Concept for Victoria Harbour development may sink before it floats

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The vision of Hong Kong connecting the people to the water may be a just that – a vision.  At a recent seminar, speakers certainly had a common goal of trying to achieve what could be an incredible waterfront with beaches, kayaking, swimming pools, floating stages, art, and music, but until LegCo and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) embrace these innovative ideas it appears that little will happen.

(Photo: More ambitious action is needed to make the entire waterfront accessible, said the event attendees. Photo by Daniel Case)

At a recent forum organized by Civic Exchange and the Energizing Kowloon East Office (EKEO), speakers offered a common and pleasing vision of harbourfront development, complete with multiple amenities for the public to enjoy, but until LegCo and the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) demonstrate greater ambition, fulfillment of this vision will be difficult to achieve.

The Vision

The speakers at the Walk21HK Public Forum: Connecting People to the Water  painted a picture of a waterfront that belongs to the people, where average Hongkongers can enjoy the freedom — of imagination and action — that is often so difficult to come by in the rigid streets of this hyper-developed city.

Bing Thom (譚秉榮), a world-renowned architect stated that Hong Kong should be developing “a city in a sea of green” and bringing “nature back to the city”. He also warned about overdesigning, like Singapore, and suggested not “tearing down everything”.

Thom’s concept for Victoria Harbour is to get people near and on the water with beaches, areas for non-motorized boats, small ferries, and a way of thinking that imagines water as a stage. He cautioned that HK should consider a long-term infrastructure plan by thinking over a period of “two hundred years and not twenty years.” He also said Hong Kong should, “create a space the locals go to, and the tourists will come”, rather than planning the other way around.

Create a space the locals go to, and the tourists will come ” Bing Thom

K K Ling (凌嘉勤), Director of Planning at the Planning Department, agreed with Thom. He feels that spaces should be “walkable, sitable, and stayable” with small ferries taking people from place to place along the waterfront as well as a walking trail that connects the entire harbour with small shops and cafes that are unique.

For her part, Dr Eunice Mak (麥凱薔), President of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners, stated that accessibility, diversity, vibrancy, flexibility, and spontaneity were the keys to a great harbourfront. She said that Hong Kong must “allow the space to be messy” and not become overburdened with ordinances. There should be a variety of activities, including food and beverage provision, pet activities, bicycle riding, impromptu concerts, fishing, and urban farming.

“Allow the space to be messy” Dr Eunice Mak

Finally, Paul Zimmerman (司馬文), CEO of Designing Hong Kong and a Southern District Councillor, claimed that “we need to allow people to do the things they like to do in the places they like to do it.”

The Reality

Unfortunately, prospects for a walkway that can connect local residents to the entire harbourfront still seem rather bleak. While approximately 28 km will be available by 2021, this still leaves 47 km inaccessible to the public. Technical problems include preexisting roads, structures, typhoon shelters, fish markets, piers, and public cargo working areas. Many of these are essential to the operation of a working harbour but are also obstacles that can be overcome with initiative and support from government, as has been done in cities such as Sydney.

There also exist shortcomings on the planning side. This was specifically pointed out by Nicolas Brooke, Chairman of the Harbourfront Commission, who noted the reluctance of the government to adopt a master plan.

Drawbacks even extend to existing official harbourfront managers. Dr Peter Cookson Smith (施培德), President of the HK Institute of Urban Design, noted “a vacuum of responsibility for enhancing planning design.” Right now, public spaces and the harbour promenades are run by LCSD with an agenda that favours ease of maintenance over design, he claimed. This reduces vibrancy with a large number of rules that “have innocently legislated a blandness.”

“We have developed a vacuum of responsibility for enhancing planning design.” Dr Peter Cookson Smith

In layman’s terms, this means no dogs, no bicycles, no fishing, no aesthetics with too many straight edges, no bollards for boats to tie up, no contact with the water due to wall barriers, no comfortable seating, no shady areas, no trees and flowers, no access to food and drink, and no fun.

A way forward?

Zimmerman would like to see detour routes with signage to help walkers and Brooke wants to see the launching of a waterfront taxi service to connect areas. There could even be a ‘Harbourfront Brand”, he says, with a logo, maps, and signs to help people find their way on parts of routes that cannot currently be assessed.

Minor improvement projects (under HK$21 million) that do not require LegCo approval are taking up some of the gap at the moment. This has led to some quick wins according to Brooke but this is “not a long term approach.”

Several of the event’s speakers suggested that the establishment of an empowered Harbourfront Authority could help provide some of the vision that the government lacks. Such a body would make major decisions without the current constraints that yield only small projects and eliminate momentum. The movement to develop a dynamic waterfront that connects people to the water might be nothing but a dream until the community and government make it happen.

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