April 25, 2004

Peter Cookson Smith

In establishing the starting point for this exercise we have certain broad principles relating to sustainable design set out by the Designing Hong Kong Harbour District Group, and the terms of reference prescribed by Citizens Envisioning @ Harbour. We also have a wealth of experience emanating from previous planning and urban design studies.

In reconciling both the principles at stake and the opportunities presented there is one overriding goal to which I think everyone subscribes - the enhancement of the Hong Kong Harbour District through the creation of the best possible foreshore, and its accessibility in relation to surrounding areas.

This is important, not merely in terms of the physical aspects of the harbour district which need to be considered as part of a coherent whole, but in the context of change in the city and its evolving role and identity in relation to the PRC. The last 30 years have brought about a staggering physical, social and economic transition. The planning and related mechanisms that evolved in their application to the new towns and housing programmes were quite functional in nature and geared largely to expedient solutions rather than sophisticated design. Almost the entire planning emphasis in Hong Kong up to around 15 years ago was directed at the New Territories - not the city itself. In the process Hong Kong gained for itself a 'can do' reputation for meeting improbable development targets which helped to improve the lives and prospects of countless thousands of families. However we must be honest - most new town environment is scarcely a model for sustainable design of the city itself.

When planning attention was turned back to the city it was to pursue, along with other sub-regional development investigations, opportunities for strategic growth to meet medium-range projections for significant population increase. This was also the time when manufacturing industry was moving across the border and Hong Kong was evolving into a predominantly service economy. Thus a number of feasibility studies were undertaken that have largely served to identify somewhat theoretical development potential for a range of new reclamation areas, for both residential, business and infrastructure purposes. Broadly the same planning and regulatory tools that had applied to the new towns were now imported to the design and layout of these areas, with much the same emphasis on density, urban form and development standards. In the case of some new development areas such as West Kowloon, this largely involved the slotting in of new development within the constraints of station box design.

Priorities change however, and our needs are now much more indeterminate and open to question. Even the current 2030 Study carried out by Planning Department leaves open the issues of either consolidating the pattern of urban growth or decentralising development. Many of our current city-building objectives, and the procedures related to these, are in need of review. We need to question firstly what is actually required around the harbour now that population increase is unlikely to require anything like the previously projected levels of accommodation; secondly we need to question whether, in the light of the city's changing economic role vis a vis Southern China, Hong Kong's traditional priorities of speed and quantity and the expedient mechanisms used in the past to achieve these priorities should outweigh those of slow and carefully crafted urban design commensurate with quality; thirdly the recreational potential of the waterfront needs to be prioritised in relation to city image building and the need to serve both local people and a substantial increase in tourism; and fourthly we need to acknowledge the role of new waterfronts in assisting the process of wider regeneration of the harbour district.

To achieve all of these, following the example of virtually every other city waterfront revitalisation initiative that has taken place over the last 25 years, we need to take it upon ourselves to orchestrate a bold vision with some recognition as to how to implement and manage it. There are of course many criteria we need to acknowledge, and we must have an eye for protection as well as development. However at the present time there is a clear and imminent danger of ending up with solutions that are so circumscribed by the apparent need to reconcile the requirements and aspirations of very different bodies, by the prioritisation of traffic and engineering objectives, and minimisation of the inherent potential of new waterfront profiles through the self-imposed restrictions of the Harbour Ordinance, that we are in danger of seriously compromising a remarkable if not a unique opportunity. If we take time to develop and prioritise urban design solutions and commit ourselves to the quality of these, we can bequeath to the people of Hong Kong one of the world's best waterfronts in what must certainly be one of the world's most responsive settings. This should also act to sustain visitor and tourism interest in Hong Kong as a city with a central image focussed on the waterfront.

So when all the dust has settled where exactly are we on this? What are the issues and where are the opportunities?

1. The Central Reclamation Area

What is built at present is CR1 in the west, with CR2 being the existing Tamar area. What is committed and under construction at present is the CR3 area encompassing 18 ha. of land north of existing core central - the subject of the judicial review. This will help to facilitate the underground trunk road by-pass but leaves a considerable area above. An OZP was prepared for this area several years ago. To make this reasonably coherent, the area has been broadly divided into four elements : the Statue Square Corridor; a Civic Corridor; an Arts and Entertainment Corridor; and a Waterfront Promenade.

The Issues

  • Following the Judicial Review, government is now seemingly locked into a binding reclamation package for CR3, having a particular 'minimum' profile. There is an 'approved plan' and in a normal situation this would be implemented without delay. However in the current circumstances it is difficult to know what the great hurry is given that government's constantly stated reason for proceeding is "to meet essential transport needs" i.e. the Wan Chai by-pass, which requires Wan Chai Phase 2 to be reviewed, agreed, and partly reclaimed before work on the by-pass could even commence. Whatever the merits of the by-pass, and how and when it is to be constructed, it is what happens on the surface that should now concern us in this area. The Judicial Review ruled that Government has met the legal requirements of overriding public need in relation to proceeding with CR3 for the by-pass, but what "compelling and present" public need, if any, relates to surface planning?

  • The Town Planning Board is allowed to draw up proposals for the use of the 18 ha of reclaimed land to promote "the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the community". However the OZP also covers the CR2 area which makes 24 ha in all. The OZP itself, as a mechanism for producing stimulating urban design, is extremely simplistic. Some of the uses, in particular those zoned G/IC, are very indeterminate and in need of review. If for example government does not proceed with the government offices and new Legco facilities, it leaves a considerable vacuum in the overall layout. How can we achieve a good urban design framework when we don't really know what we are planning for, and government wants to keep all its options firmly open? Apart from this 5.1 ha are for commercial use, half of which is for low-rise waterfront - related facilities, and half is part of a CDA. This still leaves a lot of potential development area to be taken up. Open space on its own has limited opportunity for placemaking. Urban spaces need to be defined.

  • The OZP shows a PLA Berth along the waterfront some 200m in length, and it was assumed that this would only be closed off at ceremonial times. We don't know the ramifications of this at all i.e. whether it implies a 'no-go' zone or prominent building which might considerably compromise both design and circulation;

  • Because of the perceived necessity to comply with the Harbour Ordinance and the 'minimisation' of reclamation, we end up with a long and almost straight edge, relieved only by the marine basin. Now the latter has considerable potential for the introduction of waterfront activities: leisure uses, tall ship mooring, cafes etc. But ¡K.. this area does not form part of the crucial 24 ha CR2/CR3 area. It is part of the Wan Chai Development Phase 2, which is under review. So how does this stand in relation to "overriding public need", and the seemingly ingrained views of the protection lobby? If the basin and its associated uses are lost, the character of the central waterfront will be irrevocably compromised.

  • There is a need to ensure that this and other waterfront areas are not dominated by surface roads. Do we need a dual 3-lane road P2? Whilst road P2 does not really duplicate the function of the underground by-pass, given the considerably reduced amount of new development now proposed, the size of this road and its intersections have got to be questioned as a matter of priority.

The Opportunities

  • It is disingenuous to constantly trumpet transport needs as being the essential driver of the plan. However there is also little point in trumpeting how much public open space there might be. This in isolation from a proper urban design framework, means very little. We should be announcing loud and clear that this is now a real opportunity to create a magnificent waterfront for the people of Hong Kong and to reinforce the harbour image as representing Hong Kong's essential identity. Thus a careful and creative process of urban design is where the bulk of our efforts should go.

  • Very little surface area is actually committed in terms of specific land uses and there is considerable scope for new urban design initiatives that can create pedestrian-scaled streets and new multi-use harbour-related 'places'. We need these initiatives and commitments to ensure eventual quality of the area including those related to engineering and 'bridging' structures.

  • We need at all costs to minimise the footprint of roads in the northern Central and Wan Chai areas. It is therefore misguided to merely accept the existing alignment of the bypass or to exclude transport from the mandate of the Harbour-front Committee. The alignment itself determines the position of slip roads and road connections. We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past, with major roads and intersections dominating the layout agenda, and urban design having somehow to adjust to these, with every single activity or building block surrounded by roads.

  • The ability to facilitate continuous pedestrian connections between core central and the waterfront, and between the Admiralty area and the waterfront, is critical in terms of achieving a workable and integrative layout. As the south-to-north pedestrian routes have to clear primarily east-west roads, connections must be at least partly elevated, and therefore need particular attention as to their design and integration. The 'groundscraper' is intended to vary in height - up to 8 storeys above deck level, and should act to define the western edge of the Statue Square Corridor.

  • The harbour edge should sensibly be reconfigured to provide for a variety of connected activity spaces, and further defined by extended low-rise (2-3 storey) commercial and leisure uses.

  • Pro-active urban design parameters are needed to establish an integrative framework for 3-dimensional design and co-ordination. This does not demand a "grand vision", but it does require clear overall design objectives.

  • Given all these factors there is a good case for reviewing the combined CR2, CR3 and Water Basin areas in terms of both land use and transport. There is little point in constantly referring to and planning for these as separate engineering packages, when they will be experienced as one composite area. In future years the success of this entire area will be crucial to the identity of Central.

2. The Wan Chai to Causeway Bay Area

This comprises Wan Chai Development Phase II, mainly to the east of the HKCEC. The latter itself comprises Wan Chai Phase 1. The waterfront profile, reduced dramatically from the 1989 feasibility study, stems from the opportunity to reconfigure the harbour edge as well as provide for the alignment of the by-pass, portal area and its link with the Island Eastern Corridor.

The Issues and Opportunities

  • The central issue concerns the trunk road alignment. The by-pass connection between the eastern and western parts of Hong Kong Island, with the associated cross-harbour links to east and west Kowloon formed one of the objectives of the 1987 Central/Wan Chai feasibility study, and gaining acceptance to an underground alignment was quite an achievement in itself. However there is an inevitable design problem in tying together the alignment between the currently proposed eastern portal and the elevated Island Eastern Corridor. There are of course several options, and each has certain impact problems associated with them. As we probably all know, it was the associated opportunity area for a new harbour edge and marine park that set in motion the recent bouts of court action. In line with the above, the two main issues are essentially : how best to ameliorate the impact of the IEC link; and how best to exploit the opportunities presented by the associated reclamation edge. I will take each of these in turn.

  • Even the preferred alignment of the IEC link and the slip roads associated with this would still have a significant visual impact. The best solution would be an eastern extension of the underground alignment and therefore a more easterly junction with the elevated IEC. Whilst this would be more expensive and would involve traffic disruption during construction, it would ultimately reduce the visual impact to the Causeway Bay area. The impact of elevated roads can also be reduced through sensitive design, and through the extension of landscaped open space and pedestrian corridors under this. Much the same situation prevails in Sydney's Darling Harbour.

  • The opportunity to re-orient the existing typhoon shelter, with a connective sequence of public waterfront spaces and amenities extending around the new water bodies and tied back into Victoria Park and the core Causeway Bay area, is an example not just of what urban design is all about, but of exploiting a new opportunity to good effect.

  • There is a need to meet the requirements of the RHKYC with a clear demarcation between the marine and typhoon shelter functions, and this provides an opportunity to clean up the putrid conditions in the existing shelter. In terms of water quality it is therefore impossible to make the current situation any worse.

  • Because of the Harbour Ordinance and the paranoia this has induced in certain quarters, the harbour park has been reduced in the latest proposal to a sea-wall. We seem to be missing the point here - this is a genuine opportunity area and could be one of the most interesting parts of the entire harbour district. It is not in any way destroying or compromising the harbour, it is enhancing its character and making it accessible. A layering of water bodies and enclosing elements does not reduce the visual mass of the harbour - rather it reinforces its identity and makes it both accessible and responsive to public use and enjoyment. The Judicial Review raised the criterion of "minimum impairment" to the harbour, but if this is then associated with "compelling need" we might easily end up with largely engineering or purely functionally related structures, with a minimum of things that the community needs and makes the waterfront interesting.

3. West Kowloon

The West Kowloon Reclamation was actually constructed as an Airport Core Project. It essentially now houses the road and rail alignments to Chek Lap Kok, and West Rail, together with major development nodes associated with rail stations and termini. In the process these infrastructure corridors have effectively cut off the waterfront from the older districts of Yau Ma Tei, Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po. So what does this leave us with and what are the issues?

I would say that the principal issues are firstly to find the best way of making the foreshore work for the benefit of the public with a range of accessible people-friendly places; and secondly to find ways with which to improve connectivity between these areas and the existing older districts. There are essentially two opportunities :
The first is the 40 hectare area occupying the tip of the West Kowloon reclamation. This occupies a highly prominent site in the central part of the harbour. This area has something of a history. We examined the area for what we called a Gateway Park Concept in 1995. This capitalised on the link with the MTR Station site, and involved a range of permanent and temporary leisure, recreation and cultural uses to be built and preferably operated by the private sector. These included a waterfront amphitheatre, a China Ecologies Centre and a large-scale graphic display and "lighthouse" marking the entrance to Victoria Harbour.

The second attempt in 1997 was a study to test the feasibility of a Hong Kong Exposition for the Hong Kong Tourism Board, for which West Kowloon was the preferred site. Had this in fact gone ahead, much of the infrastructure and a massive amount of entertainment facilities would have been built by commercial sponsors and left in place as permanent waterfront attractions for the people of Hong Kong. Unfortunately government backed away because it all seemed too difficult and risky at the time.

Our third attempt was the competition for what government has termed, somewhat enigmatically, an Arts and Cultural District. The rather vague intentions behind this were questioned by many well before the competition itself. The chief difficulty is that for a competition to come up with really meaningful results, the brief itself has to be reasonably specific. To translate conceptual ideas into a detailed proposal, and to then formulate viable tenders from single development groups, which is what is happening now, raises a number of questions. These are chiefly concerned with :

i. How best to ensure real public benefit from private investment geared to a largely commodified environment;
ii. How major commercial development will be equated and interwoven with the provision, integration and management of very large and sophisticated cultural facilities;
iii. How these can all be accommodated in a satisfactory manner while retaining a very large and expensive canopy which was really only an ingenuous idea, rather than one that was terribly well thought out;
iv. How to achieve an icon development in relation to this very central site, while avoiding monumentality;
v. How to bring about real urban interest, variety and diversity, through one single overall development project; and
vi. Last but not least, how tender schemes presumably having very different design emphasis, commercial context and design cost components, will be evaluated by government.

I certainly don't have all the answers to these as I have no idea what might emerge from the present competitive design and tender process, but these issues certainly need to be addressed when evaluating the outcome.

This brings us to the second opportunity in West Kowloon. Why just stop at the 40 ha peninsula? At present the western waterfront, such as it is, is totally cut off from the older districts. The typhoon shelter is no longer really essential in the central harbour, and surely the best solution here, not withstanding the Harbour Ordinance, is a new dynamic water edge with a range of spaces, facilities and development nodes. The key to environmental success is the way that this could be designed in a really spectacular way - not to arbitrarily dismiss an obvious opportunity for new waterfront uses. With elevated pedestrian connectors and quite possibly a cable-liner rail link to existing stations on the Nathan Road corridor this could not only create an energised new harbour edge but make it directly accessible from the older areas and assist the process of regeneration. What precisely would we be protecting in this location? The western harbour is a different proposition from the central harbour and needs to be looked at in a different way. New water bodies are still part of the harbour even if they are partially encapsulated.

At the micro scale there are problems of linkage because of existing buildings and transport infrastructure. At the macro scale, the only constraints are our imagination, commitment and resources. But if we want to create a better city as well as a better harbour, this is the sort of decision we have to make - surely not leave it the way it is at the moment.

4. South-East Kowloon

Government have stated that after Central / Wan Chai, this will be the last harbour reclamation. The S.E. Kowloon development area has a somewhat lengthy history with detailed planning commencing long before the airport relocation. It has been progressively cut back from the original area to the presently envisaged 464 ha, although only around 28 percent of this is on reclamation. Apart from the existing NAKTA area and the Runway, to make coherent sense of the area to house the range of uses proposed at present, reclamation of the notorious Kai Tai Nullah and some reclamation of the Hoi Sham Foreshore would need to be carried out.

Government has sensibly chosen to put back the commissioning of consultants to re-examine the area based on options ranging from no reclamation at all to full reclamation, where virtually every element must now fulfil the judicially stated requirements of overriding public need, and involving a range of public consultations that might well take a very long time to reconcile.

As there are at least 30 bodies represented on an average Planning Study Steering Group, each protecting their own development agendas, it is certainly going to be an interesting process even getting to the point where the public themselves have a say. There are of course a number of questions we might ask in the context of "compelling and present" public need :

  • Can we meet the overriding objective set out earlier, with a 'no-reclamation' option?
  • Is accommodation of major new housing areas still an overriding objective given constant changes in both housing policy and demand?
  • If there is an overriding need for a new stadium is SEKD the only viable site for it?
  • Is the end of the runway really the best site for an admittedly much needed new cruise centre?
  • Will the new stations on the SCL that pass through Kai Tak, Ma Tau Kok and Ma Tau Wai really be viable without a new SEKD catchment.
  • How much can the new district enclaves contribute to the necessary regeneration of older areas alongside?
  • How important is new regional infrastructure such as the East Kowloon Route?
  • And of course how can we best design for a stimulating waterfront where buildings and spaces need to form a strong dialectic with the wider harbour district?

We must also ask ourselves the sort of questions that the public or their representatives would rightly raise, in a sort of 'Emperor's New Clothes' scenario. Government has long adopted a policy where every facet of a plan has to be acceptable and agreed by all interested departments and other bodies. This generally means design by committee and, whatever the conciliatory merits of this, the general acceptance of expedient rather than innovative design solutions. It would not take an overly perceptive member of an Advisory Committee to ask why for example, despite so much planning and urban design review, there are still waterfront sites zoned for a Refuse Transfer Station, Public Filling Barging Point and a Sewage Treatment Works within a very short distance of a proposed new tourism node and cruise terminal. Or why so many roads are required to have 3m noise barriers alongside them (unless of course buildings are set back ludicrous distances from roads or alternatively lined with buildings which have a low impact such as indoor games halls). This is nothing to do with proper planning or urban design - it is the result again of the generally intransigent interpretation of another ordinance - the Environmental Protection Ordinance. The interpretation of this is strangely lop-sided in that it is geared to aspects of environment that are measurable such as noise or air pollution, but leaves non-measurable aspects such as sustainable physical environment and good urban design to somehow emerge unscathed from this. Ultimately, unless we address these issues sensibly and realistically, new waterfront related areas will not achieve the design potential that we must all hope and plan for.

5. Re-use of Existing Sites

Most of the areas examined so far include for the redevelopment of existing sites within the wider waterfront planning framework. In the original feasibility study for Central / Wan Chai for example, 26 government owned sites were examined for inclusion within the plan, although of course not all proved to be either acceptable, or available.

However if we are to talk about a connective waterfront - that is to say a waterfront based on continuity of pedestrian movement and open space, we have got to look further than existing and committed reclamation edges. These can be essentially divided between :

  • Those sites where existing uses are obsolete or could be relocated to more appropriate areas;
  • Those existing public areas such as the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade, which need upgrading; and
  • Those sites which seem to be given over to temporary uses such as parking and storage which could, with some flexibility on the part of government and ingenuity on the part of designers, be put to better use.

In many cities for example use is made of spaces under elevated road or rail corridors, and boardwalks or piers integrated so as to extend and reinforce the pedestrian realm, particularly if this creates linkage and continuity of waterfront movement corridors. The latter is precisely what has been recently proposed for the Stanley waterfront.

Clearly what needs to prevail is a thorough analysis of these areas with a view, not necessarily to identify specific new uses, but to integrate a potential sequence of accessible attractions, spaces, connectors and activity areas as part of a deliberately diversified city waterfront.


We have reached an interesting cross-roads in Hong Kong in terms of urban planning. The simplistic land management approach which has stemmed from the Town Planning Ordinance has given us essentially workable but bland city environment. It's essential tools - the OZP and Layout Plan, whilst ensuring enormous flexibility in the disposal of serviced land, have little to do with the achievement of great urban environment. They are geared instead to the disposition of single-use object buildings on separate sites, and reflect an expedient and open-ended approach to urban planning that goes back many years. This, together with the regulatory environment within which we as urban planners and designers operate, is leading to an increasingly undifferentiated city form.

The HK Planning Standards and Guidelines whilst providing basic locational criteria for the distribution of facilities, are difficult to apply in urban situations, and numerical deficiencies in older districts are often made up on new reclamation areas. This is why we end up with waterfronts full of wholesale markets, lorry parking areas, storages areas and indoor games halls, with what little open space there is being difficult to access. There is still, despite all the admitted difficulties, too little attention paid to quality, linkage and continuity of open space patterns, and too much emphasis on the integration of active open spaces in central urban situations rather than accessible locations at the urban fringe. New development areas display none of the intricacies, complexities, nor the delights and diversity of older and more flexible city quarters. Indeed given the complicated regulatory and decision-making framework we now have to work within, this is becoming almost impossible without the presence of an overriding body with clear goals and objectives.

This is inevitably leading to a stand-off between what an increasingly vocal public requires from its new development areas, and what present procedures are able to cater for. We now require an approach which is both responsive to public opinion and pro-active, with both planning and lands mechanisms that stimulate good urban design and architectural solutions rather than overly constrain them. As we are discussing the harbour 'district' this also needs to relate to a far more sensitive approach to urban renewal. Waterfronts and regeneration are in fact two sides of the same coin. Only several hundred metres back from the Wan Chai waterfront the historic core of old Wan Chai, a model of mixed use and diversity whatever the localised problems of obsolescence, is being redeveloped instead of being regenerated. This is again the result of an almost purely financially driven process orchestrated by the URA (quite legitimately under the terms of the URA Ordinance) with little real consideration given to community and stakeholder interests, or to what kind of city we want to see in the future. It is difficult to build Asia's World City if we cannot get our fundamental priorities right.

We happen now to be discussing future uses on our waterfront sites, but we are also trying to come to terms with the needs of the Harbour District as a whole. As Wedding Card Street with its different sets of ownerships and tenancies disappears to make way for another single-use development with its ubiquitous range of standard outlets, we should give pause for thought. Other cities went through not dissimilar situations in the 1960s and 70s, and because of community pressure, we now have bequeathed to us areas like Greenwich Village in New York, Covent Garden in London, the Rocks in Sydney, and many more. We need now to take stock of city planning mechanisms and give consideration to what we want the metro area of Hong Kong to be like in 25 years time. This will arguably be the greatest measure of Hong Kong's success in responding to the many and varied challenges that lie ahead.

Peter Cookson Smith
25th April 2004

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