The current round of reclamation will be the last for Hong Kong's harbour. The new shorelines on both sides of the harbour will be permanent. The form and functions of the new waterfront areas will have to meet the aspirations of the many generations to come. The layout, land-use planning, urban design and landscape architecture deserve our utmost care and undivided attention. Public participation is vital.
The Central Waterfront Design Competition was launched in May by Designing Hong Kong, an organisation established to help reach a consensus on sustainable harbour planning among the public, business sector and the government.
More than 80 pieces of design are on display at Central Pier 8, and four of them have been selected for the final stage of the competition. I recommend this exhibition to all in Hong Kong. In particular, I encourage parents and teachers to take our younger generations to visit it.
As a signature landmark, Victoria Harbour is unique. Any photograph or sketch showing a harbour running through the middle of a city - with high-rise buildings on both sides and steep hills in the background - readily leads the viewer to think of Hong Kong. There are many other waterfront cities: New York, Vancouver, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney come to mind. But, as a subject for urban planning and design, none has such fine qualities as Victoria Harbour. And it's part of Hongkongers' lives: every day, a large proportion of the population crosses the harbour using various modes of transport.
For over 100 years, the harbour was a major source of flat land suitable for development. As it was needed, new land was created by reclaiming the inner harbour instead of large-scale site developments in the New Territories. Perhaps the expiry of Britain's lease in 1997 had something to do with that mindset. Successive reclamation projects pushed out the shorelines on both sides of the harbour. Planning and development of the new waterfront areas were engineering-led, practical and utilitarian. New roads, piers, pumping stations, sewage plants and transformer stations took up logical positions - from the engineering standpoint.
The space in between was designated for residential property or other development purposes. The result was highly efficient as engineering, but it had little regard for appearance or quality of life. As a result, many of our waterfront areas are not pedestrian-friendly. Most of them are barren, with a cold, hard ambience. Almost none are softened with greenery. There is little evidence of urban design.
That was perhaps understandable in an era when everything in Hong Kong was considered transient. With the 1997 handover looming, functionality and short-term, tangible return were supreme. Further, when any new waterfront area would in a few years be obscured by yet another round of reclamation, urban design became secondary.
But the circumstances have changed. Now that we are ending the history of inner-harbour reclamation, the new shoreline and waterfront areas will form a permanent, integral and crucial part of our signature cityscape. There is no room for mistakes, afterthoughts or short-term solutions. As Hong Kong is no longer "a borrowed place on borrowed time", we must take a broader, longer-term and more balanced approach to our land-use allocation.
The Washington-based Urban Land Institute studied the issue in 2005, sending a team of foreign experts to Hong Kong to offer their views on planning and design. Two of them were first-time visitors. After spending only three days on field visits and discussions, they came up with remarkably refreshing propositions.
One thing became clear: waterfront planning calls not just for knowledge and expertise. More importantly, it requires an acknowledgement of a harbour's many intrinsic values. We also need a good measure of imagination and, from time to time, a fresh pair of eyes. Engineering considerations come later.
This is why I recommend the design exhibition, and why it's important to capture the public's imagination. If grandparents and grandchildren visit the exhibition together, they might suggest this idea: after improving the water quality, why not reserve parts of the shoreline for swimmers? Forty years ago we had swimming clubs on the north shore of Hong Kong Island: my generation, and our parents, grew up with them.
Swimming is only one of the many recreational and leisure values the waterfront could have. The narrow, ribbon shape of the urban areas on both sides of the harbour means that the waterfront is never far away. With typical Hong Kong ingenuity, we should easily be able to cater to the many needs of all walks of life - from investment bankers in Central taking time off from the office to pensioners in To Kwa Wan strolling with their baby grandchildren.
At this stage, all we need is an imaginative mindset and a new approach. Hong Kong's new waterfront may take a few decades to take shape properly. But once we get there, the place we call home will truly be the most splendid city in the world. Now is our best and last opportunity.
C.Y. Leung is convenor of the Executive Council
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