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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Community-oriented planning is essential
5 August 2009

Several recent conferences have drawn attention to growing dissatisfaction with urban planning and design in Hong Kong as well as the ongoing public engagement exercise on sustainable design.

The conferences have been well attended by professionals and government representatives, with many agreeing the city needs a new "vision" - an overarching, territory-wide strategic plan (or at the very minimum a new Metroplan) within which to formulate improved urban design and development strategies.

It is only when we have an understanding of where we are going that we can plan our route, and the delivery of an improved urban design for everyone will depend on having in place appropriate implementation structures and decision making processes.

It is the failure of the latter requirement that has dominated the debate on urgently needed reform.

Hong Kong is known for its urban density. Only 24 per cent or so of available land is developed, and even in the New Territories high-rise buildings have, until recently, been accepted as the norm.

This has, thankfully, enabled the rehousing of many who were living in very poor conditions, as well as conservation of Hong Kong's splendid countryside.

However, while in the past people seemed willing to accept the status quo - mainly, perhaps, because many were not planning to stay in Hong Kong permanently anyway - public attitudes are now changing.

Many now challenge the sustainability of the "vertical density" model - particularly when it leads to the destruction of long-standing districts.

The model has resulted too often in a loss of a sense of community and built heritage, particularly when, as has happened in some of our new towns, it is not accompanied by the provision of the social amenities and community support systems available in more established areas.

We have seen the development of private as well as corporate wealth, but the community is now also demanding the public benefits thoughtful urban development can bring.

For this to happen, we need a new attitude, a new mindset, not only in government but also in the community, among our professionals, in the Legislative Council and the district councils.

The focus must now fall on how everyone may benefit from Hong Kong's urban planning, not just those companies or individuals developing or occupying projects but also those in the surrounding neighbourhoods.

When discussing how to improve the overall quality of development going forward, there will be a need to look at new greenfield developments outside the main urban areas and the regeneration of older districts.

Both need improved urban design but involve different challenges and different approaches to delivery.

Without up-to-date and appropriate institutions, roles, responsibilities, regulations and standards, it is not possible to deliver even the best laid plans.

Hong Kong is only too accustomed to seeing beautiful designs on the drawing board result in very different finished projects.

So what is needed to achieve increased design standards in new areas? The list of reforms is easy - securing them is more difficult.

Topping the list must be a complete overhaul of our outdated Buildings Ordinance and a review of the Buildings (Planning) Regulations.

Then there must be a review of the current system of gross floor area allowances and bonuses (particularly in respect of car parking provisions, which have led to additional bulk and podiums with 100 per cent site coverage).

Car parks should be below grade in order to be treated as non-accountable for plot ratio purposes, and "green features" should be provided, because they improve living standards.

Also required is a review of the land revenue maximisation mandate, with recognition by government that communities, social amenities and public realm all have "value".

Indeed, there is a need to foster an understanding of the concept of intangible value/benefit throughout the administration so that it becomes an accepted part of project feasibility assessments.

Reform is also required of the town planning system.

The Town Planning Board should become a truly independent body, with its own secretariat and legal advisers, and the zoning system should be implemented in a way that looks at the city as a whole rather than on a site by site basis without adequate priority being given to the provision of parks and other public spaces.

Our approach to public engagement must become "bottom up" so as to generate community support for a strategic vision for Hong Kong and the projects that will help with its delivery.

Finally, the way we grant land in Hong Kong needs to be reconciled with this new approach to town planning and building regulations so that they are better aligned and permit greater flexibility to adjust to changing times.

The current regulatory framework does not assist in delivering public as well as private gain, but if these changes could be achieved, there would be nothing much wrong with our traditional investment and delivery system for new projects.

Our private developers are extremely good at delivering projects to the standards set out in the statutory and regulatory codes.

Improve the codes and they will still deliver just as efficiently and to the most competitive prices possible.

Maggie Brooke is chief executive of Professional Property Services Group

This is the first in a two-part discussion. Next week's article will address the city's older districts, which are in need of regeneration and refurbishment.
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