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Speech by URA Chairman, Mr Barry Cheung, at the 55th Anniversary Conference 2011 of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects

"Architecture and Megalopolises"

Sub-theme: "Humanism as the connector of urbanism in the Megalopolis"

Robert, Ronald, Donald, Professor Lung, ladies and gentlemen,

First of all, thank you very much indeed for inviting me to join this panel discussion on Architecture and Megalopolises.

As urban sprawl advances and megalopolises take shape across all continents, the challenge for architects, city planners and local communities to work well together, must seem daunting. Taken positively, however, I'd say the enormous task at hand could be inspiring and galvanising.

The opportunity to shape or re-shape our built environment on a massive scale brings with it huge responsibility. And, if done well, great satisfaction follows.

But doing it well, to my mind, means having a megalopolis that is not just large in size or littered with landmarks, but one that the community is truly proud of.

In the case of Hong Kong, unprecedented growth over the past few decades has brought about several urban issues that I believe we are all familiar with.

And the Urban Renewal Authority now has to deal with various challenges, such as improving the living conditions of those living in dilapidated buildings, and preserving and revitalising those buildings or built environments that have architectural and cultural value.

In short, the URA is engaged in helping to re-shape parts of this emerging megalopolis.

Allow me therefore to share a small part of the URA story with you, because there are also a few lessons here for other emerging megalopolises.

According to our latest study, there are around 4,000 buildings in Hong Kong that are over 50 years, and more than 2,600 blocks of them are below standard.

The number of old buildings will grow by four times to 16,400 in 20 years if Hong Kong does not act decisively. Without urgent intervention, grosser forms of urban decay will continue to shock and startle, and living conditions will become even more appalling.

It is a fact that our old buildings are poorly maintained and, in many instances, dangerous. For example, an old tenement block in Kowloon collapsed last year and killed four people. And in June this year another tragedy happened at a nearby block, which killed another four people. That is simply unacceptable for a city like Hong Kong.

In the search for increased rental yields from old buildings, owners have been known to sub-divide their flats into smaller units. These cubicles are now known as 'coffin homes', a term coined recently by a local magazine when it featured this latest abuse of slum dwellers as a cover story.

Our estimate is that around 110,000 families live in dire conditions. And it is this large number that has galvanized the URA into urgent action, especially in reducing the number of substandard buildings. We have directly helped 34,000 families to improve their living conditions through our 54 redevelopment projects, and more than 80,000 families through our rehabilitation schemes.

But more needs to be done. And we need to further involve the local community and come to a consensus on the way forward.

You may be aware the Hong Kong government held a two-year community engagement process, from 2008 to 2010, and consulted the public on how they would like the problem of urban decay to be tackled. A new Urban Renewal Strategy, published in February this year, was the result.

The government's new Urban Renewal Strategy in fact calls for a 'People first, district-based and participatory approach'. Community involvement and engagement is clearly the intention. I would like to briefly share with you how the URA has adopted this approach.

Case Study: Kai Tak FFF blocks and flats

According to the new Urban Renewal Strategy, the URA will have to build five blocks of buildings to provide one thousand units as replacement flats for owners affected by our redevelopment projects.

We also understand from owners, who are mostly elderly, that they prefer modestly designed units with good quality.

In order to obtain the views of professionals such as architects, and those of the community, we worked with HKIA and staged a professional workshop in June this year.

The discussions were very fruitful. We obtained very useful guidelines from the architects. We then turned these guidelines into a questionnaire and conducted an opinion survey. More than 1,000 residents in old urban areas were interviewed.

The bottom-line of this process is that the views of the professionals and residents have now become key elements in the design of this flat-for-flat project.

This participatory approach by professionals and the community has also been adopted for our Central Market project.

Central Oasis

In October 2009, the Chief Executive tasked the URA with its largest and most ambitious revitalization project - to turn the Central Market building into a "Central Oasis" for green, recreation and leisure use.

Our first initiative was to establish a Central Oasis Community Advisory Committee ("COCAC") to help drive the engagement, revitalisation and business-model planning process.

Set up under the leadership of Professor David Lung, the Committee comprises members from the local district council,  preservation architects, a curator and other professionals and members of NGOs.

As you can see, the URA is keen to adopt the "best practice" approach for this project, a point that my co-speaker Professor Lung has been making.

And, as with all of our projects, we have been engaging the community in seeking a solution. We have made use of territory-wide opinion polls, and professional and public forums of various sorts.  This process has allowed us to understand the social aspirations for the site, and we have incorporated those aspirations into our planning and design.

We conducted an extensive structural survey to understand the constraints posed by the materials of the building. And we referred to a study by the Chinese University of Hong Kong regarding the preservation of key architectural elements.

We also staged an international conference to learn from overseas experience in renovating historical architecture built with reinforced concrete

After having duly considered the above factors, we invited architects to draw up four conceptual designs. These were presented to the public via a roving exhibition, and the public's view with regard to the designs has been sought.

Conclusion

If Hong Kong were to evolve into a megalopolis, and I don't see any reason why that could not happen, our immediate first steps must be to arrest the urban decay that has set in over the years.

Today, more so than in the past, the Hong Kong community cares about its built environment, its unique architectures, and its culture and heritage.

Having a megalopolis that is not just large in size or littered with landmarks, but one that the community is truly proud of should be our goal, and all of us, especially the professionals and the community, must therefore be actively engaged in the process of re-shaping, and building with responsibility and pride.

Only then can we have a city that all of us can be proud of.

(ENDS)