Hong Kong is known for its high-density, compact development and vibrant street life, especially in the older urban areas. Over the past few decades, the urban landscape of Hong Kong has become increasingly dominated by large-scale podium developments. More recent developments, though commercially successful, often have little or no functional relationship to the urban street grid because of their inward-looking design. These large-scale developments have essentially become isolated pods that are not well integrated with adjacent areas and surrounding districts and detract from the city’s vibrant environment.

Among the problems related to this development model include the following:

  • Huge isolated podiums create blank perimeter street walls, inward-looking retail uses, and piecemeal developments.
  • Walls at street level topped by walled building towers block air ventilation across the urban fabric
  • Public open space is often limited to the podium level.
  • Where the podium directly abuts the street, narrow, deep street canyons are formed that trap air pollutants and exacerbate the heat-island effect.
  • Circulation patterns end at the podium developments and are not integrated, disrupting the urban grid and community connections to adjacent areas.

malkin_2_200In the ULI Sustainable Approach to New Development (SAND) study, undertaken to develop a more sus–tainable approach to large-scale developments, local large-scale projects were analyzed and benchmarked against regional and international case studies. Funding for the study came in part through a community action grant awarded to ULI North Asia by the ULI Foundation.

A ULI multistakeholder workshop was held September 10, 2010, to encourage discussion among academicians, developers, investors, urban designers, and planners, as well as members of the community, on issues related to large-scale developments. Participants assisted with the development of progressive and innovative guiding principles for sustainable and integrated large-scale development. Subsequently, Ten Principles for a Sustainable Approach to New Development were drafted with the aim of influencing future development in Hong Kong and the region.

Those ten principles are:

  • Build on your strengths: rethink the strategic vision and policy framework. With a distinctive identity and a vibrant economy, Hong Kong is envisioned by the government as Asia’s world city. Over the years, a development-oriented piecemeal approach has been adopted to facilitate the constant evolution of the city’s urban landscape, resulting in isolated developments. Strong leadership, an integrated city vision, and a clear policy framework, as well as a proactive and bottom-up approach to planning, will strengthen Hong Kong’s unique image and identity. It is important to clarify for the community, developers, and various stakeholders that the city’s success cannot solely rely on high commercial value; social and environmental sustainability are also needed to ensure a higher quality of life for the people of Hong Kong. Since the handover, the people of Hong Kong are more involved in shaping a better city, bridging the gap between the city’s global visions and local aspirations.
  • Create great places: adopt a place-making approach. A place-based approach is necessary to harmonize large-scale developments with their surrounding areas and to create a character and personality in line with the district vision. It is important to promote a green network made up of a high-quality public realm with landscaped open space at grade. These elements will ensure a sustainable built environment with first-class public spaces in harmony with nature. Large-scale development should be looked upon as providing an opportunity to add long-term value to the city by creating great places so that Hong Kong can strive to be a more livable, walkable, and sustainable city.
  • Extend the urban grid: develop to an appropriate scale and density. It is essential to examine the scale of a district and the existing urban fabric before considering the site and the development scale. Hong Kong has the advantage of being a compact, high-density city with convenient transport access. However, the city has inadequate open space within the urban area, limited pedestrian access to the podium-level public spaces, and a rising number of isolated large-scale developments that hinder the long-term sustainability of the city. The existing urban fabric and social capital of the surrounding district must be integrated by the design of large-scale new developments.
  • Open up public spaces: provide accessible public open space. Hong Kong’s public spaces in private developments are usually of higher quality than other public open spaces, but may not be accessible to the public at all times. Developers gain concessions for providing public spaces in private projects, so these areas should be clearly identified, and physically and visually accessible from the street. Public open space should also be provided at grade and linked to open space at upper levels. If it is not possible to provide a direct view of the public areas at upper levels, a clear wayfinding system should be provided.
  • Integrate infrastructure: ensure transport and infrastructure integration. It is important to integrate transport and infrastructure with the development because it affects the quality of the spaces created at ground level. Infrastructure uses within and around the site should be carefully planned because this dictates the level of integration possible. As society continues to place greater emphasis on heritage and cultural preservation, it is important to integrate new developments with the surrounding older urban areas of the city. Physical and social integration at both the district and city level are as important as business integration. Urban integration and pedestrian connectivity should be given priority and be well defined because many Chinese cities are likely to follow Hong Kong’s development patterns and use them as models for success.
  • Activate the streets: enhance street-level interface and continuity. Large-scale new developments with an active street interface will strengthen the character of Hong Kong. Upper-level footbridge connections provide convenient links between buildings, but should not detract from vibrancy at the street level. Provision of bonus plot ratios for developing open space and public amenities at grade and constructing underground parking facilities should be encouraged. Because Hong Kong’s transit system is well used, the parking ratio could be lowered. Some of these provisions within the building regulations are currently being reviewed by the government.
  • Keep it flexible: facilitate good urban design and flexible zoning. More specific urban design guidelines and flexible zoning should be proposed and included as part of the regulatory framework to promote good urban design with high-quality public spaces. A coherent decision-making process is necessary, especially involving the newly formed Harbour Commission, a more sensitive Urban Renewal Authority working closely with the Development Bureau and related departments, as well as the Town Planning Board (TPB). Creation of an Urban Design Review Panel under an independent TPB to evaluate and approve development projects on the merits of good urban design and community benefits will add long-term value for the city.
  • Promote sustainability: go beyond sustainable building design. Sustainability beyond building design should follow certifications such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) and be adapted to local conditions in a way similar to that of the Hong Kong Building Environmental Assessment Method (HK BEAM) Plus program. The public sector should take the lead and also encourage the private sector to create more sustainable and integrated developments. Where feasible, bonus plot ratio can be used as an incentive to encourage construction of green buildings at the street, district, and city scale. Vertical greening of buildings and the construction of green roofs that allow urban farming will help reduce the heat-island effect prominent in urban areas. Ecological sustainability should also be considered, and development in environmentally sensitive areas should be discouraged.
  • Engage people early on: enable upfront public engagement. Although public engagement is part of the planning process, it could be improved to ensure that it is more effective. Stakeholders and professionals from a wide array of backgrounds should be involved as early as possible in the planning, urban design, policy framework, zoning, and implementation stages. The public should be included in the decision-making process as well to assist with the formulation of a clear and forward-looking vision for the area. The public perception of collusion between the government and developers should be minimized by ensuring transparency in the planning process.
  • Manage, control, and coordinate: implement coordinated management control. The success of large-scale developments depends heavily on how they are managed during the design, implementation, and operation stages. The key is coordinated management control, whether that management is by the public or private sector, or involves a single developer or multiple developers. Developments should not only be commercially successful, but also should benefit the community. It is important to follow sustainable development principles and urban design guidelines to ensure that developments remain integrated with their surroundings.

These principles can be used to guide the form of future development and make high-density cities more livable, and are applicable throughout the region. They emphasize more integrated and sustainable developments to promote a greener future for Hong Kong and the region. The next step for Hong Kong is to review building regulations established in the development process to see what changes can be made to ensure that future developments are more sustainable and integrated with the surrounding areas.

As a follow-up to the SAND study, a preliminary review of the Kai Tak airport redevelopment project in Hong Kong was undertaken on December 3, 2010. The ULI Ten Principles can be used to guide Kai Tak to become a great waterfront destination that is not only commercially viable, but also environmentally and socially sustainable. Integrated developments can be showcased as successful models for future development in Hong Kong and the region. Lessons learned from Asian cities can provide insights for higher-density developments to potentially create more sustainable and livable cities in other parts of the world.