Speech made by the Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands (Planning and Lands), Mrs Rita Lau, on "Creating a Sustainable Urban Living Environment, Challenges Ahead and Aspirations for the Future" at the Business Environment Council (BEC) EnviroSeries 2005 Conference: "Urban Regeneration - A Key to Hong Kong's Sustainable Future" (English only)

Following is the speech made by the Permanent Secretary for Housing, Planning and Lands (Planning and Lands), Mrs Rita Lau, on "Creating a Sustainable Urban Living Environment, Challenges Ahead and Aspirations for the Future" at the Business Environment Council (BEC) EnviroSeries 2005 Conference: "Urban Regeneration - A Key to Hong Kong's Sustainable Future" today (September 21):

Dr Thomson, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be invited to address this conference this morning. Creating a sustainable Urban Living Environment is more than a vision. It is also a shared value of all of us who care about our living environment not only today or tomorrow but for generations to come. I am grateful therefore to the BEC for organising this conference and giving me this opportunity to share with you the Hong Kong SAR Government's visions of our harbour-front and regenerated urban environment, as well as the challenges we face in realising our visions. Let me talk about our dear harbour first.

There is no dispute that Victoria Harbour is the most precious natural resource owned by the people of Hong Kong. We are one and the same in our aspiration to protect and preserve the harbour and its waterfront. The Town Planning Board first published the Vision Statement and Goals for the Harbour in 1999. This was followed by the publication of the Government Harbour Plan in 2003 setting out a Harbour Plan framework and Waterfront Plan to guide the use of waterfront areas and preparation of Action Area Plans. The setting up of the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee (HEC) last year widens the community interest further with greater and more input from a wide-cross section of the community and representative bodies all working for the good of our treasured harbour and culminating in the formulation of the Harbour Planning Principles. In the process of deriving the planning and design directions of our harbourfront, the Government has been a key party to champion the objective of enhancing the harbourfront quality.

One of the key elements prominently featured is the "sustainable development" concept which is our overarching planning vision with the objective of balancing and catering to our environmental, social and economic needs.

Our harbour and the waterfront serve multiple functions, though the emphasis has changed over time. It serves as a port; provides fairway for marine traffic, and is used for mooring, tourism, recreation, residential and industrial purposes; and houses many of the needed government facilities. Different functions form different clusters in the harbour and along our waterfront. In applying the Harbour Planning Principles in future development, we cannot lose sight of the need to be flexible so as to ensure that our diverse needs could be accommodated in the overall planning framework. For example, the continued efficient operation of our many port and marine facilities must be maintained and balanced with other social and design objectives.

To meet the diverse and multiple functions of our harbour, it would be unrealistic to adopt a uniformed design and landscape approach for the whole waterfront. In our harbour plan, we recommend preserving the inner harbour core for community, recreation, cultural, leisure and tourism use. To this end, we will need to build up a strong concentration of attractions such as public places, promenades and recreation facilities to enable people activities to be generated and they should have priority over other uses with top quality design treatment accorded. Uses that need not be located in the harbour core could be relocated to other places with the adoption of a different design approach.

Another key consideration for the planning of the waterfront area is the interface with the hinterland areas and the aspiration of the local community. While adopting good design practices to improve accessibility and connectivity is a must, gauging local views is also an important ingredient in our planning approach. Engaging and planning with the community in all stages of the planning process for the land use, design, implementation and management of our harbour is fast becoming routine and a planning tool for consensus building.

The public engagement programme organised by the HEC, be it on the review of the Wan Chai, Kai Tak or specific harbourfront enhancement project, such as that for the Central Ferry Pier area, are living examples. It is encouraging to see the community participating and responding actively in the process. It is not just the number of participants, it is also the spirit that counts. The Hong Kong Harbour Day, which will be held on November 13, is another good example of community-driven effort to promote the harbour for the enjoyment of all. We are thankful for the community's initiatives and no doubt there are further opportunities to work with District Councils in taking forward harbourfront enhancement work in their respective districts.

I shall now move on to talk about our vision for urban design and regeneration. The Government published the Hong Kong 2030 Study to set our vision in maintaining Hong Kong as Asia's world city. To realise our vision, we have identified a number of planning objectives, one of which is to provide a good quality living environment by conserving the natural landscape, preserving cultural heritage, enhancing the townscape and regenerating old urban areas. We have reiterated in the First Sustainable Development Strategy for Hong Kong that we will promote sustainable urban planning and design practices that will ensure that Hong Kong will be an attractive and enjoyable place in which to live and work. We also undertook to speed up improvements to the environment of older urban areas through a "people-oriented" approach.

On the former, we have promulgated a set of Urban Design Guidelines through the Hong Kong Planning Standards and Guidelines, putting emphasis on creating breeze ways, view corridors, introducing stepped building heights and more importantly protecting our ridgelines. Step by step, we have, through the Town Planning Board, embodied this good design framework in statutory plans. Developments in Kowloon Bay and Kwun Tong Business Areas for example are now subject to height controls. In the same direction, we have recently introduced interim height control for the Wong Chuk Hang Business Area in order to preserve the natural setting of the Aberdeen Country Park and the heritage character of the Aberdeen fishing harbour.

Apart from incorporating good urban design practices in plan making, we have also improved the quality of our built-environment by providing better landscaping and open space network. On this front, we are formulating a greening strategy which introduces district-based greening master plans. To strengthen the attractiveness of the streetscape, we are also working on better integration of pedestrian planning and greening to make our pedestrian environment more attractive and comfortable. Action plans are being drawn up for Tsim Sha Tsui and the Central District. Another study on improving the pedestrian environment in Mong Kok will also commence next year.

Talking of urban design, many would suggest we should be more aggressive in tackling the congested urban area. For some, the solution to improving the environment of our urban area lies in reducing the plot ratio. There are however many more voices asking Government to pay more attention to the design, layout, connectivity and open space provision, which are considered more important in affecting the quality and character of the living environment. I have heard comments saying high density should not be equated to poor urban design. In fact, HK is renowned for producing many high-rise buildings that are well-conceived. On the other hand, low-density development can also be poorly designed. Reducing plot ratio is not the only way to address the environmental concerns. There are also limitations to what the Government could do in reducing development intensity in the old districts, as most of the land is in private hands and reduction of the permitted plot ratio is regarded as an disincentive for privately-initiated redevelopment. However, for greenfield sites, we are endeavouring to keep the development density low as evident in our planning for the extension area of Tseung Kwan O and Kai Tak.

Promoting good urban planning and design aside, creating an environment for sustainable building design also sits high on the Government agenda. Granting incentives for the provision of green features in new buildings is but one of our many initiatives. As a result, innovative features such as sky gardens, balconies, utility platforms, prefabrication and precast products etc, have now been incorporated in building design and are more commonly adopted by the construction industry. In addition, we are developing a comprehensive environmental performance assessment scheme covering areas like indoor air quality, lighting, management and maintenance, energy efficiency and waste management, which will help enhance public awareness and demand for environmentally friendly buildings. To follow-up on a proposal of the Council for Sustainable Development, we will consider further enhancing sustainable building design guidelines with a view to drawing up recommendations for improvement, including an assessment of the implications of setting mandatory requirements in this area.

Our efforts to achieve a sustainable urban living environment will not be complete without the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle - renewal of old urban areas. Hong Kong, like most developed cities, is facing the challenge of regenerating old built areas. Urban renewal is like a marathon race against time. It requires close cooperation among all of the partners in the team, including residents, business operators, city planners and building professionals, social workers, district councillors, property developers, urban renewal agents and the community at large.

We have adopted a three-pronged approach to expedite urban renewal. The Urban Renewal Authority (URA) is a dedicated force to implement urban renewal through a holistic "4R" approach, namely redeveloping dilapidated buildings, rehabilitating poorly maintained buildings, revitalising the socio-economic fabric of older districts and preserving buildings with architectural or historical significance in URA's projects. The URA has rolled out steadily over the past four years an urban renewal programme covering over 350 buildings.

Apart from the URA, we have not lost sight of the importance to leverage on the vast resources in the private sector to expedite urban renewal and yet protect private property interests. With the benefit of actual experience in the operation of the Land (Compulsory Sales for Redevelopment) Ordinance, an ordinance which facilitates private sector land assembly efforts, we are working on a proposal to specify certain classes of lots for a lower compulsory sale threshold of 80% under the ordinance. We will consult the industry and relevant stakeholders on the proposal later in the year.

To tackle urban decay at root, we have been actively promoting proper building management and maintenance. Guided by the broad public preference in an earlier consultation, we are working on the implementation details and support measures for a proposed mandatory building inspection scheme for further consultation with the public in the coming months.

People are at the centre of our efforts towards a sustainable urban living environment. Urban renewal is a process to serve their needs. This process, in particular redevelopment, often involves the less privileged - lower income groups, elderly occupants as well as small business operators living and working in rundown neighborhoods. And we have their interests at heart. The URA is championing a people-oriented approach in taking forward its urban renewal programme. Not only has the URA conducted social impact assessments for new redevelopment projects, it has also engaged social service teams to assist occupants in its redevelopment projects in adjusting to a new environment.

In the pursuit of our urban renewal objectives, we are aware of the need to be sensitive to how the society receives and perceives our policy. In recent years, there seems to have been a gradual change in community sentiment over public sector-led urban redevelopment efforts. Instead of perceiving redevelopment as an effective means to comprehensively revamp an old area by upgrading the street design and community amenities as well as to better utilise the scarce land resources, there are growing concerns about the likely impact of comprehensive redevelopment on the historical and cultural characteristics of old districts as well as the social network of the occupants in redeveloped areas.

The Government's First Sustainable Development Strategy has set out, among other things, the strategic direction for regenerating older urban districts. Apart from continuing our efforts to speed up improvements to the environment of older urban areas through a "people-oriented" approach and the flexible deployment of the "4R" strategy, we will give due consideration to the importance of improving open space provisions and retaining local socio-cultural characteristics and heritage buildings. We will work out guidelines for rehabilitation and redevelopment of older urban areas for inclusion in the Urban Renewal Strategy. To achieve this, we will need to fully engage the stakeholders - our partners in the urban renewal marathon race. Admittedly, whether and how we can facilitate different views and interests to converge on a complex subject like urban renewal is a formidable task, a task which we, together with the URA, will proudly embrace and endeavour to deliver.

I believe the efforts made so far are all directed to the goal of achieving a sustainable urban living environment. No doubt, there are always aspirations to do more and our efforts may not fully measure up to community aspirations. Government cannot do all the jobs by itself. Meeting the long-term goal of sustainability will require the continual support and joint efforts of the whole community. May I therefore appeal to every one of you to join hands with each other and with the Government towards achieving our common visions I have just shared with you.

Thank you.

Ends/Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Issued at HKT 16:52