Thursday, April 29, 2004

How to save Hong Kong's culture


Three opinion surveys on the West Kowloon cultural district asked nearly identical questions, but failed to address the two most critical issues. Polls by the Centre for Cultural Policy Research at Hong Kong University, the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce all asked detailed questions about the giant canopy, the "one developer" solution and the management of venues.

They neglected to ask if a majority of Hong Kong's cultural venues should be located in one new area, or are they better spread throughout the harbour district, to enhance existing areas? Further, how do we change the role and organisation of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, optimise resource allocation for arts and culture, and improve the management of venues?

In its current form, the West Kowloon project is the result of three questionable decisions: clustering all venues in one new area; adding a dramatic but expensive canopy (which, we now learn, may be scrapped if developers think it is too costly); and paying one developer for the construction and management of the venues, with adjacent land zoned for residential and retail use.

The clustering decision was based on the regeneration of cities in Britain, where a rethink of arts, culture, hotel, retail and entertainment facilities helped attract more tourists.

Hong Kong already has its cluster - the harbour district, which is the area between the Eastern Harbour Crossing and Western Harbour Tunnel. It has 90 per cent of all arts, cultural, entertainment, financial and the main commercial facilities, and has never had a problem attracting tourists. The only Hong Kong-specific "clustering" issue is to provide quality food and beverage facilities within five minutes of a venue. The solution is better pedestrian mobility and accessibility, with the market taking care of the rest.

The only proponents of the West Kowloon cultural district are the bureaucrats who pushed it; developers keen on high-value land; consultants and architects paid to work on the plans; and art groups desperate to get away from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.

The project will not disappear, and the question, therefore, is how to ensure a successful urban plan for West Kowloon.

The first option is to call for a strategic master plan for a world-class harbour district as a whole, including West Kowloon, which sets a direction for land use and identifies the optimal distribution of venues, facilities, property development and transport infrastructure, based on economic, social and environmental aspirations for Hong Kong.

The next best option would be for West Kowloon to proceed as a "commercial performance district" - a comprehensive development area with a dramatic roof or other landmark feature, which includes commercial venues such as sports arenas, convention centres, dance halls, cinemas, theatres and museums - entirely under the command of the developer with no cultural policy control management. With the venues operated on market demand, the value of West Kowloon will increase significantly. The winning developer would pay a higher land premium, and additional funds could then be allocated to culture and arts development in Hong Kong as a whole.

More important, the energy now being spent on the West Kowloon cultural district could instead be focused on the real debate needed in Hong Kong's culture and arts: resource allocation and management, privatisation of existing venues and the role of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department. West Kowloon as a cultural district will not resolve these issues.

Paul Zimmerman is executive director of MF Jebsen International, principal of The Experience Group, a policy and strategy consultancy, and chief co-ordinator of Designing Hong Kong Harbour District.

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