The outbreak of atypical pneumonia has raised public concern about Hong Kong's high-density living environment and prompted calls for an urgent review of urban design. The Urban Design Alliance, formed by the Institute of Planners and the Institute of Architects two years ago, is pushing for changes in city planning and building design to provide a better living environment. 'We have been discussing urban design issues for the past two years. The government did not find it so urgent to hold consultations in the past,' John Wong Po-lung, president of the Institute of Architects, said. 'But after the Sars outbreak, people are more concerned about their health, and they start questioning if the building density should be lowered in Hong Kong.' Iris Tam Siu-ying, former president of the Institute of Planners, said: 'We have talked about how to improve urban design in Hong Kong in the past. Because of the Sars outbreak, we found that this is one of the topics we can do more research on.' As Hong Kong did not have a choice in terms of building density, its citizens could work more on urban design, she said. The issues of building design and density have been thrust in the spotlight following the Sars outbreak as crowded conditions in high-rise buildings are considered to have contributed to the spread of the disease. The outbreak in Amoy Gardens, which infected hundreds of residents due to a faulty drainage system compounded by the building's design, has increased public concern about the quality of living environment. Last Wednesday, industry experts, including planners, architects, landscape architects, surveyors, engineers and building managers, met Chief Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen to voice their opinions. Mr Tsang is leading a newly established inter-department taskforce spearheading a 'Team Clean' campaign to tackle the problems of town planning and public hygiene and establish a long-term structure to improve the environment. Mr Wong said town planning in Hong Kong was very much based on facts and figures, which made it more quantitative than qualitative. 'Checks and balance in Hong Kong [in the building and construction process] are not enough. The public has no power but, in fact, public interest is more important than developers' interest,' Mr Wong said. In balancing developers' interests in maximising profits against architects' interests in exercising creativity, the government should give architects more power in the development process, he said. However, Mr Wong said it would be time-consuming to carry out public consultations in Hong Kong as it would delay project development. Thus, he would not recommend that Hong Kong carry out more public consultations, as other countries were doing. Mr Wong said the government could take China's system as a guide. 'The approval process for development in China takes into account design merits, public interest as well as creativity. It involves professionals in the approval assessment, and after that will they look at technical details,' he said. Mr Wong said that developers in China had to rely on the assistance of architects, but architects in Hong Kong had little power. 'If the design is good, the mainland government would approve a higher plot ratio. But if the design is bad, it would not approve the development of the project. They would just reject the development plan or give a lower plot ratio,' he said. 'However, in Hong Kong, the government looks only at the technical details, and they do not assess the design merits. They would not disapprove the design even if it is bad.' China has more than 20 years of experience in town planning and buildings development, and Hong Kong could learn from it, he said. Mr Wong also suggested that before the government announces the outline zoning plan, it should invite more participation from architects and urban designers and consult their opinions. 'Urban design should focus more on qualitative issues. The government can do more urban design study, otherwise our living environment will remain poor,' Mr Wong said.