‘Obliged to cooperate’: What Hong Kong’s experience offers Habitat III

Asia’s first Urban Thinkers Campus discusses how Hong Kong’s urban space can balance moneymaking and liveability.

A whiteboard underscores key aims for participants at the Hong Kong Urban Thinkers Campus, 29 Aug. (Kathleen G. Ferrier)

HONG KONG Hendrik Tieben, an architect and associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, was delighted with the strong attendance at the Urban Thinkers Campus held over the weekend in Hong Kong.

“When we organize an event for architects, we are normally happy to get 30 people,” he said. “Today we had a waiting list: 200 participants was our maximum, and we had more than 200 sign-ups.”

Such significant interest might be explained by the fact of the event’s broader context, coming in the run-up to next year’s Habitat III conference on cities. But it also took place in the aftermath of a major showing of public discontent and civic engagement over the past year the so-called Umbrella Movement.

As part of the several dozen thematic stakeholder events scheduled to take place around the world in coming months, the Hong Kong Urban Thinkers Campus the first such even in Asia was aimed at offering specific recommendations for the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

[See: Kampala hosts first Urban Thinkers Campus in Africa]

Those recommendations are rooted specifically in Hong Kong’s urban experience a milieu that is uniquely diverse. Naturally, then, the event itself was notable in the diversity of people, interests, cultural backgrounds and even ages that it was able to bring together. Despite these varied backgrounds, many of those who participated in the campus expressed concern about Hong Kong’s urban fabric.

“As an urban planner, it hurts me to see that in Hong Kong, the city is the by-product of moneymaking. The policies are not aimed at making the city a comfortable or inclusive place.”

Benjamin MacLeod
Urban planner

“As an urban planner, it hurts me to see that in Hong Kong, the city is the by-product of moneymaking,” said Benjamin MacLeod, a 25-year-old urban planner in the private sector. “The policies are not aimed at making the city a comfortable or inclusive place.”

MacLeod said he hoped that the Urban Thinkers Campus could spark new discussions about how to regard the city and to contribute to innovative thinking in Hong Kong. Others, too, echoed such sentiments.

“In Hong Kong, all is influenced by the basic idea of moneymaking, whereas I think sustainability and equity should be at the centre of the policies,” said Sharon Tsoon Ting Lo, a representative from the U. N. Major Group for Children and Youth. “Today gives us a chance to listen to people from quite different backgrounds, and hopefully we all get new insights.”

Record inequality

The Urban Thinkers Campus discussions touched on multiple issues, including the role of public space in a highly dense urban area as well as speculative versus affordable housing. But the central focus was a contentious question: Who has the right to Asia’s “world city”?

Compared to other big cities, Hong Kong is a successful urban conglomeration from multiple perspectives. It has low unemployment, long life expectancy, low ownership of private vehicles, and a high “trip rate” for walking and public transport. It also has a low crime rate and a high gross domestic product per capita.

Yet there is also a downside to these strong figures. Certain measurements of inequality in Hong Kong are today at a record high. Amidst this growing socio-spatial disparity, Hong Kong today is a juxtaposition of exuberant wealth and abject poverty.

In addition, the job base has been narrowing, while many also complain about a lack of entrepreneurial opportunities. The city has experienced a nearly 20-year freeze on starting salaries. And critics point to a major gap in affordable housing, a loss of street frontage for small businesses, and an unshakable control over land resources by just a few property developers.

Some such concerns, of course, have led to increased social upheaval in recent years, typified by last year’s mass Umbrella Movement protests. Further roiling all of these issues is the ongoing debate regarding Hong Kong’s integration with Mainland China.

When small breakout groups sat down to talk more specifically about the Urban Thinkers Campus themes, the discussions were rich and sometimes emotional. For Hong Kong to become the inclusive, safe, productive, resilient and sustainable city it can be, participants agreed, a range of guiding principles will be critical: stronger environmental consciousness, accountability, inclusiveness, ownership, respect for cultural heritage and social diversity.

Interdisciplinary tradition

So what could Hong Kong’s unique experience offer to the Habitat III process? In response to this question, Mee Kam Ng, one of the event organizers and part of the Urban Studies Programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, cited an old Chinese saying: “With one stone, you can hit two birds.”

“Hong Kong people are concerned about their city, about comprehensive urban development — that is much more than only economic or financial benefit for the happy few. People see the importance of an interdisciplinary urban approach, so when the government does not deliver, let us see what they will do.”

Paul Zimmerman
Founder, Designing Hong Kong

“Look at Hong Kong the fact that we have a big city on such a small acreage, the fact that we are a dense city, means that we are obliged to cooperate,” she said. “I think Hong Kong is the city to set an example on how and to what extent an interdisciplinary approach could contribute to innovative urban planning.”

She continued: “Here in Hong Kong, it must be possible to tear down barriers between departments and to develop policies for the city that are really comprehensive and regard social, economic and cultural aspects, and that are based on true cooperation between the different sectors.”

Of course, such interdisciplinary policies are not easy to put into practice. But Paul Zimmerman, the founder of Designing Hong Kong, points to a Hong Kong tradition that could serve to strengthen the city’s example to the world.

“Before the handover to China, in 1997, the Hong Kong government showed, in the development of the Sha Tin area, that it is able to develop and put in place interdisciplinary urban policies,” Zimmerman said. “But after the handover, the Hong Kong government became totally concerned about what I call an unusual task: guiding the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ the integration of the city into the mainland.”

What the recent Umbrella Movement highlighted, he continued, is that when the local population is not content with the way the government, or the broader political system, handles certain issues, “they are very capable of taking over the city.”

“Civil society proved to be very successful in that sense,” he said. “Hong Kong people are concerned about their city, about comprehensive urban development that is much more than only economic or financial benefit for the happy few. People see the importance of an interdisciplinary urban approach, so when the government does not deliver, let us see what they will do.”

The Hong Kong experience of an interdisciplinary approach, linked to a population that has shown its capacity to take control and to get its message across, could now be an interesting contribution to international thinking about urban development and citizen involvement.

“It is all about sharing knowledge about bringing together people from the academia, private sector, civil society and government,” Mee Kam Ng said. “Today one cannot talk about economics without taking into account environmental aspects, for instance. Hopefully, with one stone we will even be able to hit not two but many birds.”

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Kathleen G. Ferrier

Kathleen G. Ferrier, a former member of the Dutch parliament, is a writer and teacher living in Hong Kong, where she focuses on international relations, human rights, migration and sustainability.