‘Nimbies’ & ‘Gentries’: Two fatal urban viruses

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NIMBYism and gentrification are eroding Hong Kong’s development. Francis Neoton Cheung, convenor of Doctoral Exchange, offers a cure.

(edited on April 27)


Our city is ailing

A city is the sum of its people. So if its development is in bad condition, its people will suffer as well.

Hong Kong has been infected by two tough viruses in recent years. One is from the government, the other from the general public.

‘Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard)’ is a common attitude among Hong Kong people. This is the attitude that many hold towards plans to build certain social facilities in their own ‘backyards’. These not-so-desirable but essential facilities include mental hospitals, halfway houses, shelters for the homeless, military sites, incinerators, power plants, columbariums, funeral parlours, desalination plants, and so on. The reasons for their opposition are simple – these facilities will inevitably have certain impact on nearby residents and probably on the value of their properties.

Unsurprisingly it has never been an easy task, be it for the government or private enterprises, to apply for rezoning for such facilities. Worse still, some Legislative and District Council politicians often try to win votes in these situations by cynically speaking out for the dismayed residents. Yet nimbyism hinders urban, economic and social developments, with the general public standing to lose out.

The other virus is ‘gentrification’. This phenomenon has characterised urban renewal projects of recent years. Ditto when the Housing Authority decided to divest its ownership of shopping arcade and carpark business in public housing estates to the Link Real Estate Investment Trust (Link). Urban renewal projects have seen low-income families displaced by wealthier residents thanks to increased land prices and rents. Meanwhile Link has been seen as a clear example of gentrification of shopping arcades in public housing estates.

The aim of urban renewal should be to optimise land use to improve the living standards or amenities of a district. Wider roads and new community facilities, for instance, can compensate for a district’s ‘planning deficit’. Further, the original community, business and social networks should be retained as much as possible in an urban renewal project. Unfortunately, the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) just cannot get away from their ‘no deficit’ iron-crown spell [Ed note: 緊箍咒; a method by Xuanzang to chastise his disciple Sun Wukong that Sun could not get away with in the ‘Journey to the West’] and has consistently sought to maximise the buildable floor area that can be redeveloped for their property potential.

Meanwhile, the criticisms have never stopped that Link was a wrong, short-sighted move by the government as it searched for a new income source soon after the SARS crisis of 2003. With Link’s takeover of these malls, public flat residents have to spend more on daily essentials as rents go up, while some long-standing tailors, plumbers and craftsmen have been forced out of the market.

The reason for the spread of the twin viruses of nimbyism and gentrification lies in the government’s flawed mechanisms for urban development.

For a start, the URA should not be profit-driven. Rather it should accord a higher priority to social impact assessments when considering the feasibility and financial arrangements of their projects. Revitalisation or addition of important social facilities should be central to any URA project. Further, the government should not let the URA Board decide the positioning and financial planning of urban renewal projects. What the government should do is to set up a ‘Steering Committee on Urban Development’, to be co-chaired by the Chief Secretary for Administration and the Financial Secretary. This committee will examine every URA project and ensure that their full social implications are thoroughly considered, while providing policy and financial support where it is needed.

The role of the URA should therefore be re-positioned as a project manager that is responsible for recommending the most suitable proposals for their projects. By doing so, individual gains can be maximised without compromising social benefits. The said steering committee can also help address the deficiencies seen in the Town Planning Board (TPB). There is no way that the TPB’s part-time members can conceivably study each and every of the complicated, time-consuming cases that they receive. They have little choice but to rely on documents and recommendations provided to them by the Planning Department, which acts as the TPB’s secretariat, and the members would seldom stand against the government.

That said, the Planning Department also have difficulties of their own as it is hard for the department to challenge or turn down unreasonable suggestions given by other government departments of equal rank. To break the silo effect, the Director of Planning can seek guidance from the steering committee where necessary. More importantly, the committee can lead cross-departmental efforts, reconcile opinions from different departments, and examine the social and economic value of urban renewal schemes. The Planning Department can thus be relieved from having to balance conflicting opinions and interests among different government departments.

Similarly, when nimbyism prevents reasonable social projects from going ahead, applicants could also request the steering committee to carry out a review and provide policy support through agreed mechanisms. It is hoped that, through such structural “medicines”, the viruses of our city can be tamed.