Hong Kong plans for a city that’s growing older

Hong Kong is facing a double-ageing problem: An ageing population, and an outdated stock of private housing units. Will the New Urban Agenda on sustainable urbanisation offer some solutions?

For decades, this city of more than 7 million has been one of Asia’s most dynamic places, filled with a youthful energy that drove rapid growth in both the population and the local economy.

Planners here still see Hong Kong that way. But they also are looking at the long-term trends, and grappling with a force they cannot stop: Hong Kong is getting older. That’s true of both the city’s people and its built environment — a phenomenon planners here call “double ageing”.

Today, about 16 per cent of Hong Kong’s population is age 65 and over. By 2064, that’s expected to be 36 per cent — and one in ten residents will be over the age of 85.

Meanwhile, housing stock that appears middle-aged today will become outdated tomorrow. By 2047, some 326,000 private housing units will be more than 70 years old. Many of them feature long flights of stairs unfriendly to older people. More than a third of seniors live in public housing, but the two-year wait list is bound to grow longer as citizens age.

The double-ageing problem is just one issue that Hong Kong’s planners are trying to figure out as they write a comprehensive plan called Hong Kong 2030+. The plan aims to take future demographic and economic trends into account while charting a path for improving quality of life in one of the world’s most densely settled cities.

It’s a city in which hyper-density and wilderness co-exist. Other mega-cities have no space in their periphery, while Hong Kong has a massive open space in its periphery.

Paul Zimmerman, environmentalist and elected councilor, Hong Kong

Phyllis Li Chi Miu, deputy director of the city’s territorial planning department, says buildings, roads, parks and public transport all will need rejuvenation to make the city age-friendly. “It’s a challenging task,” she says.

Alignment with New Urban Agenda

Planners are also looking at how they can align the 2030+ plan with the New Urban Agenda. That’s the 20-year plan for sustainable urbanisation that nations agreed to last October at the UN’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador.

Alignment was the main topic of conversation at a recent “Urban Thinkers Campus” conference here. At the event, Li noted that the 2030+ plan already stresses key elements of the New Urban Agenda such as social inclusion and environmental protection.

[See: Dozens of Urban Thinkers Campuses to discuss implementing the New Urban Agenda]

However, there was some debate about the New Urban Agenda’s relevance in the context of a city-state like Hong Kong. Paul Zimmerman, an environmentalist and elected councilor, said that some notable issues mentioned in the New Urban Agenda, such as increasing numbers of cars on the road, growth of slums and poor utility services, are not problems in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a city and also a country,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a city in which hyper-density and wilderness co-exist. Other mega-cities have no space in their periphery, while Hong Kong has a massive open space in its periphery.”

However, Professor NG Mee Kam of the urban studies programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Citiscope that the 2030+ plan “needs to strongly align with the New Urban Agenda to plug in crucial policy gaps.”

For example, she said, Hong Kong’s plan could take a cue from the New Urban Agenda’s focus on the informal sector and the importance of cultural heritage.

Retrofitting and reclaiming

The 2030+ plan proposes three “building blocks” for implementation — planning for a liveable high-density city, embracing new economic challenges, and creating capacity for sustainable growth.

A major focus, particularly when it comes to dealing with the double-ageing problem, is retrofitting districts with the most old buildings. Tall buildings are likely to be renovated, while many smaller buildings will likely be demolished to make way for new construction and open space.

Retrofitting public spaces is also a priority. The city intends to add curb-cuts at sidewalks to make it easier for seniors to walk, and aims to increase the amount of public space from 2 square metres per person to 3.5 square metres.

The plan also aims for compact urban growth that is highly integrated with public transport. Homes and offices are to be within 200 to 300 metres of transit; open spaces within 400 metres; and community facilities, railway stations and educational institutes within a range of 500 metres.  

“We are looking at optimum land use through retrofitting,” Li said.

The plan also envisions reclaiming a good bit of land from the sea. That’s a strategy that Hong Kong has long relied on to create room for the city to grow — the city’s airport and Hong Kong Disneyland resort are both located on reclaimed land.

Under the 2030+ Plan, Hong Kong would add another 4,800 hectares (nearly 12,000 acres) of land — a little less than the area of Manhattan. The land would be used for housing, industry, transport facilities and open space. These would include a few large urban extensions such as the East Lantau Metropolis, which is to be home to as many as 700,000 people.

Work on the 2030+ plan started in 2015 and is in the fourth of six phases of public consultation. The final plan is expected to be released next year.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope.org

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