The future of Hong Kong's harborfront

The future of Hong Kong's harborfront

Ferris wheels, cycling lanes ... what do we really want to see on the shores of Victoria Harbour?
hong kong harborfront
We can make this look even better.

What’s the best way to make Hong Kong’s harborfront into a lively place? How about a 16-kilometer bike path? A festival marketplace like in London's Covent Garden? A giant Ferris wheel?

After years of land reclamation projects, highway construction and thoughtless development, Hong Kong now has a new goal: turning the shores of Victoria Harbour into a public gathering place as lively as the waterfronts in Sydney, Vancouver and Barcelona.

Last year, the government launched a new Harbourfront Commission to develop a plan to improve public access to the harbor. Critics say it’s an important first step, but they note that the commission has only an advisory role and without an independent harbor authority to oversee all waterfront development, any plans hatched by the commission could fall victim to government bureaucracy.

For years, says urban planner Dr. Peter Cookson-Smith, the government’s priority was infrastructure above all else, which led to a harborfront that is cut off from the city by highways and interchanges.

The Harbourfront Commission’s first task will be to change that. “The harbor is the identity of the city, so it needs to be developed for the benefit of the people,” says Cookson-Smith, who represents the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design on the commission.

“We’re battling to make 80 kilometers of waterfront available to people for different activities.”

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Stormy harbor history

For most of Hong Kong’s history, the harborfront has been a lively, if grimy place. Most of its shoreline was taken up by working docks, ferry piers and typhoon shelters home to floating villages. 

After the Cross-Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972, the city began to turn its back on the harbor. Boat people who lived in typhoon shelters were relocated inland, ferry services were scaled back and land reclamation extended the shoreline far beyond its original location.

Highways were built along much of the waterfront in the 1980s and 1990s. Thanks to activists like former Legislative Councillor Christine Loh Kung-wai and lawyer Winston Chu Ka-sun, harbor reclamation was banned in 1996.

When the government attempted to proceed with reclamation projects anyway, Chu sued, and the resulting stand-off put a freeze on any development that could be perceived as reclamation, including boardwalks and piers.

Now Chu has called a truce by introducing what he calls the Proportionality Principle, which allows a certain amount of reclamation if it enhances the value of the harbor and serves the public interest.

“It is meant to be permissive,” says Chu.

As a result, the government has placed a number of plans back on the table, including new ferry piers in West Kowloon, an offshore promenade along the northeast shore of Hong Kong Island and a bridge linking Kwun Tong to the new development currently under construction on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport.

Harbor gimmicks

The question now is not what to develop, but how to make the harborfront as attractive as possible, a challenge that has attracted a growing number of ideas.

In August, the company that developed the London Eye proposed building a similar 60-meter-high Ferris wheel on the Central waterfront, which would complement a nearby maritime museum, waterfront promenade and cafés.

Last month, the Hong Kong Cycling Alliance presented a plan for a 16-kilometer “cycleway” that would extend from Kennedy Town to Shau Kei Wan, with a mix of segregated bike paths, on-street bicycle lanes and spaces shared between cyclists and pedestrians.

“Cycling is the most convenient, efficient mode of transportation known to man and it's just right for the harborfront, which we want to be a peaceful and well-connected locale,” says Cycling Alliance member Martin Turner.

Though the cycleway plan impressed some commission members, others were skeptical, including the government’s Commissioner for Transport, who said it is “not the government’s policy” to encourage the use of bicycles in the urban areas.

Some observers take it as a discouraging sign. “Overall, the support for the [Ferris wheel] and the naysaying on the cycling paths together form a strange message about the future of our waterfront –- essentially, that the authorities value tourist gimmicks over healthy exercise and everyday use,” wrote journalist Mark Tjhung in Time Out.

Others remain optimistic. Commission member and urban planner Sujata Govada thinks it is likely that the government will move ahead with the creation of a Harbourfront Authority to coordinate waterfront developments.

“Six years ago we didn’t even have a Harbourfront Commission -- it was only created because the people asked for it,” she says. “You now get government departments or even private developers presenting more sensitive visions for development along the harborfront.”

Still, she has a warning: “The longer we take, the more we are losing opportunities.”

What changes would you like to see on either side of Victoria Harbour? Compose your harborfront proposal in the comments box below.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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