|Tearing up the harbour
To find out the truth about the Government's proposals for the new Central Harbourfront, pick up your copy of HK Magazine today. The cover shows the plans being torn up. And that is exactly what John Robertson does in his article 'Harbour Resentment' (page 6-9) to reveal, in his words, 'another long-term emblem of administrative incompetence and nearsightedness.' We recommend you pick up a hard copy because it has detailed visuals. Alternatively, click here for the web version.
Seize the chance for a world-class waterfront
Markus Shaw, Chairman of WWF, explained in the SCMP on May 17, 2008 that the embarrassingly amateurish proposals are wasting a unique opportunity and suggests that this project is taken out of the hands of the Planning Department. Full text is below.
For now there is little chance the plans will improve. Under the heading 'What Consultation?' Christine Loh explained in the SCMP on May 29, 2008 that the Government's 'public engagement' is mostly window dressing. Read the full text below or click here for the article.
Seize the chance for a world-class waterfront
Markus Shaw in the SCMP, May 17, 2008
Hong Kong citizens have been badly conned over the Central Harbourfront. First we were told that there was an 'overriding public need' for a Central-Wan Chai bypass and the MTR Sha Tin-Central rail link. This necessitated reclamation work, which destroyed such well-loved landmarks as the Star Ferry and Queen's piers.
Then we were told the bypass would go underground, which raised the question: why was the reclamation needed at all?
Now we are told that neither the bypass nor the MTR's cross-harbour section will go ahead, at least not until after the reclamation and the new government complex at Tamar are complete. At that point, the whole area will be dug up again for the road and rail tunnels to go in - but only if the government wins yet another judicial review to stop the underpass. The only winner is the government, which gets its grandiose new headquarters at Tamar.
Leaving all that aside, and accepting the central reclamation for what it is, Hong Kong is now offered a historic opportunity: a green-field site on which to create a world-class harbourfront. What city would not relish this opportunity? What government would not make sure of an optimal outcome, whatever it takes?
Let us consider what others have achieved: HafenCity in Hamburg, Darling Harbour in Sydney, Fishermen's Wharf in San Francisco, Boat Quay in Singapore and Baltimore's revitalised Inner Harbour - these are enormously successful and hugely popular districts. By contrast, the latest proposals from our Planning Department are embarrassingly amateurish.
The current outline zoning plan dates from the mid-1990s. At that time, the concept of carefully creating a world-class waterfront did not even enter the mind of planners. The latest proposals stick to the format of large-building footprints, high- capacity roads and large open spaces. Yet, the government is not entirely to blame. Because of calls from many people for even more open space, the current plan shows vast sun-drenched plazas, much of it paved in the usual Hong Kong manner. Planners around the world know from bitter experience that large open spaces on the waterfront do not work.
Because of knee-jerk reactions from district councillors against any commercial activity, there will be a dearth of attractions to encourage activity and public use on the harbourfront. There seems to be a fear that developers will profit from what is perceived to be a public asset. To which the answer is that, all of the hugely successful schemes mentioned earlier integrate smaller open spaces, piazzas and promenades with a dense network of restaurant, retail and leisure activities, to spectacular effect. The way to ensure fair business opportunities is to create smaller buildings on smaller sites and to encourage competition, rather than concentration in the hands of large developers.
The word that sums up this situation is 'shame'. It's a shame we are wasting a unique opportunity. And shame on our leaders for allowing this to come to pass.
Sticking to an outline zoning plan that guarantees a bad outcome; unrealistic transport assumptions driving bad design; design by a process of 'least political objection' and the lowest common denominators of what various government departments have been able to agree on; throwing up design options and then asking for feedback from all and sundry: these are some of the major shortcomings.
There is no magic solution. Each of the cities mentioned earlier came up with different approaches. But it seems to me that a large part of the solution is to take the whole exercise out of the hands of the Planning Department and into the hands of an independent authority. This should consist of professionals, specialists and community leaders, a body entrusted by the public to deliver the world-class harbourfront it deserves.
By Christine Loh in the SCMP, May 29, 2008
The government's public consultation event last Saturday on its two plans for the Central harbourfront was designed to exclude non-governmental assessment of them. Officials denied a request, made beforehand, from a community organisation focusing on urban planning and design to speak about the proposals. Members of the Planning Department who organised the event were in no mood to entertain alternative visions on the day. As far as they were concerned, they had taken into account feedback from previous rounds of consultation in coming up with the two plans.
In fact, the two are not fundamentally different. There is still going to be a thundering highway called "P2" bisecting the waterfront. There will still be large raised platforms, referred to as "decks", on top of which will be offices and malls. Underneath, at ground level, there will be a sizeable transport interchange.
One plan was described as having a "reduced" deck while the other had a "larger" deck. Both were described as "landscaped" - a way to convince people that it would be a pleasant place to be. In both cases, the deck was one to two storeys high. The truth is that the deck which government planners have in mind is very large. It will be needed because of the increased traffic which will result from the added building density around the waterfront. Thus, pedestrians have to be separated from vehicles. Much of the space at ground level will be given over to vehicles, while people will have to walk on these elevated decks.
For those of us who have been urging the government to reduce and spread the density of development, and turn P2 into a tree-lined ocean boulevard, the plans remain disappointing. Neither will produce a waterfront that will stand the test of time: it is unlikely to be considered one of the world's best-designed waterfronts. Surely, such an opportunity should have provided the stimulation to create the world's best waterfront design. I still believe that a good yardstick to measure the government's plans is to ask whether we will be proud of them in, say, 50 to 100 years. If the answer is "no", or "maybe", we really need to start again.
Government planners are not interested in such a yardstick. They want to get on with things. They will blame further delays on activists refusing to let go of idealistic but unrealistic ideas. They will insist that design is a matter of subjective taste, and slowing things down will be bad for the economy. In fact, there are fundamental problems with their original plan which have yet to be fully addressed. Their sort of tinkering will not give Hong Kong the harbourfront it deserves.
Officials' replies will be predictable. They will say the public, in general, supports their approach and they will take into account various comments and produce a final plan in due course. They will also point to professional support, such as from the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. It appears to have been heavily influenced, of late, to support the current consultation document - as can be seen from its recent "supporting document", available on its website. The document sounds like an effort to show loyalty, praising even the graphic quality and "sincerity" of the document. Its support of the relocation of Queen's Pier also shows a departure from its position in May last year, which is also on the website.
At a seminar on reclamation and harbour planning organised by scholars on the same day, speakers noted how government-organised public consultation processes are often manipulated to suit official preferences. The criticism provided a sobering picture of governance in Hong Kong - the government controls the consultation process and the public sees what officials want them to see. Moreover, officials are not beyond twisting professional views to suit their agenda, and they cherry-pick the views they prefer and use them to support their preferences and priorities.
It may be concluded that public engagement, Hong Kong style, is mostly window dressing, when the purpose should be shared decision-making - something our officials definitely do not want, and will resist.