Shape of neighbourhoods to come

Big mall projects have benefits but developers should not be allowed to determine the cityscape

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2012, 2:33am

It's a popular pastime during the Christmas and New Year holidays to visit shopping centres to have a look at the festive decorations.

But winter is also a good time to visit shops that line the streets in the city's old districts.

For instance, a friend and I like to go on the weekends to a small accessories store on Wellington Street in Central, and then go to a candle shop on nearby Lyndhurst Terrace. We take the escalator to a local leather goods store on Staunton Street and then walk around the area. Here you don't just find good buys, but the area is rich in character and creativity. You can stumble on many interesting local stores that you'd never find in a shopping mall.

Still, the city's vibrant street life has been losing out to redevelopment projects in recent years.

The residential and commercial complex at Kowloon Station in West Kowloon is typical of the new wave of developments. It has a large podium structure, which houses a large shopping mall named Elements. The shopping environment is inviting and spacious, with a total gross floor area of more than one million square feet. There's a cinema, an ice rink, fashion chain stores and restaurants. But unlike, say Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui, the area around Kowloon Station isn't one to go for a post-shopping stroll, particularly at night.

The development is isolated from the neighbourhood and so has no ties to street life. Its links to the nearby sites are by footbridge only. Whether the local atmosphere will be improved after the surrounding developments are completed remains to be seen.

Similar mall designs are on the rise around Hong Kong.

We need a new vision of town planning. In the past decade, the government's Planning Department encouraged large development projects. The department would zone a large site as a "comprehensive development area". One of the advantages of such zoning is to discourage the kind of piecemeal development that characterises the city's old districts. But it results in bulky developments.

The Urban Land Institute, a global organisation, released a town planning study in 2011 and said that a project larger than about 1.61 million sq ft might lead to isolated blocks.

The Town Planning Board approves a developer's master layout plan for a site, but the board's major concern isn't whether the new development can be integrated with the existing neighborhoods around it.

For the sites released for sale over the past few years, it seems that the construction of a footbridge is all that the government has required of a developer to connect a project with nearby buildings.

Some of the suggestions from the Urban Land Institute's study are suitable for Hong Kong. Among them is the idea that government creates integrated pedestrian-friendly city spaces, and encourages developers to provide open public space at ground level that is easy to access.

To move towards this kind of cityscape, the government should take a more active role, and not leave it to property developers to shape the city we live in.