• Mon
  • Dec 29, 2014
  • Updated: 1:45pm
CommentInsight & Opinion

Urban planning must reflect Hong Kong's great need for community and open space

Ian Brownlee says a single-minded focus on residential housing will affect Hong Kong's liveability

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 June, 2014, 1:34pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 1:58am

There is no doubt that the previous administration did not put enough land up for sale. Housing supply dropped to a level that affected the affordability of homes in Hong Kong. But affordability of housing is a worldwide problem, not just here.

The present administration is totally focused on the provision of residential flats. One unintended outcome is likely to be the long-term shortage of open space, and community and institutional facilities for the people who will live in these new flats - and for the existing residents.

At the same time, there is wide recognition that social support needs for the community are changing and increasing as the population ages, and as economic changes drive more lower-income manual jobs out of Hong Kong. Some of these issues are covered in the chief executive's policy address, but they are not getting sufficient focus in the provision of land and facilities.

The government is pressuring the Town Planning Board to rezone sites for housing that are reserved for open space and government, institutional and community uses.

There is growing resistance to this from local residents and district councils across Hong Kong - recently in Shau Kei Wan and Kwai Chung, for example - as people become aware of the consequences.

Irrespective of informed and cogent arguments from local people, these community sites have been rezoned and this is likely to continue as the housing machine moves relentlessly onward.

The top-down system that overrides community concerns does not know or respect the problems that people face daily. It is almost heartless in the way it removes or prevents the provision of services that needy people depend on.

The problem is threefold.

First, many of the social and community services are not provided by government, but by non-governmental organisations of many types. Some NGOs have government financial support but many don't.

These are not recognised as permanent providers of social services, as they don't strictly fit the government mould. Such organisations do not have permanent sites or premises, even though many have been in existence for 20 to 30 years. Typically they're on short-term leases of around five years.

Thus, although they provide essential services to groups in the community, a lack of permanent sites limits long-term investment in facilities and there is always the threat of having to move on or close down.

Second, Hong Kong's planning standards are outdated and do not specifically require the provision of sites or premises for housing for the elderly, support facilities for the handicapped, early education, or for religious facilities. Even though such facilities are urgently needed in many cases, because they are not on the list they are not considered.

When facilities are not included in the government's development plan, land previously proposed for a park or social/community facilities is considered surplus.

This overlooks the long-term need, and does not take account of NGO requirements and their significant contributions.

Third, the Lands Department does not have a list of vacant sites for use by community groups or sports groups. Therefore, nobody knows what is available or what the real needs are. Many community service providers are experts in providing services, but have no time, money or expertise to run the gauntlet of unclear government procedures to obtain a piece of land or premises.

The Leisure and Cultural Services Department is unable to develop parks and sports grounds as it doesn't have the finances for it and it doesn't want to increase its recurrent expenditure. Any vacant open space is usually put out for a short-term use such as car parking. When rezoning comes around, it becomes an obvious target for a housing site.

Recreation and the greening of the city is being adversely affected. The density of population and buildings in our urban areas will increase. Without open and green space, the city will become hotter and liveability will be affected.

Why not give these open spaces to sports bodies or schools to manage? Why not turn some into community urban farms? The demand is there and it should not be dependent only on the Leisure and Cultural Services Department's capacity to provide facilities.

Sustainability of the city depends on much more than housing. Before becoming too focused on housing, government officials need to do more than just talk to each other. They should also talk to the community and listen to the concerns of those who provide services, and listen to those who need the social services now under threat.

The outcome is not just a paper exercise to be carried out in government offices; it will directly affect people's lives.

Ian Brownlee is managing director of planning consultancy Masterplan Limited and has worked with many NGOs


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Hong Kong has a long history in housing shortage. The first public housing was built after a great hill fire that displaced squatters who were living in makeshift shelters. It was in late 1950s and ever since the energy of the city was to build ever more housing to accommodate to the yet expanding refugees travelling across the border. Subdivided flats were the first wave of housing solution to meet demand right at the heel of resettlement public housing of that hill fire. Ever since Hong Kong has been building housing like manufacturing a product spreading across Hong Kong any land which is available to dig a foundation. Since the late 70s, housing demand took on another dimension. It became an easy investment for flipping housing buying and selling to make handsome profits. Such housing fever for profits lasted till present and safe to say it has become ingrained in the economic structure as well as mentally that any evocation to disembark such housing culture only invite loathing. The well oiled property development which are the manufacturers of housings hijacked Hong Kong government in opening up the border for migration intake to assure an expanding population growth in supporting housing need that becomes a property market – buy and sell as a product does.
Hong Kong has no breathing room to even think housing as an organic entity that requires an environment to grow and survive. Hong Kong has packed housing to the max sideways and now contemplating max vertically. What notion of urban planning only as window a dressing exercise through government’s Town Planning Board and the Planning Department in service mainly to the property developers who in return in acquiring land from the government are the biggest facilitators to the government’s coffer.
Until we make amend of all the tricks, the propagation of Hong Kong’s property market is the city planning mechanism. It is a money machine without conviction that proper open space for people is very essential part to housing.
Hong Kong’s housing as a product in a property market should be condemned by any responsible government. .


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