Advisory Services Spotlight: Hong Kong
March 28, 2017
“Advisory Services Spotlight” features a recent ULI Advisory Services panel, the land use challenge the panel was asked to address by the sponsor city or institution, and recommendations that grew out of the panel’s work. This month, we feature a panel that was convened in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) in November 2016. Are you a ULI member who is interested in serving on a ULI Advisory Services panel? Click here get involved.
The land use challenge: A ULI Advisory Services panel was asked to take a comprehensive look at urban design guidelines that govern urban redevelopment in Hong Kong. Specifically, the panel looked at restrictions on building height aimed at preserving ridgeline views of the mountain peaks on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon from Quarry Bay, an emerging business district. The panel was asked to consider the impact these restrictions have on positioning Hong Kong as a globally competitive region and also whether the guidelines, when rigidly enforced, promote livability, increasingly seen as a key factor in a city’s or a region’s ability to attract companies and talent. Swire Properties, one of the main owners of property and land in Quarry Bay and owner/operator of Taikoo Place, sponsored the panel, but the Hong Kong government was a key participant and stakeholder in the discussion.
The context: In the early 2000s, the Hong Kong government developed a set of urban design guidelines to govern growth. While the guidelines were conceived with good intentions, many stakeholders believe they’ve been applied in a simplistic and rigid fashion that uphold certain priorities—such as preserving ridgeline views from limited number of Victoria Harbor–level vantage points—while discouraging creative solutions to other pressing issues. For example, the limited supply of Class A office space in Hong Kong is driving up rents considerably, and livability factors such as clean air, urban open space, cultural and recreational amenities, and the street-level experience need to be improved.
The guidelines require developers not to build within 20 percent of the ridgeline, yet limiting height and densities in a one-size-fits-all fashion risks the creation of a repetitive and monotonous skyline as opposed to a varied and iconic one. In addition, an emphasis on height limitations ignores the importance of the ground-level experience. On the whole, planning and building regulations in Hong Kong are seen as inflexible and unable to promote complex, context-specific solutions to the city’s urban development challenges.
With rising office rents, constraints on development, and weak livability indicators, Hong Kong is vulnerable to losing its status as a globally competitive city as companies in the financial services industry—Hong Kong’s main economic driver—look elsewhere in the Pacific Rim to establish offices. In the global war for talent, livability is increasingly seen as a top priority and one that has been embraced by Singapore, for example. Also, Hong Kong’s system of reviewing development applications is lengthy, siloed, and bureaucratic with long-time developers such as Swire urging a more streamlined and predictable process where negotiation is possible.
The assignment: In addition to evaluating Hong Kong’s urban design guidelines, the panel was asked to consider other “big picture” questions related to fulfilling the vision set out in Hong Kong 2030+, the region’s development strategy, and maintaining the city’s competitive advantage:
Is a more flexible approach to land use planning and building design possible given the current organizational structure and culture of Hong Kong’s planning, building, and land administration governing bodies? How can a more flexible approach lead to fulfilling some of the aspirations set forth in Hong Kong 2030+? What examples can be shared from other high-density, livable cities that may provide guidance to Hong Kong?
Recommendations: The panel’s main recommendations fell into the following categories:
- The Need for Local Area Plans
As Hong Kong’s population grows, built-out areas of the city will need to be redeveloped. In order to preserve urban complexity and elevate the ground-level public realm, Hong Kong needs to have local area plans that reflect the unique requirements of each district or neighborhood. These local area plans could complement the grand vision laid out in Hong Kong 2030+, but provide the context-specific guidance missing in the current urban design guidelines. Developing local area plans for strategic areas of the city gets at the heart of the matter: strengthening Hong Kong’s status as a world-class, globally competitive region.
- Bold Executive Leadership and a Collaborative Process
In addition, the panel recommended that Hong Kong’s development authorities—Land, Building, and Planning—work in a more collaborative fashion and incorporate a more multidisciplinary perspective when reviewing development applications. The panel also said that bolder leadership and a nimbler, more innovative approach will be required to break through organizational silos. How the government works with the private development community also needs a refresh: a more “client-focused” mind-set where both parties engage in give-and-take negotiations can lead to better, more creative solutions that prioritize livability.
Panel Chair Tom Murphy: “Hong Kong is still one of the world’s great gateway cities, but is facing competition from Singapore, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and even Melbourne—all Pacific Rim cities that are on the rise and are magnets for financial services, talent, and innovation that define ‘world class.’ What our panel found was that in an effort to maintain control of the urban development process, the Hong Kong SAR region has implemented stringent urban design guidelines that in some cases stand in direct contradiction with several other priorities identified by stakeholders: livability/quality of life for residents through improvements to the public realm, open space, and greater public amenities, diversifying Hong Kong’s economy, and strengthening Hong Kong’s ability to attract world-class companies and talent. Our goal was to illuminate a path forward and create the framework for a better process by which government and the private sector can come together to help Hong Kong reach its full potential.”