Hong Kong should not rush into developing underground space to ease congestion
Oren Tatcher says while there is merit in the idea as a solution for overcrowding in some urban areas, a more comprehensive study of the specific proposals is needed before we act
On February 6, the government will conclude stage one of the public engagement for its “Pilot Study on Underground Space Development in Selected Strategic Urban Areas”. As usual, a roving exhibition, various public forums and a sleek website were meant to solicit public comments. What is unusual is the significance of the proposals inside what sounds like a boring engineering study.
The premise is reasonable enough. Hong Kong is, indeed, very congested at street level in some of its old urban areas. Most of them were planned more than a century ago to support much lower densities of development. For this reason, and also because of the priority given to property rights and vehicular movement, the result in many cases is severe pedestrian congestion and connectivity problems, as well as a lack of public amenities, most notably parks.
Tapping underground space is certainly a concept worth exploring, keeping in mind that underground space is, for most human beings, less desirable than above-ground space with its natural light and air. The overseas examples cited in the study in support – in Tokyo, Guangzhou, Copenhagen and Montreal, among other places – are niche cases (and not always successful) in cities which expend much more effort on high-quality street-level public spaces and walking networks than we do.
Watch: Underground shopping in Tokyo
One wishes for a study which would have defined the problems in each area, and then sought the appropriate solutions. By predefining the solution, this study never gives us the opportunity to compare it to other possible approaches, such as improvements at street level or enhancements to our elevated walkway network. It is a regrettable flaw which diminishes the study’s value as a road map for development, regardless of its specific recommendations.
But it’s the specifics which should give the public – and, hopefully, the government – some pause. The schemes being considered zero in on our most heavily used public open spaces – Kowloon Park, Victoria Park, and the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai. While careful to propose keeping “old and valuable trees” and heritage sites, the preliminary concepts would still dig up significant parts of these parks and playgrounds, compromising their usability during extended construction periods, and likely to mar their ultimate shape with numerous access pavilions, ventilation shafts and fire stairs.
Consider what is being proposed for Causeway Bay. The consultation material correctly identifies the crowded pedestrian environment, street loading activities, and poor connectivity between Causeway Bay and Happy Valley as major concerns. But instead of tackling any of those real problems, which could indeed benefit from underground solutions, the project being promoted would connect the Tin Hau MTR station with the Causeway Bay MTR station through an underground link running under Victoria Park, including commercial facilities and a large underground car park. It would require the temporary removal of one of the park’s most heavily used tree-lined paths and the largest accessible public lawn in Hong Kong.
Nearly every element in this concept is difficult to justify, even in terms of the study’s own stated goals and priorities: Tin Hau and Causeway Bay MTR stations are connected already – by the MTR; Victoria Park already offers a comfortable pedestrian path network and an abundance of sports and recreational facilities; the proposed car park will most likely bring more, not less, traffic and congestion to the area; and it is hard to see why the Causeway Bay area needs any more shops and restaurants than it already has. Yes, direct exits from both MTR stations to Victoria Park would be an improvement, but a far more modest and less disruptive project could achieve that.
Underground development should be considered, and planned carefully, as part of a holistic approach to improving walkability and public space in Hong Kong. Many aspects of the current study will prove useful as inputs to the more comprehensive series of studies needed, and which hopefully the government, now that it sees walking as a priority, will soon undertake.
Oren Tatcher is an architect and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design