The Hong Kong government should strengthen its ability to claim private land for the city’s development by showing the public that the land will be used for their benefit, said Liu Thai Ker, known as the father of Singapore’s city planning.
Liu, 80, was speaking to the Post on the sidelines of the International Conference on New Global Cities in Nanjing on Monday.
When was asked about the Hong Kong government’s initiative to reclaim 1,700 hectares of land off Lantau Island – the size 70 per cent bigger than in the original plan – Liu said Hong Kong was not short of land, considering the ratio of its surface area to population.
“You can see in satellite images of the territory there is a lot of rural land,” Liu said. “The problem lies in whether the government can take that land back.”
Rolled out earlier this month in the second Policy Address by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the reclamation initiative of Lantau Tomorrow has sparked much controversy, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets in protest. Opponents of the plan argued that it would drain the city’s financial reserves of HK$1 trillion and was prioritising a wrong source of land supply by spurning available brownfield sites and rural lands.
Over the past few decades, nationalised land in Singapore has increased from 30 per cent of the city’s stock to 80 per cent, according to Liu.
“Every city has laws to allow the government to take back [private] land,” he said. “We were able to achieve that because we always fulfilled our promise when planning to benefit residents.”
“The government must win people’s trust by showing them how things get done.”
Both Hong Kong and Singapore have laws enabling the government to acquire land from private owners for public use by providing compensation. But in Hong Kong, private ownership of property is protected by the city’s mini constitution the Basic Law. Lam has openly dismissed suggestions to resort to the Lands Resumption Ordinance, saying that it might prompt a wave of judicial reviews against the government.
From 1997 to 2017, the Hong Kong government used the ordinance 154 times and was engaged in eight judicial reviews. All cases concerned the Urban Renewal Authority with the complainant property owners losing.
Liu, who served in the Singapore government for 24 years and oversaw the construction of half a million public housing units as CEO of the Housing and Development Board, said the best city planner should be a prophet who undertakes urban design with a vision, while the worst is like an actor who knows only lip service.
“To determine a city’s vision of development, the planner must first diagnose what ails the city and what the basic needs of residents are,” Liu said.
Having visited Hong Kong a few months ago, Liu said the city needed to address its people’s needs for adequate housing, and to work more on providing green environments.
During his speech at Monday’s conference, Liu said it would be better to plan for more people than fewer. Liu’s recent prediction that Singapore should plan to house 10 million people by 2100 sparked heated discussion in the country.
“In 1991, Singapore made it a 100-year development plan to have 5.5 million people on a territory of 5.5 million square kilometres,” Liu said. “But our population reached 5.9 million by 2018. Therefore we should plan for a larger population target, instead of a smaller one.”
For a city state as small as Singapore, acquiring existing lands would not meet its growth needs. “Since the 1950s, Singapore has expanded in size from 560 to over 710 square kilometres, and most of this land came from reclamation,” Liu said.
“Every time we would study the impact on the tides and the ocean lives before we decide where to create a new coastal line.”
Liu also admitted that roads on reclaimed land could still suffer some extent of deformation despite reinforcements.
Lam Chiu-ying, the former head of the Hong Kong Observatory, has openly criticised the Lantau Tomorrow initiative for neglecting its effects on marine ecology and potential risks in a future of increasingly extreme weather. The Hong Kong government, without explaining the reason to expand the plan, has yet to conduct an environmental impact assessment or disclose the budget for the initiative.
Liu, who has acted as city planning consultant for a dozen mainland cities including Beijing and Shanghai, said urban planning should take the whole city into account, ranging from its history and nature to what functions districts serve.
“City planning is not a matter of joining separate, smaller plans,” Liu said. “You can’t build a phoenix by putting five turkeys together.”
The International Conference on New Global Cities is a two-day forum organised by China’s foremost think tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to release the annual Global Urban Competitiveness Report it produces in collaboration with the United Nations.
Hong Kong was still the most competitive city in China considering both its economic strength and development potential, the latest report has found.
Su Xinqi is reporting from Nanjing