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"Achieving the Right Balance" - a Speech by Mr Barry C Cheung, Chairman of Urban Renewal Authority, at Rotary Club of Hong Kong (English only)

Part 1:  Urban Decay: A Fact in Hong Kong

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share with you URA's challenges and its vision for a better Hong Kong.

I will start by talking about, urban decay and the dreadful living conditions it creates, followed by an explanation of the URA's mission and the way we balance our duty to our clients and our responsibility to the wider community.

When most people think of Hong Kong, they see a metropolis that's sophisticated, glossy and modern. Fortunately, that is the reality of Hong Kong for most of our people. But there is a much darker side.

We suffer badly from urban decay. Hong Kong has approximately 110,000 citizens living in dangerous and dilapidated slum housing. These buildings are not maintained or repaired, are often unsafe, usually filthy and yet are the only homes many thousands of our families can find.

Let me take you to visit Mr Tong. His 'home' is literally a space below the ceiling, to which he has to climb by a ladder.  And his 'home' is barely a mile or so from The Landmark in Central. It's in Staunton Street, in the heart of the now-thriving SoHo area.

And conditions are no better on the other side of the harbour. In Kwun Tong, for example.

Kwun Tong

Let's look more closely at Kwun Tong which is a key part of the URA vision.

The URA will transform the lives as well as the environment of this district.

We have taken on the responsibility for redeveloping 24 buildings that were erected in the 1960s but are now worn out, no longer fit for human habitation.

For example, in one building, the air-well floods every time it rains.

There is also no management committee, and so there is no maintenance of the building, no repairs, no hope for improvement unless the URA intervenes.

Not everyone finds these conditions unbearable. Illegal activities - the sex industry - operate openly in the building.

Prostitutes work openly in the same corridors where low-income families struggle to bring up their children.

It is easy to say that the tenants should do something to improve things. In fact, they are mostly helpless. But where opportunities exist to brighten up their lives, they can surprise us.  In this building, we find a group of elderly men who live in so-called cages. Look at the garden they have created on the rooftop.

Many of them have lived here for years.  They try to take care of themselves in spite of the dreadful conditions.  Mr Chu is a typical example. To add to his daily discomforts, there is no lift in this building, so he has to struggle to climb up and down the stairs to his home on the sixth floor.

Sham Shui Po

Let's now move across to Sham Shui Po.

In Yee Kuk Street there are 17 buildings that need to be redeveloped because they are decaying rapidly.

Here, the URA will provide new homes for 308 households. Among those who will escape from the cramped and unsanitary conditions will be Mr Li Kwong.

Tai Kok Tsui

In Fuk Tsun Street in Tai Kok Tsui, the wear and tear is also obvious.

And here is Mr Leung, trying to deal with the problems in his home which the decay and degradation lead to.

This sort of building needs urgent attention…for reasons that go beyond severe structural decay.

Here's another example. These two Larch Street residents, in Tai Kok Tsui, are examples of Hong Kong's displaced and dispossessed people.

Their hope is to have a life that will offer them some dignity and stability, as well as accommodation that can really be called a home.

We've seen enough examples to show how urban decay is a serious threat to the well being of many thousands of unfortunate families and individuals. But that is only part of the challenge for the URA. The slums in which they live are also part of Hong Kong's historical heritage. They include some of our oldest buildings which are often important links with our past. The dilemma for the URA is: "How do we meet our obligations to improve the quality of life for the deprived and disadvantaged in our community while preserving precious elements of our heritage at the same time?"

The solution seems easy in theory: find a balance between past and present.  But, in practice, the conflicts are not so easily managed. For the families that live in Hong Kong's slums, the goal must be a speedy end to their unpleasant and unhealthy living conditions. But for supporters of heritage measures, preservation of as much of the past as possible is the key priority.


Part 2:  URA's Mission: Tackle Urban Decay

Which brings me to the URA's mission and our sometimes-misunderstood role.

The Hong Kong government set up the URA in May 2001. Our mission is, very simply, to tackle the problem of urban decay that is so widespread despite Hong Kong's prosperity and despite our status as one of the world's most modern and efficient cities.

But the URA cannot adopt solutions which disregard amenities which are vital to the well being of the community as a whole. So the Government has drawn up an Urban Renewal Strategy.  This lays down strict guidelines on our obligations to the wider community on such issues, as heritage preservation and community retention. As we can see from Paragraph 16 of our Urban Renewal Strategy on this slide.

The URA's critics, in terms of heritage preservation and other issues, are important to us. They are a constant reminder of the URA's continuing challenge to find the proper balance between ending the slums that remain a disgrace to this wonderful city and our responsibility to preserve vital historical links with the past.


The URA is able to engage its critics with considerable confidence on heritage issues because of our long-standing commitment to preservation of Hong Kong's past.  The URA has done more to preserve our buildings heritage than anyone else in Hong Kong. And we undertook this task long before the concept of preservation became fashionable. We'll see examples of this later.

In the meantime, the URA remains committed to constant dialogue. We are the voice - sometimes the only voice - for the 100,000 men, women and children who live in totally unacceptable conditions. Yet, we are also aware of the need to protect the past for future generations.

The URA can only succeed, of course, through consensus. We need the cooperation of owners and tenants for rehabilitation and redevelopment of decayed buildings. We also need the understanding of the public at large, of the interest groups and the political parties to take our projects forward. So, we need to find solutions that the community recognizes are fair and sensible - and which guarantee decent homes for some of Hong Kong's most vulnerable people.

Within the URA, we have adopted a 4Rs approach to implement the Urban Renewal Strategy.

So far, URA has completed 34 redevelopment projects, providing 18,000 people with safe, modern homes.

And here are just a couple more examples of residents who have moved in to better premises and living conditions.

Since October 2003, we have assisted owners of some 33,000 residential units in over 400 old but not hopelessly dilapidated buildings to repair, improve and generally rehabilitate the premises.

We have also implemented initiatives to revitalize neighbourhoods bringing new life to rundown areas in Sheung Wan, Mong Kok, Tai Kok Tsui and Tsuen Wan.

One of the URA's most important heritage achievements is the preservation of 28 pre-war buildings and Cantonese-style verandah houses. Buildings of this type are very precious because they are all that remain of the architecture in which the story of our modern, sophisticated society began. No other organization has made such a commitment to saving these buildings as the URA.


Part 3:  Balancing quality of life and preservation of heritage with economic progress: URA projects

Let's now move on to the need to balance quality of life with the need for heritage preservation.

I would like to explain our approach by showing you a few of our projects.

Johnston Road, Wan Chai

This is our Johnston Road project before redevelopment. These buildings are part of Hong Kong's diminishing stock of unique pre-war Cantonese-style verandah houses. There is a pawnshop in this neighbourhood that is the oldest in Hong Kong. So we felt it was important to save this part of Wan Chai's heritage.

The people you see in these photos no longer live in these conditions.  They have been re-housed to a modern, safe and healthy environment.

And this pReservation outcome is one that all of us can be proud of. We believe we have been successful here in meeting all competing needs -- the need to alleviate the misery of people living in abject conditions, the need to preserve our heritage and, just as importantly, the need to balance the books. Not to make a profit nor to maximize funds - that has never been URA's objective. We just need sufficient funds from our projects to be able to compensate the owners and tenants of these buildings. As you can understand from the slides we have already seen, these are people who desperately need this money.

Number 18 Ship Street is a four-storey shop house built in the 1930s. We wanted to preserve it for its distinct architectural features, including its unusual wrought iron balconies and French windows.

Today, the shop-house looks like this.

Mallory Street

Here's another example of a URA preservation and revitalisation initiative: Mallory Street in Wan Chai. These tenements were built in the 1920s, and the photo is evocative of another age.  In terms of living standards, however, few of us would like to return to conditions of almost a century ago. And the residents of Mallory Street are no different. They want a 21st century standard of living.

So our plan for this project is to combine the old with the new…

… and create a centre for cultural and artistic activities.  This is the outside view.

We will open up the back area and use design features and materials to create a space for the community to enjoy.

And there will be lots of natural light and trees.  The objective is to create a relaxed oasis in the heart of bustling Wan Chai.

Nga Tsin Wai Village

Another attempt to find a balance between quality of life and heritage preservation can be found in Nga Tsin Wai village.
 
This is a village that goes back 600 years and has managed to survive in the middle of a city where every other site seems to be redeveloped every three or four decades. The village is the venue for the Da Chiu Festival and is important to the history and heritage of the area.

However, the fact is that most of the original village buildings have disappeared. The few houses that survive are badly dilapidated. All the 60 households who still live in the village want to move out.   And on closer inspection, we can see that they have every reason to want something better.

Although we cannot preserve the village in its current state, we are committed to preserving the remaining authentic elements as far as practicable. And we will make sure that three important features in particular are safeguarded for future generations: the original gatehouse, the embedded stone tablet and the Tin Hau Temple.

If you look at where this arrow is pointing and then the photo itself, you will see a pathway. This marks the Central Axis of the village, which is traditionally an important feature. The Axis will be retained as the core of a Conservation Park.  And the original village houses along the Central Axis will be preserved, with the Tin Hau Temple at the far end of the village.

And this is what the Conservation Park will look like. It will be an oasis for the whole community. It will also be a celebration of the village, its people and its cultural legacy.

Let me pause here to sum up the vision that the URA has developed.


Part 4:  Community's Needs and Aspirations

The URA shares the aspirations of our community for Hong Kong's future.  We all agree that the quality of life of the community depends on our ability to achieve sustainable development, to eliminate pollution, to protect the environment and to create a legacy for our children and grandchildren by preserving our physical as well as our cultural heritage.

These are aspirations which are very important to me personally.  But I am also deeply aware of the no less valid claims of the thousands of families whose lives are blighted by slum housing and who deserve better.

Ours is a very mature and sensible community, but also a very demanding one. It expects public bodies like the URA to achieve very high standards of policy and performance - standards that meet aspirations important to everyone's sense of well being.

Our society is highly protective of the vulnerable and less fortunate members of the community. The public would never forgive the URA if we did not make the plight of victims of urban decay our first priority.

At the same time, the public takes it for granted that the URA can win the community's trust so that consensus can end controversy.  The URA is determined to earn that trust by demonstrating that thanks to our commitment to rehabilitation and revitalisation, slum clearance in Hong Kong is making a major contribution to protecting our historical heritage.

I hope I've demonstrated that the URA's work goes beyond managing buildings and structures. We are dealing on a daily basis with people - their families, homes and livelihoods. These topics are very emotive. And equally emotive is the topic of preservation of heritage and culture.

Let's now look at a current controversy: Peel Street and Graham Street

Graham Street and Peel Street

This is the market in Peel Street and Graham Street. It's one of the oldest street markets in Hong Kong, whose survival has aroused considerable public interest. The URA also supports the survival of the market, and so we have been listening carefully to the views of residents, market users, our critics and the wider public.

The contribution that this vibrant market makes to the community in Central is not in question.

But like all our other projects, we cannot close our eyes to the squalor caused by urban decay in this area. We also have to recognise economic realities - which is the need for sufficient funds to compensate owners and tenants. And in this case, these funds have to come from re-development rather than other options.

This area suffers from problems so serious that doing nothing is not an option. Let me show you why it is impossible to allow present conditions to continue unchanged.

The stalls operate in conditions that can cause a health hazard.

Many of the stalls use illegal and dangerous electrical cables. These are potential deathtraps.

And the market creates serious difficulties for the daily lives of residents.  For example, market activities prevent them from having normal access to their own homes.

The case for re-development, rather than, say, rehabilitation, is very clear.

But we are of course sensitive to the historic and cultural heritage of Peel Street and Graham Street.  That is why a "preservation paramount" approach has been adopted for this re-development project.

For example, Hong Kong's first "Old Shop Street" will be created in Graham Street, bringing back household names that were previously driven away by gentrification. The street market will be further revitalized in tandem with the re-development.  It will be preserved in a way that is hygienic and safe for stall operators and market users.  We also want market life to continue safely and enjoyably during the re-development process.

And this was Graham Street in the early 1930s. By recreating "Old Shop Street", we want people in Central and visitors from Hong Kong and abroad, to have a taste of Hong Kong's past.  The restoration project will be tasteful and honest.

We will also fully restore 3 shop houses to their former glory.

Wedding Card Street

Let's now turn to Wedding Card Street.

In December, we announced an initiative to create a Wedding City in our Lee Tung Street project. All wedding card shops formerly operating in Lee Tung Street will be given priority to return to operate their businesses in the Wedding City.  We also plan to launch a social enterprise pilot scheme that would help preserve and strengthen social networks in the district. In the same area, we plan to preserve the core elements of Wan Chai Market building -- including the entire exterior and façade, the main interior structural elements, and a good portion of the original floors.

Mongkok: Sai Yee Street

Last but not least, in Mong Kok, as part of the redevelopment of Sai Yee Street and two adjoining streets, we are planning a Sports Retail City, which is designed to enhance the unique local character of sports retail trade in the area.  It will feature Hong Kong's first ever Sports Hall of Fame for which Lee Lai-shan, Hong Kong's only Olympic gold medalist, has expressed enthusiasm.    Street-level shops that face the outside will encourage pedestrian flow and a vibrant street life. Indeed, this project marks a departure from previous designs - those designs tended to focus on an indoor mall, with no street-level shops facing the outside.

This sort of streetscape, with its sports theme, will also link the retail city with the nearby Macpherson Playground and the proposed Macpherson Indoor Stadium, and help form a Sports Activity Zone.

Conclusion

Let me finish here by saying that we know the task ahead will continue to be daunting.  But I hope I've demonstrated to you that the URA is open and sympathetic to all the individuals and groups who are affected - indirectly as well as directly - by our projects. I hope that I have convinced you that we have developed the new thinking that reflects our people's rising expectations and their increasingly sophisticated aspirations. We recognise the need for change, and we know how to bring that about through policies and project management that are efficient, cost-effective and, above all, sensitive to two values which are of special importance to our community: concern for people and respect for our environment - both historical and contemporary.

I hope, too that I have shown the URA's respect for another feature of our Hong Kong culture: public debate. We will continue to respond to our critics and to seek support through open-minded dialogue. We will try our utmost to ensure that our balanced approach works for the community and the people who are directly involved - as well as Hong Kong as a whole.

Thank you.