Abbreviated Version of Talk to the Chinese University Future Cities Mobile City Lab

Abbreviated Version of Talk to the Chinese University Future Cities Mobile City Lab


If we believe in cities, and after all half of the world’s population are living in them, then we have to be concerned as to their future.  Beijing is already projecting a rate of up to 70 percent urbanisation in China over the next 50 years – this means up to 300 million more people living in cities, in China alone.  Future Cities are, in the main, not necessarily going to be new cities, they are hopefully going to become smarter versions of existing ones, albeit in an extended and regenerated form.  And major urban expansion will of course continue in Asia which already has two-thirds of the world’s population, and this is projected to increase to 9.8 billion by mid-century.

This really comes down to what sort of cities we want and the priorities we set.   The term ‘City’ is derived from the root word for civilisation, meaning ‘befitting a citizen’, and in general cities are the result of people’s persistent pursuit of a more liveable environment.  Wherever they are, this is indispensable to the development of society.  Edward Glaeser in ‘Triumph of the City’ stated that studying cities is so engrossing because it poses fascinating but often troubling questions and the first question he raises is ‘why do so many smart people enact so many foolish urban policies’.  But as Warren Buffett said – “You always have the Three Is – first the innovator, then the imitator, and then the idiot”.

Our historically great cities come down to their endowment of physical capital, their hard infrastructure of buildings and spaces coupled with the more elusive qualities of place and history, which in many asian cities is now strikingly absent.  Healthy communities need healthy urban places.  But the modern city must look to the future and add another dimension – that of responsiveness to the challenges of growing urbanisation, eco-awareness, urban efficiency, and resilience to climate change.  In this sense, urban performance no longer depends purely on physical capital but on social and knowledge capital.

So this subject is very pertinent.  Any design model for a Liveable City must focus on the long-term well-being of its citizens, and policies must be sensible, they must be well thought out, they must be acceptable to stakeholders, and most importantly they must be based on holistic thinking, because future cities must benefit everyone, and therefore there are a large number of aspects we have to reconcile.

While more than 50% of the global population now live in cities, many are struggling with problems of demographics, congestion, healthcare, social inequality and pressure on key energy resources, not to mention the safety and security issues associated with some of these.  Many cities also have relatively simple problems to deal with like how to dispose of waste, and even then as we can see in Hong Kong, they can encounter difficulties.  Cities globally represent 67% of all energy consumption, and 80% of carbon emissions, and in Hong Kong this is even higher as we are a compact and high density city.  So if we are to prevent global warning, it is city design where we need to start.  Climate change is no longer an issue just for activisits – Even Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary now talks about Green Finance to fund local green projects.

The three central tenets from Government’s HK2030Plus Report, which in effect represents our Future City scenario, are to create capacity for sustainable growth; to embrace economic challenges and opportunities; and to enhance liveability.  But if we look at things strategically, then moving towards a liveable and sustainable future has to embody a number of interrelated components that collectively involve one overriding goal-betterment of the city.  In the case of Hong Kong, as it moves inexorably to a somewhat open-ended role within the Greater Bay Area, this is of critical importance.  And therefore we have to ensure we have the right mechanisms to bring this about.

At the centre of the land supply issue is of course housing, and the need to comply with the United Nations declaration that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being.  We do need more housing in Hong Kong in particular to resolve things like the sub-divided flat situation, but there are many facets to the land and housing issue, and a critical issue here is how we inter-relate and sustain this within a ‘liveable city’.  We clearly need some sensible decisions on the way forward, based on what is best for the community as a whole.  This requires clear objectives aligned with policy goals - that is to say we have to know what we are doing, where we are going, and what we actually want.

I don’t have time this evening to comment in detail about land supply and its relation to the strategic planning issues.  I will therefore restrict myself to just three passing comments.

The approach taken by the Task Force on Land Supply has been an extremely simplistic one, mainly because they were given an extremely simplistic scope rather than a holistic approach which should bring together informed projections of actual need, a cost-effective means of medium term supply, well integrated solutions and the inevitable far reaching changes in Hong Kong’s status over 25 years.  Of the 18 unrelated ‘opportunity areas’ presented, half were described as ‘conceptual’ or ‘controversial’.  A number of these are less than feasible, at least in the short-term, while several others appear less than desirable on a number of counts.  So where does this leave us in terms of properly considered thinking and decision-making for Hong Kong’s future?

Well Government’s answer is seemingly to jump right in at the deep-end, with something called a Sustainable Lantau Office, as part of a ‘vision’ – Lantau Tomorrow.  This seems to rather ignore the definition of the term ‘Sustainable’.  The so-called ‘East Lantau Metropolis’ (ELM), was actually announced as part of the 2018 Policy Address, seemingly bereft of any holistic vision let alone proper feasibility study.  It would involve a quite massive environmental and ecological cost and an irreversible despoliation through reclamation adjacent to the Western Harbour approaches and off-shore islands. It also involves a staggeringly high financial cost that puts a strong questionmark over such an extravagant use of Government’s Capital Works Fund.

The overall point to stress is that there is not a crisis in land supply, but there is a need to resolve deep-rooted problems in various areas, and ensure that areas of new development are properly selected in relation to opportunities and constraints. We must also ensure that they are properly identified, planned, sustainable and meet projected needs.  And we should not shy away from this.  Resolving problems is in many ways what planning for the future is all about.

The evolving Greater Bay Area context will undoubtedly provide, at least on paper, significant opportunities for Hong Kong, most of which will become clearer over time.  Thinking about the future means that we must not compromise on these opportunities by making hurried and poorly conceived commitments.  Notwithstanding the role of Plan D we really need a dedicated and independent Strategic Development body to undertake comprehensive planning reviews, discussions and investigations, and on the basis of these put forward properly considered ‘across the board’ recommendations.  There is much that we don’t actually know about the post 2047 situation, but this is no reason not to think and plan for this, even if this involves alternative regional development scenarios.  And we must remember we are not alone in this.  Guangzhou and Shenzhen and other developing cities are looking strategically at their own relationship with the wider region.

What we must transcend in Hong Kong, is its perennial laissez-faire linked system of speculative accumulation, narrow economic focus, the power of large development interests, and the concept of the city as simply a matrix of opportunity, because what this has led to in practice is increasing inequality, polarisation of society, a questionable lands and housing strategy, and an emphasis on expediency and efficiency over liveability in the 600 square km of the territory where we all live and work, outside Country Parks.

Last year more than 50 percent of Government income was from land sales, premium payments and stamp duty and it is being proposed that 70 percent of housing in new development areas should be public housing to make up for unaffordable housing prices.  And of course high land prices have several consequences including high private housing costs, and small units.  A recent Hong Kong Inequality Report stated that the Gini coefficient is the highest since the city began keeping records.  The wealthiest households now earn 44 times that of the poorest. And there are many sides to housing and liveability in Hong Kong.  A recent Audit Commission identified the fact that half a million people in Hong Kong are living in housing not connected to public sewage facilities.

What are our closest neighbours doing?  Well, Shenzhen that for 30 years has followed the Hong Kong housing model announced 2 weeks ago that it is ditching this and adopting the Singapore model which has one of the world’s highest rates of home ownership at 90 per cent, with purchase tied into the Central Provident Fund.  It is a reminder once again that decent housing is the most fundamental factor in determining quality of life.  Why in Shenzhen? – because like Hong Kong home prices have soared as people are simply using housing as asset gains, and Shenzhen is losing skilled workers.  Shenzhen with an economic output surpassing Hong Kong is wealthy enough to pioneer a new direction in social housing.  It does not, like Hong Kong rely on massive revenue from land sales.  And in passing I should also say that Shenzhen is well ahead of Hong Kong in the planning and operation of electric and autonomous vehicles in the transport system, which is a further reminder that the future is going to be about technological advances, and we had better not get left behind.

In Hong Kong we need to bring together policy making areas that are directly related to regeneration of the city, but which are now effectively segregated into silos.  This includes urban planning, urban regeneration, infrastructure, highways, transport and the environment.  In effect we need joined-up government.  New technologies will undoubtedly drive the creation of a new kind of city – liveable, connected, global and sustainable.  In Hong Kong and other cities we need to construct an urban narrative for the 21st century that we are now already 18 percent through.  This means examining different scales from the core districts to the territory and the region.

This touches on many issues – identity and belonging, and the future of Hong Kong that is not just about the city and new towns but about the edges, the boundaries, the connections, the ecology and the urban design.  And where the citizen and betterment of the public realm are at its very centre.  We need to also introduce “innovation” in the way we plan in the built environment.  For example, Lands Department is admirably now producing a ‘digital twin city’ that will cover the whole of Hong Kong, and is intended to help us to understand and make decisions on what is actually happening in the city to take us into the future.  Colliers International have recently produced a book, bringing together maps of Hong Kong that indicate ‘winning grids’ and ‘highly winning’ locations where improvements in accessibility and connectivity horizons will achieve the most impressive conditions for investment in development and city improvement.

The Sustainable City, the Smart City, the Liveable City and even the Resilient City are not mutually exclusive.  But for various historical reasons, notably the massive return to government from land sales, I think it can be fairly said that in Hong Kong we manage the city rather than plan for it strategically, thoughtfully and holistically.  Under our current administration we have lost our Strategic Development Commission and our Central Policy Unit, and we seem now to make our major development decisions through ‘edict’ more than anything else.  This is not satisfactory – I would say that we need solid urban thinking now more than at any time since the major new town and housing initiatives of the early 1970s.  The future direction for Hong Kong must be through an emphasis on quality not merely quantity.  And we will need to acknowledge this if Hong Kong is going to maintain a strong and even relevant identity within the Greater Bay Area in the years to come.  There is an Outline Development Plan for the Greater Bay Area, and it is clear that the way forward will depend on collaboration and cooperation between Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau, and Shenzhen which are referred to in almost every paragraph.

If we can resolve the strategic or ‘smart’ challenges in a holistic way as we head towards 2047, then we might try to see how the Smart City can be linked to the creative city and to the equitable city.  In so doing we have to accept an important reality – that knowledge and information in the 21st century is migrating to where demand is highest, where barriers are lowest, and where the quality of life is best.  We can see that happening in many world cities.

The European Union Smart Cities and Communities Partnership stresses the importance of regional cohesion, and catalysing progress in areas where energy production, distribution, mobility and information and communication technologies are linked to improved services and guidance to cities, while reducing the environmental footprint.  So we do in fact have a lot of examples to draw on, and Futurologists need to learn from successful examples.

Peter Cookson Smith
Council Members

23 May 2019