designing hong kong  

Dare to Dream

By Markus Shaw

An edited version appeared in the South China Morning Post on Saturday, 26 January 2008 under the title "Asia's parochial, make-do World City"

Hong Kong aspires to be a world-class, cosmopolitan city. The reality is that we are parochial and ruled by bureaucrats. In this, we have made little progress since the Handover, and in many respects we have regressed. Most surprising of all, we are falling behind many of our Mainland competitors in urban sophistication. It is this, rather than by any comparison of infrastructure or efficiency, which will gradually erode our place in the world and our self-confidence.

Hong Kong is famous for its "can-do" attitude. It is also afflicted by a "make-do" mentality - an acceptance of the second-rate. Aspiring to be a world city, we look to our neighbours and say: "We're not doing too badly by comparison". In areas such as water and air quality, we make do with standards that are high for Asia but low for the developed world. In other areas, we might (at best) aim for worldwide best practice, but is this good enough for a "World City"? With our wealth and intellectual resources, can we not look for 21st century solutions to transport, energy, building, recycling, heritage and nature conservation, clean tech, air and water quality etc. that set the standard and show the way forward for the world? That this is not happening is due to a political leadership whose concept of modernity has become old-fashioned.

Mayors like Michael Bloomberg in New York, and Ken Livingston in London, are attempting to tackle problems like traffic and emissions in novel and imaginative ways. Boston has just completed its "Big Dig", a massive project to remove an unsightly elevated highway that cut through the centre of town, and put it underground. The Mayor of Seoul in 2002 pledged to restore an ancient stream that had been capped by an elevated motorway: the proposal involved removing the motorway and creating an 8km long park snaking through the city where the stream once ran. This project must have seemed mad when it was first proposed. It was certainly a first for any city in the world to propose the removal of a key urban thoroughfare in order to create a park around a restored stream. Now completed, it is a well-loved triumph of urban regeneration, a project admired and studied around the world. Almost none of these policies and projects are easy. Some have been extremely costly and controversial. But their proponents have dared to dream and the results have almost always been worthwhile - they have added to a city's pride and quality of life.

By contrast, our approach in Hong Kong has almost always been conventional and unambitious and often downright destructive. For example, instead of preserving what makes us unique and interesting, we are destroying our true heritage and replacing it with heritage "theme parks"; the Urban Renewal Authority exemplifies this approach. Truly cosmopolitan cities around the world have renovated and restored their historic districts and preserved their genuine cultural flavour, judging the cost to be worthwhile. In Hong Kong, renovation of real historic districts is considered too expensive; it is judged better to knock them down and rebuild new, pastiche versions. Who do they think they will be kidding? Even tourists will be able to distinguish the genuine from the pastiche. Is this the right kind of "renewal"? It is astonishing that the URA has chosen two such culturally sensitive areas as Wedding Card Street and Peel/Graham Streets for "renewal", when there are many other less sensitive urban areas that could keep it less controversially occupied.

Apart from urban planning, transport, energy and conservation are three other key areas where are content to follow rather than lead. In transport, our planners still reflexively give priority to roads, which has led to bad planning, urban eyesores and increased pollution. In energy, very significant gains can be made in our dense urban environment through energy saving regulations in our building codes: there is no reason why we should continue to erect buildings which are so wasteful of energy, with the knowledge and technology that is available today. In conservation, spending is still grudging and seen as a sunk cost rather than an investment for posterity.

Donald Tsang eschews vision-setting and prides himself on his pragmatism: "What works?" But we need a leader who is prepared to say: "This is the vision. Now tell me how it could work." In this way, Hong Kong will become the pride of China, a city that China can hold up and say: "This is a Chinese city that is setting standards for the world."