The Hong Kong government has launched new towns in New Territories one after another since the late 70s, providing tens of millions of residential flats for the citizens.
The program to build new towns is still pretty much a work in progress almost 40 years after the initiative was begun, as the government is now planning to build a few more.
However, while the existing new towns may be able to provide residential flats, basic amenities and recreational facilities for local residents, they are unable to provide jobs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of residents in these new towns have to spend hours commuting between their home in the New Territories and their workplace in either Kowloon or the Hong Kong Island on a daily basis.
As the people need to travel a long distance to go to work daily, it results in wastage of an enormous amount of time which could otherwise be used to enhance productivity.
Also, the long daily commutes pose a huge burden on the public transport system and exacerbate traffic congestion across the city.
According to figures provided by the Planning Department in its “Hong Kong 2030+” report, while the New Territories is currently home to 41 percent of our population, it only provides 24 percent of the jobs.
To address the issue, back in 2011, the then Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed that the government would boost the degree of self-sufficiency in the upcoming new towns in order to allow people to live there and work there.
Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. It is because unlike the heyday of industrialization between the 50s and the late 70s, when our economy relied heavily on the manufacturing sector and the majority of our workers went to work in industrial estates either in New Territories or in the urban areas, today the tertiary industry, i.e. the banking, financial, real estate, insurance, retail sectors, etc, accounts for most of our GDP.
Most of these institutions and companies are located in the traditional business districts in Kowloon and Hong Kong Island.
It is unlikely that operators of these high-end businesses would give up their Class A office space in Central or Admiralty and move to some unfamiliar locations in the middle of nowhere in the New Territories, because that might undermine their companies’ image in the eyes of their clients.
As Hong Kong is going down the path of becoming a “dispersed city” where towns are like remote islands isolated from one another, perhaps the only way to redress the current spatial mismatch between home and workplace in our city is to facilitate the growth of local community economies in new towns.
The flourishing neighborhood stores in Tai Po and the flea markets in Yuen Long can provide the government some insight as to how to develop sustainable community economies.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 9
Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting
[Chinese version 中文版]
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