Themes of identity, governmental responsibility, and local empowerment in cities were discussed by a small group of experts during a May 20 webinar jointly hosted by ULI Asia Pacific and the China Real Estate Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong and International Chapter (CRECCHKI)—the first in a two-part online series tasked with discussing how cities can adapt to change and ensure that residents continue to feel a sense of community.
Nigel Smith, managing director of Colliers International in Hong Kong, moderated the online discussion, accompanied by Sir Stuart Lipton, ULI Life Trustee and partner at Lipton Rogers Developments, and Professor Ricky Burdett, a professor of urban studies at London School of Economics.
The webinar began by looking at a quintessential symbol of the urban community—the village green, with Smith challenging his peers to spend the session finding a way to establish such a space, whether metaphorical or physical, in Hong Kong. While the discussion leaders each offered their own talking points, all agreed that governance and design play crucial roles in the establishment of a modern community.
Burdett summarized his thoughts touching on three main concepts: density, connectivity, and mixed use. Hong Kong excels at each through its high-density districts, array of transport options, and mixed-use buildings, but has yet to leverage these ideas in community-building efforts. Too much effort has been devoted to creating new buildings and towns, and too little on increasing social contact within existing spaces. He emphasized that responsibility for achieving these goals lies with the government: “In terms of getting cities right—managing them well in terms of governance—there has to be some clarity on where the buck stops.”
Lipton supported this idea by restating the importance of governance in creating communities. Placemaking requires collaboration between private and public sectors and typically gets bogged down due to the reluctance of authorities to address social issues. In addition to local efforts, supranational entities have responsibility to ensure a healthy living environment and distribute grants to regions in need to help ease income inequality for essential workers.
The public sector may be essential for getting the ball rolling, but collaboration between stakeholders is the crucial step in ensuring that community becomes a reality rather than just an idea. Businesses, government, and citizens must therefore work together and be willing to take risks, be they political, social, or financial. Burdett pointed to the historic city plans of Barcelona, using them as an example of developers investing despite a lack of clarity over what the future held. Through the piggybacking of projects with unknown futures, poor but well-connected areas were able to develop and thrive.
Drawing again from Barcelona, Lipton highlighted that visionary leadership and small-scale projects also are important elements of community building. From minor street-side landscaping all the way to entire district revitalization projects, the city’s successful 1992 Olympic bid was greatly facilitated by incremental steps that instilled a sense of confidence and pride within the community.
Turning back to Hong Kong, Lipton offered his opinion on what approach the city might take, suggesting that iconic buildings and spaces have the potential to become a symbol for the city that leaves a lasting impression on all who visit. The focus should be on singling out certain areas to create unique buildings and spaces.
Perhaps of greatest importance, planners must ensure that these spaces remain accessible to all, because it is the shared nature of public realms that brings people from all walks of life together—thereby enhancing spontaneous social interaction and a sense of community. The process of establishing such spaces should also be community-wide, involving everyone from the highest echelons of government down to the individual citizen, ensuring that all feel involved and empowered each step of the way.