Balanced development can mitigate wall effect

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 June, 2008, 12:00am

Environmental campaigners hailed a proposal to scale back major developments along West Rail to reduce the so-called wall effect of buildings blocking air flow and sunlight. Later the chief executive announced a review of the density of residential projects above Nam Cheong and Yuen Long stations. Now it emerges the cheers may have been premature.

The cost of delay since enabling works were completed in 2000 might dash their hopes. Mounting upfront expenses to be passed on to the joint developer may make a significant reduction in development density commercially unattractive. As we report today, it is suggested that instead of reducing the planned 11 towers of up to 52 storeys at Nam Cheong station to 10, the review may achieve a reduction in density equivalent to only half of one of these blocks.

That is disappointing, when the government is becoming more responsive to community concerns about the impact of major projects on the urban environment. It has wider significance, however. It highlights a growing divide between public expectations and the city's traditional development model.

Rail remains the preferred transport solution. Historically, rail operators have relied on the revenue from property projects above stations to fund railway development. Density is a critical economic consideration for potential developers. But it has given rise to concerns such as the effect on the urban living environment. There is a case for some deep thinking about the outcome of the traditional approach. While density will remain very high in the city's traditional urban areas, we should be trying to avoid mistakes of the past by looking at more flexible, innovative development models that use land more appropriately. The pressure for higher density development in the New Territories will grow. What is needed is an integrated planning solution that eases development densities around stations without significant impact on the government's revenue.

As we report in more depth on A14, a study for the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation before its merger with the MTR brought together architects, planners, academics and air ventilation experts to produce creative redesigns for four West Rail stations. The brief was better community integration and an enhanced environment, with the aim of increasing the number of commuters and the rental income from shops inside the station. The designs will not see the light of day here just yet, but have attracted attention in planning circles abroad.

Before such ideas can be adopted on a large scale, however, we need to address the anomaly between densely populated districts and the many underdeveloped parts of the New Territories. The erection of small, wasteful and unattractive villages there can be largely put down to the government's outdated small-house policy which entitles all male descendants of indigenous villagers to build a house. The government may have to bite the bullet on this politically sensitive issue and find a solution, such as a viable buyout plan for qualified villagers to relinquish their land claims. The need for land for people-friendly urban development is another reason to strive for one. MTR development rights are based on specifications about building densities. If they are reduced because of concerns such as the wall effect, a way will have to be found to see that such projects are still attractive to developers. The railway-property development formula still works for Hong Kong. But a visionary overhaul would let more fresh air and light into new urban environments.