Millions of people live within a 10-minute walk of Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong’s most important natural asset and the very reason the city exists in the first place. But most of them would have a hard time finding their way to the shore past the roadways and fences that divide it from the city. Even if they make their way through that obstacle course, they will quickly discover that 60 percent of the harbourfront is off-limits to the public.
“And when you’re there, there’s very little to keep you there,” says urban planner Peter Cookson-Smith, who has watched the harbour change through land reclamation and development since he moved to Hong Kong in the early 1970s. Just a handful of cafés, restaurants and bars operate along the harbourfront, and recreational spaces like Quarry Bay Park and the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are disjointed and cut off from one another. After decades of being isolated from their waterfront, Hongkongers don’t treat it as a natural gathering space the way people do in other cities.
“One of our problems in Hong Kong is we don’t have enough examples of good urban design,” says Cookson-Smith. “[There are no] pedestrian streets with good connectivity, particularly in relation with the waterfront. We don’t have the sort of dynamic activity node that many cities do. I was in Cape Town a year ago and the waterfront there is fantastic. It’s where all the water-related activities in the city happen. And they have a much smaller population than Hong Kong.”
Cookson-Smith is part of a chorus of voices calling for more — and better — public access to Hong Kong’s 73-kilometre-long harbourfront. Many of them can be found on the Harbourfront Commission, a panel of urban planners, architects, environmentalists and property developers that advises the government on matters related to the harbour. For years, they have been pushing to establish a Harbourfront Authority that would have control over all decisions related to the harbourfront, similar to how the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is able to manage its land without intervention by the government departments that normally manage urban space.
The Harbourfront Authority was championed by Carrie Lam when she was Secretary for Development, but now that she is Chief Executive, she no longer seems interested. “She has backtracked in quite a major way,” says Nicholas Brooke, former chairman of the Harbourfront Commission.
In the meantime, a hodgepodge of new developments will soon reshape the harbourfront. The redevelopment of Kai Tak will add a generous amount of new public space to the eastern side of the harbour. The West Kowloon Cultural District has already opened part of its waterfront promenade, with a design by renowned Dutch landscape firm West 8 that eschews the concrete barriers and heavy planters found elsewhere on the waterfront in favour of a more open approach. Plans are underway to build a boardwalk underneath the Eastern Island Corridor, an elevated expressway that runs along the northeast shore of Hong Kong Island. Tsim Sha Tsui’s Avenue of Stars is currently being rebuilt in conjunction with the new Victoria Dockside commercial development.
One of the most controversial new developments is in Central. A large swath of reclaimed land between Jardine House and the Central Ferry Piers, known officially as Site 3, will eventually be sold off to a developer who will build new offices and retail space. As the 1996 Protection of the Harbour Ordinance bans new reclamation in the harbour, this is the last part of the Central waterfront to be developed, making it arguably the most significant parcel of land in the city. Brooke describes it as “the jewel in the crown.”
But the government has refused to impose any special design guidelines or requirements that will give the public a say on what happens after the site is built. Instead, it has set out some minimum requirements — 150,000 square metres of office and retail space, with landscaped public areas — and whoever buys the land will have free reign to work out the details. It’s an approach that seems to treat a crown jewel more like a piece of costume jewellery. Brooke says the government is afraid of doing things differently because they might earn less money from the land sale if they attach more strings. “Well, tough,” he says. “We have to move away from a dollar-driven approach.” With HK$1.835 trillion in its reserves — $254,000 for every Hongkonger — it’s unclear why the government needs to sell any more land at top dollar.
One of the few holistic visions for the harbour comes from a Quarry Bay-based architecture firm called Lead 8. Unveiled in 2015, HarbourLoop calls for a 23-kilometre ribbon of promenades that wrap around the inner harbour. Flamboyant renderings depict cable cars, a striking cable-stayed bridge, kayakers, joggers, cyclists and families enjoying a night out. “There’s all these gems along the harbourfront that we don’t know about,” says Lead 8 co-founder Simon Chua. “So how do you connect them?”
The concept is deceptively simple. Like Vancouver’s Seawall, a lively 28-kilometre corridor that runs around the city’s waterfront, the HarbourLoop would create an unbroken connection between Hong Kong’s harbourside neighbourhoods. “The relationship with the waterfront is key to Hong Kong’s origin, but that’s something that has been lost,” says HarbourLoop designer Ian Ralph. “We have almost two million people who could access HarbourLoop within a 10-minute walk,” adds Chua. “And that’s just residents,” says Ralph. There are millions more tourists looking for a place to spend time on the harbourfront.
HarbourLoop is designed like a necklace, with pearls of activities strung together by public corridors. Ralph says the corridors would need to be at least six to ten metres wide to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists and runners, as well as a certain amount of undefined space for people to linger and enjoy the view. The activity nodes would include entertainment areas, restaurants and bars, water sport facilities and more. Some of these already exist, like the promenade along the Kwun Tong waterfront, but the key difference is they would now be connected to each other. “At the moment they’re seen as destination spaces rather than a way to get around the city,” says Chua.
The loop would be completed at the far eastern end by a bridge that spans Lei Yue Mun and at the western end by a cable car running between West Kowloon and Central, although Ralph and Chua stress these could be replaced by other options like water taxis or ferries. “The whole thing is modular,” says Ralph. “We haven’t prescribed any programme.” Whatever form it takes, Ralph says HarbourLoop would have an impact on the whole urban area. If it were possible to walk and cycle around the harbour, more people might get around by foot and bicycle instead of bus, taxi or MTR. “It’s a transportation alternative,” he says.
HarbourLoop is a vision, but it already seems to have changed the conversation around the harbour. “When we first presented it there was a lot of, ‘This can’t happen,’” says Ralph. “But if you listen to the government now there’s a lot more talk of cycling and other things like this.” Nicolas Brooke says that some parts of HarbourLoop “are just not feasible,” but he praises it for promoting the idea that different parts of the harbourfront need to be connected to one another.
He is optimistic that this will eventually happen. About 50 kilometres of the harbour’s 73-kilometre shoreline are owned by the government, which means that it would be entirely feasible to open up the vast majority of it to the public. “There is a growing awareness in the community of the importance of the harbour,” he says. “I think there’s also a sense of frustration developing – why can’t we get on with it?” There’s a sense that “we have the opportunity to do something very special, he adds. It’s just a question of whether Hong Kong is able to seize that opportunity.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the surname of Lead 8’s director. His name is Chua, not Chiu. We sincerely regret the error.