Transition ‧ Masters

Urban Transition: Hong Kong 1977 to 2017

Hong Kong has undergone an amazing series of urban transitions since I arrived in 1977 to work with the Hong Kong Government as a town planner. I came here, along with many expatriate professionals, with the prime purpose of being agents of urban change.  

Hong Kong had a drastic housing and environmental crisis with many temporary squatter shacks and factories on steep slopes and throughout the urban area. These had grown unplanned and uncontrolled when Hong Kong was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people escaping the chaos that was in China at that time. In typhoons and rainstorms these extensive areas of slums were subject to flooding, mudslides and fires, often resulting in thousands made homeless or killed. Even within the permanently developed urban areas there was a very low quality of habitation for many people – in subdivided buildings or in shacks built on the tops of buildings, unsafe and unsanitary.

Governor McLehose established a public housing programme which built thousands of high-rise flats to provide safe permanent housing, with modern infrastructure and elements of social support. These estates were largely self-contained, with parks, schools, community facilities and shopping all part of a holistic design. This focus, the speed at which it happened and the high quality achieved were remarkable. The government had seemingly unlimited financial resources to spend on this very important change – from a place of refuge to a modern city.

This new growth could not fit into the urban area so eight new towns were established in the New Territories. Some rural settlements such as Tuen Mun, Yuen Long and Tai Po were completely transformed and became homes for more than half a million people each. Tin Shui Wai was the new town that I worked on. It transformed a large area of fishponds and wetlands into a town with around 800,000 people. A new urban environment rose out of the fishponds without any consideration of the impact on ecology – the pressure to house people in a modern urban environment was so great that the existing natural environment was not a consideration.

Mobility was becoming an issue as more economic activities took place in existing areas and density of development increased. The MTR was under construction when I arrived and the impact that it has had on the form and extent of the city is immeasurable. Modern Hong Kong could not operate without the MTR and the millions of passengers that it transports every day. The impact of a new line was almost immediate. For example, the ferry services from Central to Kwun Tong were no longer viable and stopped.  

The shape of the city changed. The adopted concept of transport oriented development (TOD) has focused high density development within 500 metres of railway stations (walking distance).  This has changed the whole basis for planning intense developments, many in areas which were once seen as remote. TOD in action is best seen in the IFC development in Central which significantly expanded the CBD, and the Kowloon Station development, both on airport and local railway lines. TOD also provided the finance for the construction of the railway network.

The removal of the airport from Kai Tak prompted a major transition in the visual character of Hong Kong. The airport height restriction on Kowloon and eastern Hong Kong Island resulted in the rather monotonous developments such as Mei Foo Sun Tsuen and Tai Koo Shing. With the restriction removed the transition has taken place to a varied urban profile punctuated by landmark buildings more than 200m tall, such as the ICC, New World Centre, and One Island East. This increase in building height has enabled the provision of more space at ground level as old, dense, low-rise building are redeveloped into high quality, well designed office and residential buildings. Hong Kong has led the world in skyscrapers, amazing structures which we accept as normal components of our high-rise city.

Transition at a more local level is often the result of an investment decision by a developer in an area where planners would never think the use or form of development appropriate. When Hong Kong Tramways wanted to relocate the depots for its iconic trams to either end of the tramline, this left the ramshackle old tram depot in Causeway Bay redundant. It was surrounded by old tenement buildings, and Russell Street was a poor quality street market. As government planners we saw this as an opportunity to create an area of public space and a focal point in the heart of a densely developed, growing financial area. Broad controls were put in place to make this happen. The developer took this concept further than we ever imagined and connected it to the MTR by a tunnel, and created a 12-storey internal shopping area when most shopping arcades at that time were no greater than 3 storeys. Times Square didn’t fail, but became a great success, leading to other high quality redevelopments taking place around it, and part of Russell Street being pedestrianised to accommodate the pressure of pedestrians. Russell Street recently had the highest value retail shops in the world, so different from the street market that was originally there.

Reclamation of land from the sea has been a constant process in Hong Kong. The current shore in Wan Chai is about 1.5km from the original shore along Queens Road East. The speed and size of reclamation increased as technology and finance made it easier. The West Kowloon reclamation, mainly for the airport railway and express roads, massively expanded the Kowloon Peninsula and reduced the size of Victoria Harbour. That, plus the Central reclamation, became a matter of public concern so that further reclamation in the harbour has been prevented by law.  

One measure of reclamation has been the relocation of the Star Ferry Pier from near City Hall to almost halfway across its route to Kowloon. The demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in Central became the focus of public protest about the protection of important heritage. Originally government was not going to recreate a new Star Ferry Pier with an iconic design, as a pier was only considered a piece of transport infrastructure. Our Company worked hard to give the Star Ferry Pier a unique identity and make it a tourist focal point. That has been achieved in Piers 7 and 8. The inclusion of the Maritime Museum in Pier 8 has brought another important Hong Kong feature to the most impressive waterfront in the world, even though it remains unfinished and in transition.

One certainty is that Hong Kong will always be in transition, changing to meet new economic and social challenges, and striving to be the best in the world at many things. The most important thing is for government to not try to predict or control this process, but to provide opportunities for the imagination and enterprise of Hong Kong people to take this transition way beyond normal expectations.

Ian Brownlee
Managing Director of Masterplan Ltd, a planning and development consultancy.