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Urban planning

Why Hong Kong’s next chief executive needs to bring back the glamour

Ivan Ko calls on chief executive aspirants to spell out a vision for the city that cements its place as an international hub, one that is not just functional but also aesthetically pleasing and buzzing with activities

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 7:32pm

As the chief executive election heats up, it’s clear that there are candidates who really want to work for Hong Kong. The problem is that all four candidates are just talking about the same old social and political issues that are the standard remit for any chief executive. Some candidates might just look north for hints.

Yet, they need not guess what role Beijing wants Hong Kong to play or how the city fits into its national plans. Beijing just wants Hong Kong to continue to prosper. The candidates should set their own vision for Hong Kong.

Plan for a self-sustaining building on Hong Kong’s waterfront

One of Hong Kong’s most important foundations is its position as an international city. The only way for us to thrive is to keep reinventing ourselves to stay at the forefront of globalisation. This suits Hong Kong’s history, local demands and, equally important, the long-term needs of China.

To do so, our leader has to regenerate the glamour of Hong Kong by making it aesthetically beautiful and interesting to both locals and foreigners. Many of us may feel this city has stagnated since the 1980s in this regard. A main reason is that our government is still relying heavily on “functionality” to guide its thinking, which yielded positive results in the last century but increasingly comes up short when addressing new demands.

By “functionality”, I mean a concern with quantitative targets, efficiency, convenience, and so on. These things are important, but, today, both residents and visitors have higher aspirations that cannot be met by a merely well-functioning city. We know that beautifully designed products, like those from Apple, have triumphed over other equally functional but not-so-well-designed products. Our city, already strong in functionality, needs to move to the next level to become beautiful, interesting and rich in variety.

Hong Kong needs green buildings to spruce up the environment

Imagine being able to leave home for work or school amid a beautiful cityscape, walking to lunch along a well-designed footbridge with your colleagues, and unwinding later with friends in a public space where you discuss what mega event to attend over the weekend. With such a life, people in Hong Kong would stop being so uptight and unhappy, and become more relaxed and cheerful.

Thus, the next chief executive needs to focus not on the run-of-the-mill but set new directions and take bold action to take Hong Kong to the next level.

Making Hong Kong a walkable city, one step at a time

For example, we should open up the planning and design of bridges, roads and pavements, parks and public spaces to architects in private practice, instead of leaving it to bureaucrats. We should incorporate aesthetic urban design considerations, such as green elements and sustainability features, into public projects and strategic private developments. Hong Kong will make big strides if we can turn urban development into a collaborative model where the government works side by side with local communities in deciding the best way to improve the appearance and quality of neighbourhoods.

Major collaboration? Hong Kong urban development scheme links up industry, government and universities

On project development, the real estate industry has long espoused the view that our building codes, lease conditions and statutory planning requirements are too restrictive and rigid, to the point where they stymie innovative and interesting design as well as local community development. It is high time we overhauled these regulations, mechanisms and practices to unleash Hong Kong’s true potential.

Some chief executive candidates, such as John Tsang Chun-wah, has proposed reorganising the government structure. Most likely, however, it is just fine-tuning for the sake of rebalancing bureau workloads. What is missing is how to create a new government agency to lead urban planning and development.

Opening up urban planning and development to local community participation and professional involvement will uncork a wellspring of innovative and interesting ideas. By making itself attractive, innovative and full of variety at the community level, Hong Kong will truly become a leading international city – one where everyone enjoys living.

Ivan Ko is chairman of the China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong and International Chapter