Better city planning for tackling ageing problem in GBA

December 14, 2020 09:12
Photo: HK Government

Based on a forecast by the Census and Statistics Department, the over-85s group in Hong Kong would rise sharply 10 years later, and the rapid growth is expected to remain for 20 years. Similar to Hong Kong, Guangdong Province (GD) also sees its growing ageing population with the age of 65 and above exceeding 10 million this year and well above 30 million in 30 years' time.

One of the key issues of ageing is heavy healthcare costs. But healthcare is only one dimension of the ageing issue. A survey of elderly services in the United Kingdom interviewed 3,000 people aged between 45 and 75, majority of whom own their houses and therefore can afford to be choosy when it comes to care in late life. I think their wish list could be shared with many Hong Kong people.

Their number one concern is internet access (97%) for keeping in touch with friends and family (83%) and the world (76%), as well as for entertainment (51%). 86% of them “want a hot meal to be served at dinner” (currently, serving hot meals at lunch is more common there); 80% think “freedom of life” is the most important factor for the choice of care provision; and 55% want to move into an elderly home with their partner.

Currently, there are still big differences in social and cultural aspects between GD and Hong Kong, most local elders are not comfortable to move to GD for retirement. However, under the overarching trend of integrating Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area (GBA), more collaborations in this area are expected. What’s more, with a total population of more than 10 million elders in GD and Hong Kong, we could offer more choices according to elders’ social-economic, family background and health conditions.

This will involve land use and housing, transport, infrastructure, labour force and more. In face of such a large and complex planning issue, geographic information system (GIS) can come into play. GlS, an electronic mapping software, efficiently aggregates, organizes, analyses and visualizes all location-related data.

Firstly, we should identify suitable lands with both affordability and accessibility. Through GlS, the authority can readily locate lands which are with gentle slope at less than 25 degree, reducing the cost of leveling; not far from main roads and cities, which is convenient for staff to commute and for family members to visit; and government land to avoid excessive land cost. Then the authority can incorporate other requirements into planning, such as more nursing home choices for people of all incomes.

Seattle, the fastest growing city in the United States is a good example in applying GIS for balancing diversified needs.

With a number of technology companies, such as Amazon, in the area, employment increased by 30% over the past decade with the population rising by 23%. The authority has to manage social equity with affordable housing, and maintain considerable farmlands and open space.

The government has pursued several strategies to encourage the supply of more dwelling units in single-family neighborhoods, including removing regulatory barriers, and streamlining the permit issuing process, such as conversions of garage, basement, and backyard cottages. These units can provide more rental homes in neighborhoods where housing is often unaffordable to most people. And to their owners, the new settings can generate additional income.

Meanwhile, the local legislation requires an updated inventory of available land every seven years. The buildable lands inventory measures development and reviews resultant population densities against the prior plan’s growth forecast. However, the complex zoning plans and site guidelines are at least 10 inches thick if printed, but would be simple and convenient with GlS software.

City development often causes conflicts between the existing residents and the authority. One of the key capabilities of GIS, 3D city modelling, can facilitate efficiency and smooth communication among different stakeholders, such as interdisciplinary planners, design professionals and the public, nearby residents in particular. The tool enables all planning workflows on one platform, from data collection, analysis, visualization, to sharing of information with other departments and the public, and even decision-making. Instead of hard data, the 3D tool visualizes the what-if scenarios, showing estimated housing units under the supply of existing land using maps, charts and graphs, facilitating the participation of different holders, and promoting social harmony.

Hong Kong, which introduced GlS more than 20 years ago, is a pioneer in Asia. Therefore, in terms of land use, we can take the initiative to communicate more with the Mainland to optimize urban planning and enhance the competitiveness of the whole GBA.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong