Urban planning

Hong Kong can discover a whole new way of life, below ground

Agnes Tai envisages how underground space development and electronic road pricing in congested urban areas could transform life in the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2016, 6:41pm

The Hong Kong government is seeking public input to identify the potential for underground space development in the four strategic urban areas of Tsim Sha Tsui West, Causeway Bay, Happy Valley and Admiralty/Wan Chai.

Kowloon Park, Victoria Park and Southorn Playground have potential for underground malls, sports and recreational facilities and links to the MTR. The urban environment would be improved by relocating incompatible above-ground facilities and developing underground space.

Government floats below-ground proposals for Hong Kong’s built-up areas

The pilot study presents successful cases in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Taipei, Montreal, Paris, Guangzhou, Copenhagen and Seoul. Not mentioned is the Shenzhen Link City underground mall in downtown Futian. With connections to the Shenzhen International Convention and Exhibition Centre and three metro stations, as well as the high-speed rail link, the mall has 19 underground entrances providing access to a gigantic space 663 metres across, with a catchment area spanning nearly 20 office buildings involving 1.5 million square metres, and links visitors to four big shopping malls.

Get creative with underground space

Making the best use of underground space would not only enhance urban practicality and connectivity in Hong Kong, it could be a life-saving exercise. A 2015 study found air pollution in Central exceeds the World Health Organisation’s daily air quality guidelines for more than 75 per cent of the year, with areas such as Causeway Bay not much better off. Clearly, pedestrians in congested areas face considerable health risks. One reason is that there are too many private cars. These accounted for more than 550,000 out of the 741,324 total vehicle registrations in September, despite less than 10 per cent of local residents being private-car owners. One interest group showed in its study that carbon emissions per private car occupant, per kilometre, are five times those of a bus passenger and 60 times those of a rail passenger.

Charge big polluters more under Hong Kong’s electronic road pricing scheme

Also, the Environmental Protection Department estimates that traffic noise above 70 decibels affects 1.1 million people. Hence, the proposed electronic road pricing system together with underground development in urban areas should be welcomed by road users. However, an electronic road pricing proposal earlier this year met with much resistance.

Air pollution in Central exceeds WHO daily air quality guidelines for more than 75 per cent of the year

Car parks are not a main feature in the pilot study; yet, more underground car parks with short and easy links to public transport would greatly alleviate congestion in Central, with or without electronic road pricing. This would indirectly help ease pollution and could potentially bring big spenders to underground malls.

A thematic approach to developing strategic urban areas would add clustering benefits, as visitors to the underground facilities could find what interests them within one zone. For instance, one strategic area could have an arts and culture focus, with a Cantonese opera centre-cum-school and/or a modern history museum featuring local food, festivals, costumes, way of living, inventions and more, reflecting the years of Hong Kong’s transformation from a fishing village to a modern city.

Underground retail space in Hong Kong may lower rents, attract new entrants

Another area could be a “snacks zone”, featuring street food of all ethnicities in Hong Kong, while a third could be designed as a children’s interactive education centre, offering hands-on experience in coding, maths and the sciences, and innovation in robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality and renewable energy.

Promotional campaigns in collaboration with tenants in the strategic areas could be crucial

Yet another strategic area could feature outdoor and sporting goods, with an exhibition centre for our country parks, beaches, wetlands, geological sites and marine recreation spots. Of course, retail and restaurant options would be plentiful throughout all areas.

As an incentive for large entities such as schools and tour groups to use the underground facilities, ample transport access must be offered. Promotional campaigns in collaboration with tenants in the strategic areas could be crucial.

To finance the plan, “green bonds” could be issued, with funds raised used for environmentally responsible features. Overall, well-designed underground space and electronic road pricing would enhance livability and attract more visitors to Hong Kong.

Agnes K.Y. Tai is director of an Asian family office focusing on sustainable investing