Hong Kong’s Urban Transformation 2005–2012: A Review and Outlook
by Hendrik Tieben
The time frame of Hong Kong’s urban transformation portrayed in this text coincides with the era of former Chief Executive Donald Tsang, who governed the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) from 2005 to 2012. The period, hot on the heels of the SARS epidemic in 2003, exposed the vulnerability of the city where the economy was based on the global flow of goods, money and people. In retrospect, Hong Kong’s resilience is closely linked to the challenges faced by the city.
Hong Kong has been a place of contrasts from the start, with a topography that consists of over 200 islands, steep hills and the sea. This barely buildable landscape encouraged highly compact settlements, connected by linear infrastructure along the coasts. Its GDP per capita of US$49,800 in 2011 has surpassed Switzerland (US$43,900), another mountainous territory. Even so, the Swiss society is more balanced with a disposable annual average income of US$17,330 instead of US$9,853 in Hong Kong. While Forbes Magazine listed 20 billionaires in Hong Kong (March 2012), 1.3 million of its 7.1 million inhabitants are still living in poverty. Like in many other parts of the world subscribing to neoliberal policies, this gap in Hong Kong has widened since the 1990s and consolidated since 2007 at a Gini coefficient of 0.475 (2011).
Hong Kong’s living environment is shaped by its topography and economy. Its density is 6,480 people per square kilometre. But as only 30 percent of the 1,104-square kilometre territory is built-up, the urban areas are extremely dense. Kowloon for instance reaches a density of 44,760 people per square kilometre. With 13 square metres per person, Hong Kong’s medium living space is lower than most parts of the developed world and Mainland China.
Everyday life in Hong Kong is highly convenient as the urban areas are well connected by an efficient public transport system, offering choices between mini and double-decker buses, ferries, trams as well as subway trains. In charge of the highly sophisticated subway system is the MTR Corporation (MTRC). Since its privatisation in 2001, the MTRC has been organising various outreach programmes for local communities and pushing for the use of environmental technologies. At the same time, it became a major property developer in cross financing and expanding the high-standard public transport network.
Since the mid 2000s, new typologies of vertical malls directly accessible from MTR stations have been developed. These types were mainly envisioned by Jerde Design, which had already reinvented shopping malls in the US in the late 1970s and expanded its business to Asia with key developments such as Roppongi Hills in Tokyo (2003). Their Hong Kong projects such as Langham Place (2005) and Megabox (2007) reorganised the mixed-use programme vertically and thus reduced the urban footprint to better integrate the projects in the existing urban fabric. This vertical typology was further developed in other commercial projects organised by the Urban Renewal Authority (URA), such as K11 (2009), iSQUARE (2009) and Hysan Place (2012). While there are different opinions on the impact of these mega developments on existing urban districts, they can also be seen as counterexamples for the generic shopping malls in other parts of the world, which have boosted suburbanisation and the decline of downtown retail.
MTRC’s strategies of developing large commercial properties on and around its stations have also raised public concerns. While projects such as the Kowloon Station isolated themselves from the surroundings, other projects created wall effects with towers substantially reducing air ventilation. In addition, new MTRC and URA property developments have been targeting extremely rich residents, with monthly rents reaching US$6,000 for 1,000-square feet apartments, thus unaffordable for most people in Hong Kong.
The compactness of Hong Kong’s urban development around public transport nodes has helped to concentrate urban growth, protect country parks and keep private vehicular miles at a minimum. But challenges of coping with the increasing air pollution, urban heat, and land prices also grew. Thus the views of Hong Kong’s quality of living are polarised: In the Mercer’s 2011 Quality of Living Survey and the World Happiness Report 2012, Hong Kong reached places 70 and 67 respectively, while the 2012 Spatially Adjusted Liveability Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit and BuzzData celebrated Hong Kong as the “Best City”.
Since the British colonial government recognised Hong Kong as a free harbour in 1842, urban planning has been focusing on the flows of money, goods, and people. The new HKSAR government continues to invest in ambitious infrastructure projects. The investments in the 1990s and early 2000s saw the link of Hong Kong’s financial and commercial core with the then new Chek Lap Kok Airport, including the construction of the airport express and a highway system, as well as the International Finance Centre (IFC) and International Commerce Centre (ICC). With their verticality and position on both sides of the Victoria Harbour, the IFC and ICC aimed to reshape Hong Kong’s image as a global financial and commercial centre.