Hong Kong
Tamar Park, Admiralty

How to improve Hong Kong’s harbourfront

Did it take a botched Cantopop concert to finally improve Hong Kong’s harbourfront?

In May, Cantonese pop music star Leon Lai was forced to cancel a show in the Central Harbourfront Event Space because the enclosed stage he had built did not meet fire regulations. The concert went ahead the next day, with a modified design that allowed passersby to watch the show just as well as those who had paid for it. Throngs of fans filled the parks and promenades around the venue, picnicking on the grass while enjoying the performance. 

Soon after, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Development, Paul Chan, marvelled at the evening on his blog. “When I passed by Central Harbourfront on one of those nights and saw the public each enjoying the music and the dazzling view across Victoria Harbour, I was deeply moved,” he wrote. 

Improving the harbourfront

There’s a lot of work to be done if scenes like that are to become more commonplace. More than 60 percent of Hong Kong’s harbourfront is not accessible to the public. There are few places where you can walk, bicycle, picnic or enjoy a glass of wine next to Victoria Harbour. 

How can we fix the situation? The government has proposed new public areas for the harbourfront between Wan Chai and North Point, including swimming pools, floating restaurants and a cycle track. A local design firm has unveiled plans for HarbourLoop, an ambitious proposal to build 23 kilometres of interconnected public spaces around the entirety of the harbour. Meanwhile, others are lobbying to create a Harbourfront Authority that would oversee and manage these kinds of projects. 

Legal challenges

Any future plans must take into account the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, a 1996 law that strictly limits any new land reclamation in the harbour. It saved the harbour from being almost completely filled in, but it has also made the government hesitant even to build new piers or marinas, which would require small amounts of reclamation.

Inspiration from abroad – and at home

Hong Kong has plenty of models to follow. Vancouver turned its downtown waterfront into a 28-kilometre necklace of parks, beaches and promenades. Singapore used a mix of public and private development to create buzzing areas like Clarke Quay, where old shophouses are now home to riverside bars and restaurants. London transformed Southbank from a dreary collection of unfriendly buildings into one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in the city.

Landmark Place, London

South Bank Place in London overlooks River Thames

There are plenty of examples of good waterfronts right here at home. Cheung Chau’s typhoon shelter is lined by seafood restaurants, markets and cafés, making it a popular weekend destination for people from across the city. Small-scale buildings line the waterfront, giving it an intimate feel.

Stanley is similar, though more upscale. Every Sunday, cars are banned from the South Side town’s waterfront, inviting pedestrians to wander and enjoy the view. The waterfront is bookended on one side by Stanley Plaza, an outdoor shopping mall with a busy plaza that often plays hosts to markets and events, and on the other by a natural rock outcropping where people gather to watch the sunset. In between is a European-style strip of sidewalk cafés and small buildings. It’s a lesson in how to balance private development with good public space in order to create a well-rounded waterfront experience.

There’s even a good example right on Victoria Harbour: Tamar Park, which offers the unique — for Hong Kong — experience of sitting on a grassy lawn while watching the water. Not coincidentally, that’s also where Leon Lai held his concert.

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