Wednesday March 31 2004

Beauty lessons for developers
Edith Terry

One of the more atmospheric haunts on the Hong Kong waterfront is Kellett Island, site of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. Anachronistic as its name suggests, the club morphed over the years from sampan landing to elite hangout.

Visit soon, because a massive four-deck highway will overshadow the yachties and the stalwarts of the rowing section, as part of the Central-Wan Chai Reclamation plan. The planned roads will run straight through the club's classic 1960s amoeba-shaped swimming pool and adjacent marina.

Perhaps few in this city of 6.7 million will shed tears for the yacht club, which will get a new marina and pool out of the deal. But why is it that nowhere along the harbour shoreline are there outdoor restaurants, performing artists and throngs of tourists? The members-only yacht club happens to be one of a kind, the only place where you can sip your martini and watch the sun set over Victoria Harbour. And despite its elitism there is something sad about the slowly disappearing landmark, bound to vanish one day like the Cheshire cat's infamous grin.

There are three schools of urban planning in Hong Kong - the dirigiste, the organic and the chaotic. Chaos is winning out.

The nostalgic Hong Kong of central casting featured Oxbridge-accented mandarins constructing Asia's safest, most efficient and reliable infrastructure, building new towns here, tunnelling through mountains there.

Meanwhile, my friend Liang Ling-Ling, habitue of the Luk Yu Teahouse, holds up the organic approach. Recently, she was fuming over the fate of Wedding Card Street in Wan Chai, or the Lee Tung Street Redevelopment Project as it is known to the Urban Renewal Authority. Under the reproving stare of a waiter, she tore her dim sum menu into shreds and made a little pile of the scrap paper.

You can't just tear the street down and build a new block full of printing establishments,' she explains patiently. 'A place like Wedding Card Street grows gradually. People discover the shops and then more shops start up to meet a specialised need.' She moves the scraps of paper one by one to form a cluster of scraps along a street. 'Each shop is different and has its own character. That's what you lose when you start with a demolition order and a mandate to build a new Wedding Card mall.'

Ling-Ling believes that cities should evolve through individual initiative and enterprise, and suit the people who actually live in it (she is a resident of Causeway Bay).

The opposite belief is held by many urban professionals, activists and politicians, who argue that Hong Kong desperately needs a master plan. Experts heap most of the blame on outmoded planning institutions, in which transport and land use are handled by different and competing departments. Hong Kong has no chief planner, not even for its vaunted jewel of a Harbour District. The result is that decisions costing billions and affecting millions are made by mid-level engineers.

Town planning rules date from a time when 'town' meant brand-new concentrations of public housing replacing farmland in the New Territories. So ingrained are the divisions that even civic activism follows the programme. The protest against Phase III of the Central Reclamation Project, so visible and so vocal in recent months, has focused on reclamation, not the Transport Department's plan for use of the newly reclaimed land as a superhighway.

So is there too little planning in Hong Kong, or too much? The third school of planning is represented by the political campaign over Victoria Harbour, which has taken on new life since March 9, when the Society for Protection of the Harbour lost its plea to send Phase III back to the Town Planning Board.

Since then, Hong Kong's pro-democracy forces have taken up harbour protection as a symbol, the Hong Kong People's Council for Sustainable Development has proposed an ongoing public-private round table on harbour issues, and the government, for its part, has invited the public to join its Harbour Front Advancement Advisory Committee, but failed to issue any actual invitations. While much of this ferment is goodhearted, it is also a recipe for gridlock.

Is there any chance that we can go back to basics? One might be how to make the most of the beauty on our doorstep. The answer may not be easy, but the first step is always asking the right questions.

Edith Terry is a writer based in Hong Kong

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