When urban planning is in the way of home production

July 20, 2016 16:23
High-rise residential buildings stand in Tseung Kwan O. Photo: Bloomberg

Will Hong Kong see more infill, needle-type residential blocks when the Leung Chun-ying administration ramps up its housing development program?

It appears that the government is ready to push aside established planning rules and ordinances as it sets its sights on tiny strips of land in the city’s already dense residential areas.

There was a public outcry when residents in Shau Kei Wan learned that the government has included a tiny plot of 476 square meters in its land sale for private residential developments.

The diminutive waterfront site, which will provide a maximum gross floor area of 4,200 square meters, is tightly encircled by existing blocks.

One district councillor joked that future residents of the new building can just lean out of their windows to shake hands with neighbors in the adjoining public housing estates.

The major concern is the new development will obstruct natural lighting and ventilation of surrounding buildings.

The government has also indicated that it will build more single-block public rental buildings, mostly for singles, in tiny sites and former green-belt areas that have been devegetated or deserted.

Edward Yiu Chung-yim, deputy director of the Institute of Future Cities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly that historical lessons must not be forgotten when the government tries to stack more people in small spaces.

How urban planning has evolved

To a certain extent, Hong Kong's history is all about the grassroots and the government trying to alleviate the perpetual problem of cramped, adverse living conditions.

There was virtually no public space for the ethnic Chinese and mainland refugees who were at the bottom rung of the social stratum in the early days of Hong Kong.

Nor was there any urban planning rules in place, other than a clause in land leases that concerned the maximum height of a building block.

The population density in the squatter areas along Tai Ping Shan Street in Sheung Wan was estimated at 175,000 per square kilometer at the end of the 19th century, when refugees scavenged simple materials to build huts and settled themselves by the roadside or in unoccupied uphill sites.

The highest density ever recorded was at the beginning of the 20th century in Sai Ying Pun, where there were 990 people in one acre, or 247,500 per square kilometer. Today, the city’s population density is 6,650 people per square kilometer.

Bubonic plague broke out on Tai Ping Shan Street in 1894. It was one of the most disastrous calamities that afflicted Hong Kong throughout the ensuing three decades.

The disease remained endemic in the colony until 1929, claiming some 20,000 lives, including the wife of the then governor William Robinson.

Overcrowding, poor hygiene and the lack of proper sewage were blamed.

In the wake of the epidemic, subsequent urban planning legislations stipulate minimal space for lanes between makeshift homes and tenement houses to ensure natural lighting and ventilation.

What contrasted with the expanding swathes of dilapidated huts and squatters back then was the development of Kowloon Tong.

In the 1920s, the government decided to develop the land along the Kowloon–Canton Railway, using the English countryside as model and turning it into a tranquil, medium to low density residential area featuring low-rise villas, townhouses and green boulevards named after counties in England.

Yiu of the CUHK said the post-World War II era, particularly the 1950s and '60s, was characterized by rapid urbanization and a policy shift towards higher living standards, as the government tried to put a roof over the people's heads amid fresh waves of migration from mainland China.

In a bid to apply the Kowloon Tong model territory-wide, particularly in new town developments, the colonial authorities commissioned British town planner Patrick Abercrombie for the city’s Preliminary Planning Report after he finished the much vaunted master replanning of London in the 1950s.

New concepts like breezeways, wind corridors, wall effect, heat island effect, micro-climate studies, non-building areas, building gaps, etc. have been incorporated into the urban planning ordinance in the following decades.

Urban design guidelines from the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines even stipulated that taller buildings should be located inland and lower blocks on the waterfront, while wall and land-locked effect should be avoided to maintain visual permeability to the waterfront.

A lesson from not so long ago 

But even with these more rigorous requirements, some developments built in the late 1980s were still fundamentally flawed, as represented by Hang Lung Properties’ Amoy Gardens in Kowloon Bay.

The large estate, comprising 19 blocks with heights ranging from 30 to 40 storeys, was ground zero of the 2003 SARS outbreak, with at least 321 people infected.

A high concentration of the cases was recorded in Block E, with most of the infected residents living in flats that were vertically arranged. The deadly virus was able to spread through the sewage drains.

Investigation showed the removal of U-traps from bathtub drains allowed the virus to spread from one flat to another through the plumbing. The high density of flats and inadequate space for ventilation were also blamed.

The estate developer and government officials were accused of grave negligence.

Block E was sealed up for 10 days to prevent the virus from spreading further and no one was allowed to enter or leave the premises during the period.

Now, once again, has the government forgotten the bitter lessons of the past as it seeks to boost housing supply, as it rushes to bend the rules to rezone parks, green belts and breezeways into residential plots?

This article appeared in the July issue of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A residential building in Shek Kip Mei. Improper concentration of plumbling and drains at some old public housing estates may pose health risks to residents. Photo: Bloomberg
Residential and commercial buildings in Central and Sheung Wan are ablaze with lights at night. The government aims to rezone some tiny plots in dense urban areas for residential purposes. Photo: Bloomberg
Dense residential buildings in Tseung Kwan O are typical examples of the wall effect that blocks the view and air ventilation. Photo: Bloomberg
Medical staff are seen at the entrance of Block E at Amoy Gardens in Kowloon Bay after the building was sealed up during the 2003 SARS outbreak. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong Economic Journal