Is liveability a luxury forever out of reach for ordinary Hongkongers?
As authorities seek to pack as many flats as possible into our space-starved city, urban planning experts warn them not to overlook quality-of-life issues
When Ronald Lee Man-ho and his family moved from North Point to Tseung Kwan O more than a decade ago, they were delighted to leave their overcrowded urban neighbourhood for a new town near the hills and sea.
Their 47-storey development, The Grandiose, promised luxury and serenity away from the city, with its clubhouse, swimming pools and mini theatre.
But today, Lee fears he could soon again live in another sprawling urban centre as high-rises crop up all around Tseung Kwan O, with plenty more planned for the New Territories district.
“Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by blocks of flats,” the 28-year-old said.
“More and more people are moving in here. It’s the worst during rush hour on the MTR – I now have to wait for more than one train to pass before I can get on and go to work,” said Lee, who works at an investment bank in Central.
“If five or 10 years down the road it gets even worse, I might have to think about moving away. I prefer my peace and quiet.”
Lee’s fears are likely to come true. And moving away may not necessarily be the solution.
As Hong Kong battles skyrocketing property prices and an acute housing shortage that has led to about 200,000 people currently living in tiny, squalid, subdivided flats, the authorities have set their sights on packing in as many properties as possible in new towns.
The government has set itself a target of 460,000 flats by 2027. Of these, 60 per cent, or 280,000, are to be more affordable public flats, though officials have admitted they would still face a shortfall of 43,000 public housing flats by that time.
Last month authorities proposed raising the development density at two new public housing estates in the northeastern New Territories by 34 per cent. This would provide an additional 12,000 flats, bringing the total number of new homes in Fanling North and Kwu Tung North to 48,400 between 2023 and 2031.
The Town Planning Board will need to assess if the increased population would overload infrastructure in the area, among other things, before it gives its approval.
And if height restrictions permit, developers could build 40 to 50-storey residential towers in the two areas.
Tseung Kwan O – mistake or model for the future?
To architect and academic Professor Edward Ng Yan-yung, Tseung Kwan O’s built-up landscape is a result of poor planning 20 years ago.
The government allowed a high population density to meet then Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa’s annual housing target of 85,000 flats a year in 1997.
“I always tell the government, don’t try to solve a short-term problem by creating a long-term problem – they already made that mistake once,” said Ng, a specialist in climatology for city planning at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Tseung Kwan O has a population density of about 23,050 people per square kilometre. This is because its plot ratio – which has an impact on how many flats a developer can pack into a building – was originally set at 8. It was only in 2003, when the government feared the area would be overly congested, that it slashed the plot ratio to the current 6.5.
In comparison, the earlier generation of new towns in Sha Tin and Tai Po have a plot ratio of 5, with a population density of 19,243 people per square kilometre and 9,248 people per square kilometre respectively.
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Ng said it was clear that Tseung Kwan O had exceeded its “urban environment carrying capacity” – a term experts use to describe the level of development an area can sustain without the living environment being degraded – as residents had complained of issues such as insufficient natural light and ventilation in their apartment blocks.
But Professor Rebecca Chiu Lai-har, who heads the department of urban planning and design at the University of Hong Kong, pointed out that space-starved Hong Kong would have to face up to trade-offs to house its population.
Indeed, most of its other options to increase land supply – which a government task force has mulled over and will present to the public for feedback starting April 15 – are medium to long-term solutions. For example, nearshore land reclamation at five proposed sites, including Sunny Bay on Lantau Island, would produce results only in 15 to 20 years.
Task force chairman Stanley Wong Yuen-fai said: “We support the government continuing with increasing development density and even accelerating it, because we do have an imminent housing shortage.”
Since 2014 the government has followed a policy of increasing development intensity for housing sites by 20 per cent as long as the increased population does not overload the area’s infrastructure or violate other planning requirements.
Densely built up areas such as the northern strip of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are exempted.
Between mid-2012 and 2017, the Town Planning Board approved boosting the development intensity of 49 public and private housing sites, leading to an additional supply of 10,490 flats.
Ng agreed with the policy of maximising space for housing but only if there were simultaneous efforts to ease the effects of overcrowding.
“We would have to make sure there are measures in place so we don’t sacrifice our urban environment and living quality,” Ng said.
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However, he warned that the government had to be especially careful when planning Fanling North and Kwu Tung North as they were surrounded by a mountain range and thus situated in what was called a natural airshed, similar to Tseung Kwan O. This means temperatures are warmer and wind strength is weaker.
The government would have to ensure the area had sufficient “breezeways” or the environment might become “undesirable”, especially during Hong Kong’s muggy summers.
To make up for the higher density, Ng said planners should increase greening to cool down temperatures, design gaps and spaces in between buildings to break up walls of concrete for ventilation, and stipulate areas in land leases where nothing can be built to preserve pathways for natural air flow.
“The government now knows what the right decision to make is. Before, if they did not consider the environment, we could still say they were ignorant. Now if they don’t, it would be considered criminal,” Ng said.
Chiu agreed with Ng that the government should make sure high-density towers would be spread out and not in clusters, so the sight would be more pleasing to the eye.
Liveability – a luxury Hongkongers cannot afford?
Amid the talk about an overcrowded Tseung Kwan O, the government still thinks there might be room for more flats.
It is conducting a feasibility study on whether an 80-hectare area currently used as a landfill for reusable construction waste could be developed for residential and commercial use.
Town Planning Board member Chau Kwai-cheong said he was opposed to ramping up development intensity, especially in rural areas.
“When the government keeps blindly talking about building more and finding more land, people forget about basic urban planning for a liveable city,” said Chau, who is also an adjunct associate professor at Chinese University’s department of geography and resource management.
He gave the example of how building tall towers in the two northeast New Territories sites would bring about a “walled effect” and would not be able to blend in well against the existing low-rise developments in Fanling.
Instead the government should control its population through fine-tuning immigration policies, such as by rethinking the daily quota of allowing 150 mainlanders to settle in Hong Kong, or curbing property speculation by giving Hong Kong people the priority to buy flats, he said.
William Chan, 69, a long-time resident of Hang Hau, which is also part of the Tseung Kwan O new town, wavers between hope and a sense of resignation.
He remembers paying “extra money” for a flat with a partial sea and mountain view, but says after 22 years: “The sea view is long gone, and with the building of new housing estates, the mountain view could soon go too.”
He continued: “The way it is now is that if the government sees a piece of land big enough even for one residential tower, they’ll grab it and decide to build there without considering the needs of those who will be affected first.
“But shouldn’t the government be ensuring that our quality of life will improve as time goes on?”