Since Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, the direction of urban planning has been constantly adjusted and adapted to the aspirations of society. In the early days after the reunification in 1997, the administration continued the practice of government-led formulation of blueprints for the future with economic development as the focus. The advent of the new millennium has been accompanied by a strong civic consciousness. The public have attached unprecedented importance to the conservation of historic buildings, the preservation of collective memories and the inheritance of cultural values. Long-term planning of the city also took into account a number of factors, such as air quality, noise, visual impact on both sides of Victoria Harbour, building heights and public space. The development in rural areas, with the goal of redistributing the urban population, was also constrained by calls to improve urban life.
A History of its Urban Development
Government vs Market
Post-war urban planning in Hong Kong was arduous and full of challenges: insufficient land resources in the city, shortage of economic resources, and an unstable global political situation. Planning for political and commercial uses such as government administrative centres, cultural centres, transport interchanges, distribution of offensive trades, heavy industrial areas, manufacturing industrial areas and distribution of public housing areas was mainly aimed at coordinating with the development of core districts and formulated according to the respective geographical conditions of each district so that they each could fully realise their potential and fit in with the overall development of the city. The effective planning and development of external transport enhanced Hong Kong’s status in entrepôt trade, while the city’s internal transport diverted the population from densely populated urban areas to new towns in the New Territories, reinforcing the post-war strategy of developing manufacturing industries with immediate impacts.
The Japanese rejected Hong Kong’s pre-war development experience and made drastic changes to the city by turning Hong Kong into Japan’s transport hub in the Pacific region, as well as a resource supply station for its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Using Hong Kong’s advantageous geographical location to develop trade was no longer the focus of the city. As opening up the city to foreign trade would make the situation difficult to control, commercial activities were completely banned. However, significant investment was made on Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon City to facilitate the transport of military equipment. To make the city self-sufficient in resources, an evacuation policy was implemented to forcibly repatriate Chinese residents to their home towns, and the forestry and agriculture industry was vigorously promoted. Those who survived the war were left destitute and homeless. The city was scarred by many indelible and painful memories of this period of history.
Under the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory signed in 1898, the land north of Boundary Street and south of the Shenzhen River was leased for a period of 99 years. Long-term urban planning in New Kowloon was implemented to manage rapid population growth and land use. The establishment of the Town Planning Committee in 1922 and promulgation of the Town Planning Ordinance in 1939 enabled the formulation of the long-term development of Hong Kong as Britain’s bridgehead in the Asia-Pacific region. The various proposals by three governors – Clementi, Peel and Northcote – since the late 1920s, which included the extension of land leases without reaching agreement with China and the purchase of the New Territories for 20 million pounds sterling, reflected Britain’s anxiety on the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in 1997. Faced with a choice between politics and economic interests, Britain chose national prestige over economic development.
In 1843, the British colonial government in Hong Kong designated the northern coast of Hong Kong Island as the City of Victoria. Hindered by natural resource shortages and a poor natural environment, the government had to make use of new construction techniques and infrastructure to solve daily life problems, which included housing, transport facilities, water supply, law and order and public hygiene. The city was managed with two completely differently strategies. The Central District was mainly modelled on what was practised in the West. Commercial activities and trade were conducted in a systematic manner, and the enactment and strict enforcement of laws were key to the implementation of policies. However, the densely populated area of Sheung Wan, located in the western part of the city and inhabited by the Chinese community, was blighted by poor housing and hygiene conditions as well as high crime rates.