Our cities can learn a lot from Hong Kong about sustainable and planned development, says Vaishna Roy

In 2010, most of the world moved from rural living to urban living. Reports predict that in another 50 years, 70 per cent of all the world’s people will be living in towns or cities. This is why sustainable urban development has become a critical topic in today’s context. Nearby Hong Kong throws up interesting insights into how this island state, one of the world’s most developed, is tackling urban growth; and presents ideas that our cities can emulate.

Hong Kong’s chief constraint is space: of a total area of a little over 1,000 sq. km, roughly 20 per cent alone is available for development. It’s no surprise that the city has grown vertically. New York and Hong Kong are the only two cities in the world to have over 200 buildings taller than 150 metres — Hong Kong has 290, and New York has 220 — literally making Hong Kong the world’s tallest city.

Urban designer Trevor Boddy calls the Hong Kong building code of the 1960s that created the ‘tall, thin towers’ possibly the most influential building regulation in human history, shaping how people live across continents. He speaks of how architectural companies built their entire businesses on their ability to extract maximum density from the city’s building codes. It has influenced Vancouver, Shanghai, Seattle, Dubai and more. Boddy calls this high-density model the “new urbanism”.

Of course, vertical growth has its detractors, who point to Hong Kong’s pollution, blaming poor airflow through the ‘building canyons’. Besides, there are social and energy implications. Psychologists warn of the dangers of living without any contact with the ground, and of over-compact apartments creating claustrophobia. There are also concerns of the energy needed to sustain these towers with their elevators and lighting needs.

However, Tang Wai Man Tony, vice-president, The Hong Kong Institute of Architects, does not sound worried. He says, “We are one of the world’s most liveable cities. Almost half the land available for development is parkland and open areas. A park is always only 30 minutes away in Hong Kong.”

Brilliant infrastructure

Where the city really scores is in how it has tackled infrastructure. For instance, toilet water for the entire city is provided through a separate seawater system, leaving precious river water for other needs. By the 1970s and 80s, it had a mass transit railway; and by the 90s, a highly modernised airport and seaport. In tandem, it has experimented with green and socially conscious development plans. In 2000, it privatised MTR Corporation, the rail and metro company, marking the government’s gradual withdrawal from public utilities.

MTR’s main success has been the way it has integrated underground rail infrastructure with overland development. Its profits come not just from ads and fares but because it works with the government to plan routes and stations around properties in the vicinity such as malls, hotels, residences and businesses. MTR is allowed to develop this real estate, which makes its transit operations hugely profitable. “Our business and retail hubs are centred round the mass transit system,” says Tony. In turn, each of these hubs is linked to the bus-train-ferry-taxi network.

Take the example of Kowloon Station. Once you arrive here, you can take a train to the airport, board a bus or mini-bus home, take the local shuttle to a café nearby, hop over to the taxi stand just outside, or even take the cross-border bus to China. To make life even easier, there is the Oyster card, which can be topped up anywhere and used across transport systems, or even swiped at the local 7/11. The total interconnectedness has given rise to the popular legend that you can board a plane in Heathrow and arrive at your Hong Kong office without ever having to step outdoors. “We have seamless transport infrastructure,” says Tony. In fact, when Hong Kong had a severe typhoon two years ago, Tony says the MTR was still operational and people could go to work or to restaurants unlike earlier years.

Hong Kong has a population of 7 million, and a tourist influx each year that is four times the population. The commuting system is so efficient that more than 80 per cent of the population uses public transport, with there being one private car for every five to ten families only. The range of commuting choices offered here is something few cities anywhere can match.

The secret behind the city’s successful infrastructure management is its ability to get diverse departments like transport, energy, and utilities to work together rather than in piecemeal fashion. India traditionally looks West for ideas but it would be a smart move to start scouting in its own backyard.

The writer was in Hong Kong on invitation.