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Here’s hoping harbourfront authority can save Hong Kong’s soul

We may be on last lap of marathon effort to create a body that will improve the way we use one of our most treasured hidden assets

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 2016, 12:50pm

Over recent months I have had the exquisite pleasure of jogging along the riverside boardwalks in Ningbo, on the sea promenade of Qingdao, on the Embarcadero in San Francisco and on Singapore’s Marina Bay waterfront trail. Each time, I mourn what we are missing in Hong Kong.

So it was with a mixture of pain, and pleasure that I saw the beaming face of Nick Brooke, chairman of Hong Kong’s Harbourfront Commission, on the front of a leading business chamber magazine celebrating the recent submission to the government of the commission’s recommendations on the future of our harbourfront, and praying that our harbourfront authority can be up and running by 2017.

Pleasure because it seems we may be in the last lap of the marathon effort to create a body that will improve the way we use one of our most treasured hidden assets. Pain to be reminded of exactly how long it has taken to get us to this point, and to wonder how long before I will be able to jog Hong Kong’s waterfront as I do in Qingdao or San Francisco.

The journey towards a harbourfront authority is as good an example as you will ever need of the unflagging patience needed to get our Hong Kong government to move on even the most obviously sensible ideas. I was already a latecomer on this argument when in 2003, in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak, I joined a worthy group called Save our Shorelines to lobby for integrated and environmentally sensitive development and use of the 73km of Hong Kong Harbour waterfront.

That shoreline – and in particular the harbour framed by it – must surely be the closest thing we have to the very quintessence of Hong Kong’s sense of community

The Save our Shorelines group was distinct, and momentously politically naive, in arguing that we should be pressing the government to take an integrated policy approach not just to the 73km of the harbour, but to the entire 773km Hong Kong coastline – whether it be the “Sunset Coast” down from Pok Fu Lam to Ap Lei Chau, or the coastline of Tolo Harbour, or the northern coastline of Lantau. Realists like Brooke, along with other campaigners like Christine Loh (now deputy environment secretary) and the irrepressible Winston Chu, insisted correctly that this was an impossible ambition – and that the battle to persuade the government to improve management of the harbour shoreline was already a momentous one.

I retain a great fondness for the efforts of the Save our Shorelines group, and am proud of the report it produced (not surprisingly, because I played a part in drafting it). The more work we did, the more it was clear that the Hong Kong shoreline was the very essence of Hong Kong’s spirit and culture. More than the mountains, or Lion Rock, more than the labyrinths of high rise buildings that provide shoe-box homes to millions of families, the shorelines, in particular along the northern and southern shores of Victoria Harbour, were the lines along which Hong Kong’s entire history and legend were written. This fragile line of contact between the firm realities of the land, and the uncertain and mysterious unknowns of the ocean, sat at the heart of Hong Kong’s entrepreneurial trading spirit. Cargos being loaded and unloaded along the shoreline were at the heart of every fortune made, and the source of almost every labourer’s hard-earned penny. They were also the places where Hong Kong people rested, recharged their souls, and dreamed. Forgive me if you think I am getting a tad emotional here, but that shoreline – and in particular the harbour framed by it – must surely be the closest thing we have to the very quintessence of Hong Kong’s sense of community.

READ MORE: Why a place to swim and relax along Hong Kong’s iconic harbour isn’t such a bad idea

So, to see the harbour abused, degraded and neglected at the hands of uncoordinated piecemeal policymaking by successive administrations through the last decades of the 20th century was particularly painful and regrettable. It has been similarly painful to watch the glacial progress of efforts to regain planning control of the harbour, and with it progress in enabling ordinary Hong Kong folk to regain access to this shoreline that inspires our sense of community.

READ MORE: Hong Kong harbourfront adviser vows watchdog would learn from ‘past mistakes’

It is sobering to be reminded by Brooke that many harbourfront plans still need coordination and cooperation between up to 20 government departments, and that Leisure and Cultural Services rules still forbid bike riding, sitting on the grass, walking dogs or fishing in the open spaces that now line some of our waterfront. “I hope, with a [harbourfront] authority, we can move from a ‘cant-do model’ to a ‘can-do model’,” he comments wistfully.

READ MORE: HK$10.2 billion body proposed to develop Hong Kong’s harbourfront sites

One of the challenges, given the heavy engagement of so many idealistic environmental lobbies, will be to remember that Hong Kong’s waterfront has always been a working waterfront: our aim should not be to make it pristine, but to enable us to use and populate it sustainably. The Save our Shorelines group interestingly mulled the idea of a five-category distinction for integrated policymaking along our shores, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach: shoreline needed for transport and trade-related uses; shoreline needed for industrial and commercial users that required ocean access; shoreline to be tended for recreational use; “natural” shoreline that for one reason or another was inaccessible or unfit for use; and shorelines where protection may be needed for heritage or ecological reasons.

The Save our Shoreline Report also called for coordination (which a harbourfront authority will hopefully deliver), for intensive community engagement and a coherent strategic plan for development, use and protection of the shoreline. Above all else, it called for action now.

But of course that “now” was 2003, and here we are 13 years later crossing our fingers for an authority to come to life in 2017. So much time lost. But at the same time, 14 years of patient persistence on behalf of the Lohs, Chus and Brookes of our community. I wonder if I will be able to jog a harbourfront jogging trail before old age and creaky joints force me to hang up my running shoes?

David Dodwell is executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group

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