By Anson Chan Fang On-sang, a directly elected legislator,
first published in the South China Morning Post on 7 March 2008
For many - locals and overseas visitors alike - our vibrant street culture symbolises the energy and entrepreneurial spirit that is the heart of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, an increasing number of such areas are under threat of being swept away in the name of providing a "better" living environment and neighbourhood. In short, our cherished street life is under threat; our city is becoming increasingly sanitised as well as sanitary.
One project in my constituency, which has attracted vocal criticism from a number of concerned groups and individuals, is the Urban Renewal Authority's (URA) scheme to redevelop the Graham and Peel Street area of Central. For over 100 years, this area has been home to a thriving open-air market that is heavily patronised by local shoppers and overseas visitors. One particular concern group - The World City Committee - has gone as far as to submit an alternative proposal to the Town Planning Board in a bid to prevent wholesale demolition of the market and its surrounding area, and its replacement by four multi-storey towers erected on large podium structures.
Members of this committee and their technical advisers are all volunteers who have devoted their time and effort to producing alternative ideas, not for any monetary reward, but because they feel passionately about preserving the unique character of this part of town. I am therefore pleased to see that the Town Planning Board has recently agreed to publish the committee's alternative master plan for public consultation and evaluation alongside the URA scheme, which has already been approved by the board.
Worldwide, examples abound of imaginative schemes that have enabled decaying market areas to be revitalised in situ and often go on to become a focus for art and crafts, and other speciality retail offerings, which create employment and attract overseas visitors, as well as serving local needs. The Peel and Graham Street area is ideally located to evolve in this way. There is nothing wrong with the URA's overall mission and mandate which, among other things, requires it to place high priority on "enhancing and strengthening the socio-economic and environmental fabric for the benefit of urban communities". But there is a growing perception and deepening concern in the community that the authority does not always practise what it preaches and that its approach to urban regeneration is outmoded. It is not good enough for the URA to plead that this criticism is based on misconceptions and inadequate understanding of the benefits of particular schemes. Nor should the government stand back and allow responsible criticism to be swept aside, when it bears the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that its urban renewal strategy benefits the whole community - not just the big property developers and those residents directly benefiting from removal compensation.
There needs to be a much more conscious effort to think creatively and abandon conventional development templates. We need to ask just how many more giant commercial or residential tower blocks we really want, blocking sunlight and airflow. How many more glitzy shopping malls, populated by empty boutiques selling luxury goods that the vast majority of Hong Kong people can't afford?
If there are misconceptions, if people are wrong in fearing that urban redevelopment proposals are being driven primarily by a requirement to maximise plot ratio and generate the highest development premium, then representatives of the authority, and the relevant government departments and policy bureaus, should engage openly with their critics, listen to what they have to say and be prepared to concede that there may be merit in some of their suggestions and counterproposals.
In recent days, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, in his budget speech, and URA chairman Barry Cheung Chun-yuen have hinted that the government and the URA will explore redevelopment strategies that are both more flexible and more responsive to the overall needs of the districts concerned. If so, I am sure they will be warmly welcomed by the community as a whole.
In her now classic song, Big Yellow Taxi, folk singer Joni Mitchell muses on how all too often:
... you don't know what you've got
Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.
It may not be paradise, but the Graham and Peel Street market area is a valuable part of our city's heritage. There is still time to rethink the current plan and to make sure that the best possible balance is achieved between needed environmental upgrading and cultural preservation.