Hong Kong’s urban planning process needs a rethink!

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Hong Kong urban planners who are frustrated by public criticism should involve the public in planning from the start and encourage critics to design alternatives.

“Progress” wears many guises. So I found myself musing during a casual weekend stroll through the wreckage that was once Hong Kong’s Gage Street market area.

As I advanced further into this war zone-like scene, a second stray thought came to mind: “Is this progress?” The answer is not so simple. Aren’t assessments of progress a matter of perspective?

By now it should be clear that this is not an article about the Urban Renewal Authority’s (URAs) controversial replacement project. Other Hong Kong voices have covered that controversy at great length. Rather, this is a “thought exercise” designed to stimulate discussion of the role Hong Kong’s many stakeholders may play in the broader urban planning process.

The Gage Street case is instructive. By the URA’s admission, it presented an “initial design concept” to the Central and Western District Council in early 2006, prior to the three-stage public consultation. During the consultation itself, this statutory, profit-driven body found the public’s responses “encouraging”. The redevelopers then went on to reflect public sentiments in the master plan, so we’re told.

Consultation exercises, like life, are rarely so simple. Indeed, an independent case study later revealed a more nuanced story.

During the exercise, there was a split between grassroots market occupants who agreed redevelopment was necessary without knowledge of alternatives and nearby middle-class residents who lamented the loss of intangible heritage value. On which stakeholder group’s feedback did the URA base its “encouragement”?

And let’s not forget the URA’s own opinions. By the time the consultation process arrived, that body had already set the general parameters for redevelopment based on an undisclosed 2005 “community aspiration survey”, general guidelines of which contained no criteria on the location’s social significance. This means that the URA must have made some value judgments when it launched the process.

The myth of values-neutral planning

Paul Davidoff would have seen the problem with the URA’s approach. Fifty years ago, this American planning theorist penned “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning“, a reading staple in many planning classrooms today. As a point of departure, he criticises 20th century official planning agencies for their short-sighted belief that unitary urban plans can adequately balance community interests.

“Appropriate planning action cannot be prescribed from a position of value neutrality, for prescriptions are based on desired objectives,” Davidoff eloquently states.

In other words, official planners – presumably human beings – may overlook key details or may simply be “wrong”. And, if they are “right”, why should they fear competing planning proposals, submitted on behalf of the community?  

With this in mind, Davidoff calls for plural planning under which community stakeholders, assisted by professional “advocate” planning experts, submit their own urban plans at the start of the process. Likewise, those experts advocate on behalf of the submitting groups.

The purpose is threefold: To better inform communities of the many choices at their disposal; force public agencies to compete for political support; and pressure critics of “establishment” plans to provide serious alternatives.

This also suggests a changed, though not reduced, role for urban planners. In addition to knowledge of the profession’s current skillsets, planning teams would require new warm bodies educated in philosophy, social work, law and the social sciences, with the ultimate goal of developing teams of “coordinators of capital budgets who relate elements of city programmes to each other.”

Plus ça change…

The concept is hardly absurd. In fact, Hong Kong already has some non-government advocate planners, although official encouragement for their efforts is paltry.

This is not surprising, for Davidoff’s paradigm assumes a democratic political system that Hong Kong, in many ways, still lacks. The hybrid system we do have is steeped in the brine of a colonial administrative model under which bureaucrats style themselves as neutral arbiters of the “public interest”.

This is no idle speculation. Two University of Hong Kong academics probed planners’ immediate post-colonial views in 1998 through a survey of 471 registered practitioners of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners. Of the 106 respondents, 60 were government workers and 38 hailed from the private sector. Eight did not disclose their sector.

The academics found a mass of contradictions in planners’ perceptions of their roles. Notably, 60% of the government cohort saw themselves as value-neutral judgement makers even though 85% of those same respondents agreed that value judgements were inevitable in planning. More interesting yet, the broader group of planners could not agree on whose values they represented. Around 43% chose at least two conflicting definitions of the “public interest”.

So when we look at the Hong Kong planning landscape today – especially on the official side – we must bear in mind the nefarious impact of history combined with a glacial democratic transition, which raise headwinds for those who would call for more impactful community representation in the planning process.

Copious controversies

That’s a shame for all of us because so many of Hong Kong’s planning controversies derive from public stakeholders’ sense of isolation from the process. Take Wan Chai’s Lee Tung Street redevelopment. That project began with a design competition among professional planners and architects, with the community largely excluded from the judging.

Ultimately, a community concern group, supported by a private architect, did manage to put together two plans, yet, hobbled by an official IV-drip of information, those plans – rejected by the Town Planning Board (TPB) – saw the light of day relatively late in the process.

The URA’s official plan, in contrast, earned the TPB’s stamp of approval despite 274 objections from public stakeholders and only five expressions of support.

Other examples are too numerous to count, but a shortlist of thorny candidates involves a rail line to the north, a handful of new towns, a large rural island, and a multitude of heritage sites. There’s no need to name them. Readers will know them by inference thanks to the controversies they have engendered.

Citizen-centered planning

Changing official planning paradigms is no small matter. At the same time, frameworks such as Davidoff’s are never meant for wholesale importation. For example, his motives are grounded in the American civil rights era and bear a social redistributive aura that many might find unappealing, regardless of the political system that Hong Kong ultimately adopts.

Still, it would behoove the territory’s planning bureaucracy – from the Development Bureau, to the Transportation and Housing Bureau, to the much maligned URA – to bring the public in from the cold at the earliest stages.

What would the ultimate process look like? Not even Davidoff sets a rigid sequence of steps. However, we can be certain that public consultation would begin much sooner in the timeline.

The purpose of this early stage would be to allow stakeholder groups to describe their problems to official or private planning experts before plans are developed, with those experts leading extensive break-out discussions with community members and activists to articulate and formulate multiple alternatives.

Those alternatives might be shared across groups, with popular elements amalgamated into a narrower set of options that would be discussed at a later stage of the consultation process. Ultimately, a more representative political system would be required in order to ensure official accountability.

Granted, thinking “big ideas” such as these may seem like an exercise in pipe dreaming. But complex problems rarely have easy solutions. Why should urban planners imagine that they do?