Harbour Views 8 Oct 2007

Billboards blocking harbour views for millions


123,900 vehicles came through the Cross-Harbour Tunnel on an average day last year. With all the buses, mini buses, taxis, and the number of people who crowd the cabins of vans, that makes 500,000 passenger trips a day, and 180 million a year. Some passengers go both ways. Every time, just before and just after the tunnel in Causeway Bay, they have time to look out over the harbour. When they try, their view is blocked by billboards: The icon of our city, the skyline across the harbour, is blurred by a mobile phone smile.

Despite years of discussion and planning principles calling for visual access to the harbour, this trend is set to extend itself along the rest of the harbour-front. And it is not just the Lands Department which happily lets out the harbour-front for billboards, now many Government Departments are trying to outdo each other.

Large square advertising balloons have gone up on the Transport Department's Central Pier 5 and 6, irrespective of the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee blocking the erection of a similar size LED Screen on top of Central Pier 4 in October 2005, and the Town Planning Board's decision to withhold approvals over the roof top use of Central Piers in June 2007. Attempts are being made to do the same on the piers in North Point. One often used argument is that the roofs of piers are ugly anyway, a simplistic view which ignores all other possible uses one could come up with to facilitate the public's enjoyment of the view and cool breeze.

Others on the same trail are the Leisure and Cultural Services Department which recently converted the quiet pagodas next to Statue Square into steel structures with large commercials for sponsors of the Asian Games, and soon the Agriculture and Fisheries Department will want to put billboards on the roof of wholesale markets along the waterfront.

One could look at it positively, and suggest that it is better looking at billboards than going through the underworld of the new atrium of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, the future foot deck in front of Tamar and the tunnels through the future groundscraper when traveling along the planned P2 highway. But that would be selling our harbour-front short.

The question is whether it is wise to continue and further increase this source of Government revenue, while denying hundreds of thousands of common men and women visual inspiration on their commute between home and work. Or when set against the lost opportunity of promoting Hong Kong as a beautiful city to our visitors, a city one should return to with wife and kids.

The removal of billboards is one of various quick win solutions identified during Harbour-front Enhancement Committee meetings. Others include the replacement of parking lots with temporary parks and the removal of the many rusting chain link fences along the harbour-front.

The removal of the billboards at the Causeway Bay tunnel entrance would be a small effort to demonstrate to the many stuck in traffic that the Government is true and genuine about harbour-front enhancement.

All we need is a policy address announcement putting someone in charge with a mandate to forego a tiny bit of revenue in return for a massive gain.

Central Ferry Piers 5 and 6: Rest assured, more billboards are on the way.