Singapore and Vancouver can create liveable cities, where quality of life counts. Why can’t Hong Kong?

  • Barry Wilson says while the policy visions of places such as Edinburgh, Vancouver and Singapore involved public discussion and include clear goals, Hong Kong 2030 Plus centres around infrastructure and fails to account for technological change
PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2019, 7:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2019, 8:32am

Among the plethora of statistics, benchmarks and generalities in Hong Kong 2030 Plus, the government’s policy vision document, one word is conspicuous in its almost total absence – quality. The document says its vision is for Hong Kong “to become a liveable, competitive and sustainable Asia’s World City” but gives little clue as to how to get there, providing no measurable liveability targets and not specifying what liveable actually means or whose aspirations these might be.

By contrast, Edinburgh initiated a 2050 City Vision campaign in 2016 which sparked public discussion about the future of the city and its residents’ aspirations and concerns. In Vancouver, more than 35,000 people took part in the development of the Greenest City Action Plan in 2011, which set clear quality goals with measurable and attainable targets towards becoming the “greenest city in the world by 2020”. The city has committed to ensuring that 100 per cent of its energy will come from renewable sources by 2050.

Singapore can point to its 1967 “garden city” vision as the original quality driver of its transformation into, according to Mercer, Asia’s most liveable city. The five focus initiatives of its Sustainable Singapore Blueprint really highlight the city’s emphasis on quality of life: “an active and gracious community”; “towards a zero waste nation”; “‘eco smart’ endearing towns”; “a leading green economy”; and, “a ‘car-lite’ Singapore”.

The focus is on building housing districts, such as Punggol Northsore, Kampong Bugis and Marina South, using innovative design and technology. Old estates are being rejuvenated by introducing sustainability features through programmes such as Remaking Our Heartland, which build on the distinct personality of each estate, and HDB Greenprint, which encourages the public to propose ideas to further enhance green living.

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The introduction of better recycling infrastructure such as centralised chutes for all new Housing and Development Board flats has been combined with district-wide pneumatic waste conveyance systems, which transport solid waste through underground pipes, and an integrated waste management facility, which can segregate recyclables from waste. The blueprint also highlights providing a better cycling and walking environment with more car-free spaces aimed at transitioning to large-scale adoption of driverless vehicles and an electric car-sharing scheme.

Hong Kong 2030 Plus is now shaping our future, including the decision to create a new East Lantau Metropolis. Its three aspirations – “planning for a liveable high-density city”, “embracing new economic challenges and opportunities” and “creating capacity for sustainable growth” – are all well and good, but where are the specific living quality targets to meet them, with steps to get Hongkongers involved? Does this document really reflect peoples’ hopes or just development inertia? Were the right questions even being asked?

The future being planned for us, not with us, fails to go much beyond catering to the most basic linear projections of population change and holding the fanciful notion that Hong Kong will continue to grow in much the same way as it has always done.

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The speed of current technological change has no historical precedent and is disrupting almost every industry around the world. The 2030 Plus plan fails to identify and respond to the paradigm shift arriving with automated transport, for instance, and inadequately references the implications of increased integration with the mainland towards 2047.

The plan exists in isolation from the development of the Greater Bay Area, yet back in 2007, when the original Hong Kong 2030 Planning Vision and Strategy was released, population change, integration and technology shifts were all highlighted as key issues. What got lost in the intervening 10 years?

The happiness and quality indexes don’t lie. If people could live on bridges and roads, then Hong Kong would be a world beater. Our development and management model, however, engineers miserable places to live, planned not around people but vehicles. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of vehicles on Hong Kong’s roads rose by 30 per cent despite the known impacts to social equity and population health. Whereas cities such as Paris are currently preparing plans to make public transit entirely free and banish petrol cars by 2030, the ambition of Hong Kong’s Clean Air Plan goes no further than phasing out older diesel commercial vehicles and tightening taxi and bus exhaust emissions.

Meanwhile, private car ownership in the US is anticipated to decrease 80 per cent by 2030, with massive stranded assets in traditional motor vehicle infrastructure. Even in China, car sales dropped 6 per cent last year, the first decline in 28 years. The vast amount of land in Hong Kong allocated to roads, parking, fuel stations and transport depots needs urgent reassessment. All new development should based on creating car-light environments while residential prototypes for a future-proof housing stock should be put in place.

Land development should only therefore be based on a much more sophisticated and integrated quality vision of a future that goes well beyond the one set out in the generalisations of 2030 Plus. Our development process is not quality-led, it is purely infrastructure for growth and it aims, first and foremost, to maintain jobs for the many and profits for the few, while obtaining the cheapest development product for the taxpayer. You get what you pay for.

Barry Wilson is an urbanist, lecturer and professional consultant.