What can Hong Kong teach China about urban sustainability?

Note: This is the second of a multipart series on sustainable urban growth. Read part one, on the private sector’s role in sustainable urban development, here.

When it comes to sustainable urban growth, Hong Kong has been a noted success story and possible model for mainland China and other emerging economies. The city’s emphasis on infrastructure has been its traditional path to development, with new towns and a mass transit railway in the 1970s and 1980s, airport and seaport development in the 1990s, and increased bridge and rail links to mainland China in the 2000s. Hong Kong has also enjoyed the flexibility to experiment with greener, socially conscious, and more sustainable development at its own pace.

To follow up on my feature earlier this month -- which covered the challenges in scaling up sustainable growth, given that 70 percent of all people will live in cities by 2050 -- I spoke to a diverse group of stakeholders in Hong Kong to understand what we can learn from the city’s apparent infrastructure development successes and how we can apply these lessons to other cities. While I set out to understand a series of best practices for urban sustainability (there are some), I was left with was a sense that Hong Kong is in the midst of an identity crisis. Today, demographic changes, resource constraints, and political complacency have prompted questions about the city’s path: Will Hong Kong remain a positive example of sustainable urban growth?

Growing population, high density

Hong Kong’s current population of 7.07 million is projected to grow to 8.47 million by 2041, with most of the city’s “suburban sprawl” taking place in the densely populated New Territories to the north of the older Hong Kong Island and Kowloon districts. According to William Lam, Hong Kong Polytechnic University professor of civil and transportation engineering, the increasing population is happening slowly, not from growing Hong Kong families, which have traditionally been small, but from expatriates and mainland Chinese residents moving to the city.

Lam points out that Hong Kong is more efficient than most of North America due to its high density, something that has also given the city a high ranking on many international city-level sustainability indexes, which typically put a high value on population density. But the high density creates other sustainability challenges related to infrastructure and social issues. “Land is scarce, and there is an increased need for both transportation and housing projects,” Lam said.

Currently, however, city planning is not centered on these social needs. For instance, while much of the space planning is done to accommodate cars, only 7 percent of people in Hong Kong own a car. Transportation infrastructure (such as roads and parking) account for 4 percent of the total Hong Kong area, but residential development accounts for only 3 percent of area.

To remedy this challenge, Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong-based sustainability think tank, has begun developing a new City Well-Being Index that takes into account issues Asian urban residents themselves identify as their priorities though engagement (the group has also published a compendium of 160 global city indexes in its 2012 report “Measuring Well-Being in Cities”).

Next page: Outlining Hong Kong's top sustainability issues

Photo courtesy of leungchopan via Shutterstock