To realise Hong Kong’s harbourfront potential, bureaus must rid the silo mentality
The city’s previous leader and current chief executive, who both showed policy support for the creation of an authority, have stepped back when it came to implementation
As many may know, I stepped back as a member of the Harbourfront Commission with effect from July 1, having been chairman since its inception in 2010, and involved for a number of years before that as a member of its predecessor, the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee.
Obviously I have done so with some sadness but also with some pride in that the commission, which despite the fact that it is only an adviser to the Hong Kong government, has in my view, achieved some noticeable success in ensuring that waterfront enhancement and connectivity are key components of all projects and initiatives that are referred to it. Over the last eight years, some 150 projects have been reviewed and I think it is fair to say that the impact of each has been materially improved by the incorporation of views and comments expressed by members of the commission.
The commission has also played its part by contributing to the planning of future waterfront areas, such as the master plan for the Wan Chai/Causeway Bay/North Point reclamation which will be implemented on completion of the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, and in regularly reviewing plans for the development of Kai Tak and ensuring that the ongoing works continue to reflect and respect the Harbour Planning Principles.
Innovative proposals such as constructing a boardwalk underneath the Island Eastern Corridor to provide both access and proximity to the water are also being pursued as well as a series of “quick win” initiatives in partnership with local district councils to ensure community involvement in the work of the commission.
In other words, the commission flies both high in its role as champion of the harbour but also low in examining the details of every scheme that is put before it. It was also allocated HK$500 million (US$63.73 million) by the previous administration and this is to be spent on a series of enhancement projects on both sides of the harbour.
However, there is still much work to be done, not least the need to address the absence of an agency or authority with executive powers that can envision and deliver a holistic master plan which responds to the community’s aspirations and creates a quality waterfront befitting an international city like Hong Kong.
The irony is that within the administration there is general acceptance that the vertical nature of bureaus and departments makes it very difficult for the government to respond to the challenge of an integrated solution, and that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department approach is too simplistic and that “maintenance free design” and “policed” use are not the answer.
There is also acceptance that the administration does not have the knowledge or capacity to bring together the necessary collaborations or partnerships that will be essential if the key components of creativity, vibrancy and variety are to be achieved – the saga over the Hong Kong observation wheel being an example to point.
Finally, I believe there is a clear mandate from the community – following the public engagement exercise upon which the commission embarked several years ago – that the waterfront’s future should be entrusted to a harbourfront authority or similar body. Granted that there are issues relating to funding and to checks and balances that need to be debated and resolved, but as the commission clearly indicated at its last meeting, this is the only way forward.
Both the previous leader and current Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor have shown policy support for the creation of an authority but have also then stepped back when it came to implementation, which I could perhaps understand if it involved a battle with the Legislative Council. But given improved relations with Legco and the fact that the need to move forward in a more comprehensive manner with the enhancement of the harbourfront appears to have strong support from all elements of the community, there would seem to be every argument for resurrecting the proposal.
At the last meeting of the commission, the administration proposed a study to examine alternative ways of managing the waterfront. This signals that it is aware of the need for change, and I hope that the commission and the community will seize the opportunity to press that the case for the creation of an authority be revisited in a proactive and serious manner.
I have not lost my attachment to the harbour and the need to support the work of the commission.To that end, a number of like-minded individuals and I have set up a new organisation, Friends of Victoria Harbour. The intention is that we will provide commentary and input to the commission and to the government from a professional and Hong Kong perspective on all matters relating to waterfront development and put forward, in particular, suggestions on potential collaborative models for different parts of the waterfront which are unlikely to emanate from the administration. We are hopeful that this will help bring greater focus and momentum to harbourfront enhancement and in the longer term we will be championing the need for a harbourfront authority.
Nicholas Brooke is the chairman of Professional Property Services Group