Better city living a matter of design

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am

Prosperity goes hand-in-hand with higher expectations, as our government has increasingly learned. Central to this reality is the environment. Whereas we were once too busy trying to make ends meet to worry about the conditions in which we live, affluence has meant that we now have the time to take stock of what we have and think about how it could be improved.

In light of Hong Kong's challenges, there is a need for the government to pay close attention to calls for improvements and to respond accordingly. If our city is to grow and thrive, it has to be a place in which people want to live, work and raise families.

But despite our desire for quick change, policies have to be carefully thought through. As we report today, a 2001 'green' decision that gives developers incentives for putting features such as gardens and balconies in their projects has - at least provisionally - been found to be flawed in a government-commissioned study.

While it will be several months before the report has been completed, projects such as Henderson Land's Grand Promenade development at Sai Wan Ho show the need for a rethink. The 'canyon' effect created by the buildings at pedestrian level makes for poor air flow - despite concessions being awarded because of the 'green' additions.

The objectives of the green features policy are admirable; to make Hong Kong's urban environment more pleasant in which to live and work. That the idea was not well conceived and contained loopholes that developers could exploit in return for little of the desired greenery suggests the scheme was rushed.

Six years after the policy was adopted, evidence of its shortcomings is all around: there are not enough of the desired parks, gardens and trees in building projects. In addition, flats have become smaller - the exact opposite of what is needed to keep people attached to Hong Kong.

The issue has been labelled 'sustainable development' by the government and groups have been set up to find ways of improving circumstances. The idea is not a new one in the western world, but is relatively recent here - former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa pointed the way in his 'green' policy address in 1999.

Air pollution was the impetus for Mr Tung's focus, but sustainable development is steadily encompassing a host of topics, such as heritage, culture, recycling, the 'wall' effect of tall buildings, energy efficiency and harbour protection.

Legislation is not necessarily the way to attain sustainable development. Creating an atmosphere in which what is necessary is clearly spelled out to all involved is the starting point, and the review of the green spaces policy in progress goes a way to imbuing this. The work of the Council on Sustainable Development and other like-minded government groups and independent think-tanks is similarly crucial. But if recommendations and the subsequent plans that are adopted fail to create the necessary mindset among developers, the voluntary system in place will need to be reviewed. Tougher action may be needed.

Ensuring that this thinking takes hold is necessary for Hong Kong's future. Concrete, steel and glass are not the only elements of a vibrant city; there also must be pleasant places in which people can meet and socialise, heat-reducing trees and shrubs and comfortable living spaces. When this city was developing, these were far from people's minds; now they are central to our first-world lifestyle.