Thursday, September 1, 2005

Feeding the beast of reclamation

Hong Kong has a stunningly beautiful harbour but a depressingly ugly harbourfront, due to the government's long-standing practice of regarding the harbour as a land bank. This is apparent from looking at the various stages of reclamation over the past few decades. The government built roads and highways along the waterfront and sold the reclaimed land for development.

Apart from giving the most scenic views to highways, reclaimed areas are also occupied by power sub-stations, car parks and bus terminals.

Hongkongers no longer want this kind of development pattern. Since 1997, with the passage of the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance - which has a presumption against reclamation - there has been a continuing tussle between concerned members of the public and officials for more sensible harbourfront planning.

People like myself want to halt reclamation and - in the case of Central, where reclamation is near completion - to rezone. The government wants to proceed with existing plans to build highways and other development.

On Saturday, the government will host a forum to justify the need for the Central-Wan Chai bypass - a major highway that will, at least in part, be built below ground level. The government also has plans for a separate major highway and road system along the waterfront known innocuously as "P2".

Above the Central end of the reclamation and its surrounding areas, the government plans to provide 1.2 million sq ft of development. P2 is designed to help serve the new occupants.

The Territorial Development Department published a road-works plan that shows a highway on top of the reclamation in front of the Star Ferry, City Hall and beyond. The plan also shows that substantial parts of the harbourfront area near the new Star Ferry terminal will be used for large terminuses for minibuses and buses.

Thus, yet again, the old development model is going to turn our Central waterfront into a less-than-ideal area. The government says there will be a waterfront promenade, but walking there will be marred by the large, busy highway and unattractive transport depots nearby.

With so much new development, P2 will be heavily used. It will carry additional traffic from a new wing on the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, which the Town Planning Board approved last week.

The government says it needs to build new roads to ease congestion. What it does not want to admit is that much of the additional traffic will come from new developments along the waterfront.

In other words, creating a beautiful harbourfront is secondary to easing traffic. Why can't Hong Kong turn this the right way round? Why can't roads be subservient to good planning?

For one thing, extraordinarily, road and town planning are regarded as two separate processes in Hong Kong, with the former being dominant. That is one of the reasons for our ugly waterfront. The other is the government's ravenous appetite for harbourfront land to sell, to generate revenues. The problem is that the density along the harbourfront is very high. We should think carefully about how many more buildings we can fit in there.

The idea that we have already reached saturation is not something people in high government places want to consider. But until they do, they will add even more density along the waterfront, and this city will continue to be denied the chance for a beautiful harbourfront.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen would do well to call a recess to development, and use the next two years to develop a sensible harbourfront blueprint. Instead, he is likely to plough ahead at full speed.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange.

cloh@civic-exchange.org

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Published in the South China Morning Post. Copyright (C) 2005. All rights reserved.