and Baltimore's revitalised Inner Harbour - these are enormously successful and hugely popular districts. By contrast, the latest proposals from our Planning Department are embarrassingly amateurish.

The current outline zoning plan dates from the mid-1990s. At that time, the concept of carefully creating a world-class waterfront did not even enter the mind of planners. The latest proposals stick to the format of large-building footprints, high- capacity roads and large open spaces. Yet, the government is not entirely to blame. Because of calls from many people for even more open space, the current plan shows vast sun-drenched plazas, much of it paved in the usual Hong Kong manner. Planners around the world know from bitter experience that large open spaces on the waterfront do not work.

Because of knee-jerk reactions from district councillors against any commercial activity, there will be a dearth of attractions to encourage activity and public use on the harbourfront. There seems to be a fear that developers will profit from what is perceived to be a public asset. To which the answer is that, all of the hugely successful schemes mentioned earlier integrate smaller open spaces, piazzas and promenades with a dense network of restaurant, retail and leisure activities, to spectacular effect. The way to ensure fair business opportunities is to create smaller buildings on smaller sites and to encourage competition, rather than concentration in the hands of large developers.

The word that sums up this situation is 'shame'. It's a shame we are wasting a unique opportunity. And shame on our leaders for allowing this to come to pass.

Sticking to an outline zoning plan that guarantees a bad outcome; unrealistic transport assumptions driving bad design; design by a process of 'least political objection' and the lowest common denominators of what various government departments have been able to agree on; throwing up design options and then asking for feedback from all and sundry: these are some of the major shortcomings.

There is no magic solution. Each of the cities mentioned earlier came up with different approaches. But it seems to me that a large part of the solution is to take the whole exercise out of the hands of the Planning Department and into the hands of an independent authority. This should consist of professionals, specialists and community leaders, a body entrusted by the public to deliver the world-class harbourfront it deserves.

Markus Shaw is chairman of WWF Hong Kong