In any city, it is only natural that people always strive for improvements in living environment and upgrading of quality of life. Different cities have different degrees of availability of land space and natural resources. Whatever the situation, early and appropriate urban planning is essential. In this article, some of the more important issues are discussed to foster further deliberation and exploration.
(1) Population Forecast
Population growth is invariably the key factor for effective planning consideration but, more often than not, for some countries or districts, the forecast seldom turns out to be as expected due to changes in birth rate and/or immigration. Some cities are more vulnerable to unexpected changes than others. That is why the usual practice is to undertake both short term, medium term and long term planning in order to take into account demographic changes. As a rule of thumb, long term planning should adopt a norm of at least 30 years. At the same time, experience tells us that we should preferably be on the generous side in the provisions or even allow some over-provisions for the long term requirements in order to cater for the eventuality of unexpected and unforeseen upsurge of the population size so that we will still have some room for manoeuvring.
(2) Land Reserves
All development requires land. Some economies are more fortunate, having sufficient flat land for development, while others have to spend a lot of efforts and resources to create it. Creation of land for development takes a long time to complete the physical formation process as well as the procedural requirements, particularly if public consultation and public engagement are involved, which often takes 10 years, or even longer. Reclamation from the sea, construction of caverns, cutting of hills or even removal of small islands are methods commonly adopted.
Because all these methods for formation of land need long duration of time, well-thought out long term planning is essential, otherwise development may be hampered by shortage of land.
(3) Balanced Planning
Successful urban planning cannot be achieved without careful consideration and ample emphasis given to the aspects of education, employment and leisure, nor will it suffice to go through the process of time without foresight.
People increasingly have a desire to demand minimum travelling time to go to work, to take their children to school, and even en route to leisure activities. Hence accessibility and connectivity are absolutely fundamental. This applies to both air, land and water transportation. We must aim to provide to the patronage plentiful opportunities to select their transport modes and to enjoy travelling comfort at reasonable price levels. At the same time, land use distribution and building density are essential planning components that must complement transport planning.
It is the government’s responsibility to educate and encourage people to have the habit of using public transport deeply rooted in their daily routine. Public education, starting particularly with children, is advisable. Reduction in the use of private cars will improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion and cut down the need for transport infrastructure. Reducing the travelling time to work will also greatly enhance economic productivity. Further, it helps the principle of work-life-balance.
(4) Transport Planning
Following economic growth of a city, traffic volume will increase in an upward trend. Traffic congestion will inevitably follow. Only with good traffic management and planning will the situation stay manageable.
Very often we would involve concepts like “park and ride” and “grade separation”. To encourage high usage of public transport by the people, consideration can also be given to providing adequate and convenient parking facilities for private car owners giving them the incentive to leave their cars and switch to mass transit systems, such as the railway mode.
Grade Separation means separation of pedestrians from vehicular traffic. This is the best traffic planning objective, and it is always most effectively undertaken at the commencement of the planning stage. It helps the flow of vehicular traffic and safety of pedestrians on the road.
Different forms can be considered for adoption such as underpasses, suppressed trunk roads or primary distributors, footbridge systems linking up key buildings, cycle tracks with road-crossing subways, or even development of underground space. At this juncture, it may be convenient to consider the underground complexities which grow with the advancement of an affluent city when one sees more highrise buildings being constructed with more and more heavy foundation substructure installed resulting in a complex network of utilities like a cobweb. If unchecked or poorly planned, space for further underground infrastructure will be limited and development restricted. Therefore a few far-reaching and comprehensive planning approaches are required.
Site investigation and planning for the underground space development should be carried out as early as possible for the purpose of saving immense construction and resumption costs. What is more, this will reduce heavy maintenance cost and nuisance created to the public.
(5) Underground Railway Systems
As the population of a city increases and its economy grows, there will be a strong demand for underground railway systems to solve traffic congestion.
At the time when the decision is made to go ahead with the implementation of underground railway systems, the city is already fully developed. An appropriate construction philosophy should be adopted to minimise the impact at the street level on neighbouring communities and businesses in the course of construction.
A detailed Traffic Impact Assessment (TIA) study, preferably coupled with consultation, must be undertaken to ensure reasonable traffic flow is maintained both during the construction and the restoration periods.
Pre-historic Hong Kong experienced strong tectonic movements. Its ground conditions are usually very complicated, including large gradients of bedrocks, and types of rock strata, which may be granite, limestones, sedimentary and volcanic rocks or erratic boulders of different sizes, faults, caverns, etc. Thorough and extensive site investigations and ground drilling must be carried out to ascertain the characteristics of the ground along the alignment of the railway whether at the stations or at the tunnels.
(6) Housing Planning
The planning requirements of a city are linked to its economic development. People know what they want, but can they afford it? The government should take the lead, first providing the necessary infrastructure as investment, which will enable financial returns to be realised when land value increases with the extent of implementation of infrastructure. One excellent example is Shatin New Town in the New Territories of Hong Kong.
The balance between public housing and private housing must be carefully established. The Hong Kong experience as derived from its first generation new towns, such as Shatin New Town, and its second generation new towns, including Tseung Kwan O New Town, is 60% public housing against 40% private housing, which has been an acceptable norm.
Hong Kong has not been very successful with the originally-intended “self-sufficient city” planning concept. Because of massive relocation of its existing industries to Pearl River Delta in Southern China in the 1980’s, and the concentration of renowned schools in urban areas, people still had to travel a fair distance from the New Territories to go to work and to go to school on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula.
In order to rectify this dilemma, without alternatives, the government decided to urgently provide more major transport links and widen some existing primary distributors between new towns in the New Territories and the main urban areas of Hong Kong and Kowloon. Such a retrofit approach coming in late in the development stage led to more costs and created more traffic and environmental nuisance to the public in the process of implementation.
(7) Environmental Considerations
Environmental benefits will come with successful planning strategy of a city. Ensuring enough air passage between building blocks to allow breeze ways for sea breeze to penetrate between highrises and creation of greenways are all relevant design approach. Considerations should also be given to the adoption of district cooling systems for certain large developments like Kai Tak Development and West Kowloon Cultural Development District.
Enough open space should be given to the residents such as greens, parks, seaside walks along water fronts, promenades by river banks, and so on. Better still, if man-made lakes can be created at some strategic locations. Such facilities should be well integrated into the urban fabric, easily accessible and inviting. Too often, open spaces have more of a visual impact than any functional value due to poor land use juxtaposition with surrounding land uses.
Additionally, adequate distances should be provided between buildings and road carriageways to increase tranquility level and to avoid the need for noise barriers, which are, in fact, “after-thoughts”, as I sometimes call them. They are view-obstructing, not so effective in noise abatement and they adversely affect air circulation. Sufficient set-back distances from carriageways also help roadside pollution because of greater openness and smoother traffic movements.
We are now in an era of electric vehicles, not only private cars but also buses, coaches and trams. Adequate charging points must be provided at convenient points. Wherever possible, escalators and travellators should be included in the planning. Pedestrianised areas are always welcomed and should be provided.
There are many aspects to be considered in urban planning. The above are but some of the more important areas, and urban planning cannot be successful without due consideration given to the culture of the people and the historical background of the place.
Ir Dr. Raymond Ho Chung-tai, SBS, JP
Chairman of Dashun Policy Research Centre
Former Member of Legislative Council of the HKSAR (Engineering)