Hong Kong should invest in developments that will better our holistic living environment, even if they aren't commercially profitable. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Just building more flats won't make Hong Kong any more liveable

Matthew Scott Ibarra underlines the importance of open, green space in our built environment

In dense cities, it is vital to have public spaces for recreational and communal use. No linear relationship exists between people and parks or trees. Each city is unique in its density and culture, the habitual lives of its residents, its economic status and even its political stability. Cities invest heavily in beautification or "greenification".

Georges-Eugène Haussmann's iconic 19th-century redevelopment of Paris, with its tree-lined Grands Boulevards, vast plazas and parks, was part of a massive infrastructure revitalisation which bettered living conditions in a city too dense and disease-ridden for its time. To this day, it remains an icon of the city and a good example of revitalisation, in addition to the fact that its remnants are still being used by its inhabitants.

Trees are not only for looking at. Studies show the numerous effects - including sociological and psychological - of density versus open and vegetated space.

Given the recent suicide tragedies at a Ho Man Tin estate, and numerous other events, I hope there can be careful consideration of the effects of communal space serving as a relief from our hectic urban life.

Over the past 60-plus years, Hong Kong and its people have gone through tremendous change. The first housing estate was built from need and necessity, and residents were happy just to have a peaceful place of shelter, to work and better their lives and those of their children. Yet, seemingly little in our urban landscape has changed since then, while peoples' lives and aspirations may no longer be the same.

We can see how the housing situation has changed; now, white-collar expatriates are living in smaller flats than those at Shek Kip Mei, yet they are paying towards HK$56 per sq ft in rent on Hong Kong Island.

Owning a "house" alone will not solve Hong Kong's housing and liveability issues, and not having one does not disqualify the need for other spaces, especially public green spaces. Planning for the city should not rely on such figures. Even if they are fortunate enough to own some housing, most Hong Kong people have a "flat" and not a "house". A "house" is just a fantasy - what's real is their "home", which includes the city itself. Lives are lived not only in flats, but also in shopping malls, on streets and in the parks, including country parks.

Of course, building new housing would be good for society. But striving for better living standards requires a dialogue about the bigger picture, especially by professionals who are concerned about the city and not just about their next mega-project.

This dialogue should be prominent among academics and professionals, who, by and large, are sometimes too quiet on the issue. We should not rely solely on developers to inform us what is beneficial for society; they have too many vested interests and a responsibility to their companies.

In urban environments, trees and vegetation serve as important elements by cleaning our air, reducing the heat island effect and lowering the ambient temperature. In fact, they help to better our living environment in many direct and indirect ways - even just by being beautiful. Cities like Chicago have spent decades adding more green space to improve the environment for residents and visitors alike.

Hong Kong also has a unique characteristic: country parks within its borders, not just gardens or city parks alone.

People depend on these areas for a "cleaner living". If we develop those areas to densities found elsewhere, what might the overall long-term effect be? The number of units alone is not definitive. No matter how many we have, all the other complexities of society keep moving, whether we control them or not. So how will new developments help bring the city into the future?

A professional's voice is strong and should be used in the hope of continuously developing a society, not just one single project, building or unit. Those who we are trying to assist are the future of this city. We need to invest in them with diligence and pride.

The now defunct Land Redevelopment Corporation Ordinance of 1987 stated that: "The corporation shall conduct its business according to prudent commercial principles, but with the approval of the financial secretary may engage in projects which are unlikely to be profitable."

This is the investment mindset needed for planning. To better the holistic living environment, officials realised that, sometimes, they would not be able to make direct returns on such investments. The government was conscious to invest in its city, the environment and the people, in order to allow for continuous future growth and the betterment of living conditions.

It is exactly such an investment that will give back to the city, and in return have much to reward us with.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Building more flats won't necessarily make Hong Kong any more liveable