Monday, 18 February 2013

HK finds room for 7.2 million people

Superb transport links make it easy to get around city, but living space is compromised
By Li Xueying, The Sunday Times, 17 Feb 2013

As a boy in 1960s Hong Kong, Francis Li would take a rickety boat from his home in Shau Kei Wan in Hong Kong Island, to Tseung Kwan O, a fishing village in the New Territories.

There, he would squat by the sea and dangle his makeshift fishing rod over Junk Boat Bay, hoping to reel in some fish.

Three decades on, he found himself back at his childhood playground. This time, Mr Li, now a stocky electrical technician, and his family were moving into a 465 sq ft apartment, 35 storeys above ground.

The sea had been pushed back. Land had been reclaimed. Where water used to be, there were the beginnings of what was to become a concrete jungle housing nearly 400,000 people.

Ask Mr Li, 57, about the loss of his old stomping ground, and he says with a phlegmatic shrug: "We have to live somewhere, and this is a good enough area."

Today, the Mass Transit Railway whisks Mr Li, his wife Mei Yick, 52, a school bus nanny, and their daughter, 29, a food and beverage executive, to the city in 30 minutes. A park downstairs occupies their four-year-old granddaughter Hiu Tong. Yonder is a hill for family outings.

Complaints of suffocating over-density in the new town happily do not apply to the family; Mr Li had picked a building with unblocked views. "I was lucky. The others, the ventilation is not good," he says, gesturing at buildings across the road that fan across the horizon.

Less fortuitous was that five years after they moved in, wide cracks - some measuring 3m deep - appeared in the ground.

Mr Li blames the government's "haste" in building aggressively atop reclaimed land; the authorities said back then that the cracks were due to reclaimed land sinkage as water seeped into a sewage tunnel being constructed.

The family's experience in Tseung Kwan O - one of Hong Kong's nine new towns - captures some of the good and some of the bad of Hong Kong's experience in squeezing 7.2 million people onto 250 sq km of developed land.

It is a paradoxical portrait that defies easy categorisation: How does one, for instance, square Hong Kong's title as the "world's most liveable city" as crowned by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year, with the deplorable coffin-like cubicles that so many live in?

They are both sides of the same coin: A curious mix of historical laissez-faire, private-sector ingenuity - some say greed - and a stiff upper lip among the people has led to a situation where three-quarters of Hong Kong is undeveloped, resulting in a compressed and connected city shooting up amid 130 verdant hills and mountains.

So, as Singapore looks at using the controversial population figure of 6.9 million as a "basis" for building long-term infrastructure on 464 sq km of "developable land" as termed by planners, there are some takeaways from Hong Kong's experience.

In fact, says former chief planner Liu Thai Ker, Singapore should be planning for an even bigger population after 2023, while keeping the environment liveable. This can be done with a mix of tools - taller buildings while ensuring variation in the landscape, land reclamation and intensifying the use of industrial land. While he "personally does not think Hong Kong the best environment in which to live", it "does give us hope that even at its density, people live quite happily there".

This is as Hong Kong itself continues to grapple with the current challenge of creating more homes for its people. It will also need to cater to a population increase to 8.47 million by 2041. As academic Eddie Hui, who sits on the government-appointed Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, notes: "Singapore and Hong Kong face the same problem of how to put more people in a small area."

From just 7,450 to 7.2m

A hideout for pirates and haven for Hakka villagers since 1664, Hong Kong Island boasted just 7,450 residents in 1841 when the British claimed it as a colony.

But starting with the 1850 Taiping Rebellion, Hong Kong also became a place of refuge for those who wanted to flee the mainland - whether criminals or capitalists.

How did it cope with this influx? In an "ad-hoc" fashion, says former top civil servant Lam Woon Kwong bluntly. Now convener of Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying's executive council, he adds: "Hong Kong has never been a properly planned city."

The early generations lived in shanty huts and sub-divided tong lau or tenement buildings. Just as the 1961 Bukit Ho Swee fire catalysed the building of public housing in Singapore, a fire in Shek Kip Mei in 1953 rendered 53,000 squatters homeless, forcing the British government to start a housing programme. A paltry 24 sq ft was allocated to each adult.

But for various reasons - such as the limited British lease on the New Territories - it barely developed the vast swathe up north.

Instead, it embarked on aggressive reclamation of Hong Kong Island and later Kowloon, yielding 68 sq km of extra land. While convenient, it is also controversial in its impact on the environment and safety, as seen in Tseung Kwan O's land sinkage.

Governments after 1997 did little better - then Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa stopped releasing new land during the 2003 recession, a policy his successor Donald Tsang continued, resulting in the land shortage and spiralling property prices seen today.

This, in turn, drives pressure on the government to liberalise already lax town planning controls such as plot ratios and building heights, which have been inconsistently applied, says Mr Lam.

He calls, for instance, Tseung Kwan O a mistake made by a "desperate government" scrambling to "satisfy a seemingly insatiable public demand for property".

Meanwhile, the New Territories remains "underutilised". While it makes up 82 per cent of Hong Kong's land, just half the population lives there.

There are two reasons for this. One, a government without popular mandate is struggling against vocal stakeholders - from environmental activists to villagers - to develop the land.

Another is the lack of a coordinated policy to develop the local economy. Many Hong Kongers thus reject public housing in far-flung towns, opting instead for partitioned units in the city. Tin Shui Wai new town in northern New Territories, for instance, is nicknamed City of Sadness for its high jobless and suicide rates.

Says Professor Hui: "We need to plan economic activities in tandem, such as building a shopping town for mainlanders."

But a debate also rages on on how much of New Territories should be developed; some believe the historical negligence led serendipitously to the current balance between urban and greenfield land, which offer Hong Kongers the option of escaping to nature.

Land can be found in nodes within the city that have fallen into disuse, such as empty industrial buildings or schools where enrolment has dropped, says Dr Edward Yiu of think-tank Real Estate Development Research Centre.

He estimates that 40 sq km of space can be freed up thus.

Other avenues include further use of underground caverns - already housing a sewage treatment plant and an explosives depot - for "not in my backyard" facilities such as crematoriums. Even flyovers are on the table: A legislator proposed last week that Hong Kong utilise the space beneath its 2,000 flyovers.

The key now, says Mr Lam, is to build up a "major land bank".

Mr Leung has signalled his determination to move proactively on various fronts: develop new towns in the New Territories and reclaim 20 to 30 sq km of land - the size of Macau.

But the challenge would be in the implementation, including lengthy public consultations.

Cages in the sky

One concern that has been raised is whether Singaporeans will have to start living in overcrowded conditions like Hong Kongers.

The fact is, research has found that with planning, high density does not automatically mean a poor living environment.

The verdict for Hong Kong is mixed on this front.

Over the decades, it has indeed successfully packed people in with certain engineering and design techniques. Giant water tanks are placed on top of ever-taller buildings to stabilise them in the event of a typhoon. A so-called "windmill design" fits buildings in like jigsaw pieces.

But this has exacted costs in liveability.

A 2007 government concept paper acknowledges that the "absence of stringent controls" has led to issues such as "sore-thumb buildings" in low-density areas and the "wall effect" - where slabs are lined up, especially along waterfronts.

Living space too has been compromised. On average, each Hong Konger has 15 sq m - or 161 sq ft - of floor space, as opposed to 25 sq m in China, says Prof Hui. This means that an average household of four here gets 644 sq ft of living space.

It has also become hotter. The daily minimum temperature recorded by the Hong Kong Observatory increased by 0.28 deg C per decade from 1947 to 2005. Much of this "could be attributed to the retention of heat by concrete structures", says the government.

To some extent, many Hong Kongers have been conditioned to accept smaller homes.

Mr Li gives a tour of his home, where the bathtub is 1m long and the kitchen can hardly contain two persons. Yes, it gets stuffy during summer, he says, but they get around it - "we changed the stove to an electrical plate so it is less hot!".

The density also helped Hong Kong build up comprehensive public transport links in the urban

areas, making it extremely accessible, say the experts. The city also was a pioneer in mixed-use developments, like residential towers above a retail podium, which maximise convenience.

Says Dr Yiu: "Hong Kongers are used to the convenience of having everything accessible, even though they live in small homes." In fact, when many emigrated to Canada, "they were not used to having to drive out so far to watch a movie".

A cautionary tale

In some ways, Hong Kong's experience is a cautionary tale for Singapore. That said, it does hold noteworthy pointers.

One, leave no stones unturned in exploring options.

With intelligent design, buildings can go far higher. In Hong Kong, the height of residential buildings - despite a hilly terrain and the risk of typhoons - is around 50 storeys. Residential buildings in Singapore hover at half the height.

Hong Kong's errors such as a lack of variety in its buildings and the dangers of reclaiming too fast should also be taken on board.

Two, commutes to jobs and services need to be easy, if not short. The ideal is for jobs to be located near where people live. If not, comprehensive transport links, door to door, are paramount.

Third, and most controversially, humans are adaptable.

Last year, CapitaLand's former chief executive Liew Mun Leong called shoebox flats smaller than 500 sq ft "almost inhumane". A new Urban Redevelopment Authority rule later curtailed the building of such units in suburbs. Most Hong Kong families wouldn't have a problem with them.

This is not to say that small homes are the way for Singapore to go, or that they are even necessary if planning is done well enough. But as the Hong Kong experience shows, there is no "sacred" benchmark.

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