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Why Quality Matters

Published in the SCMP on the 15th of December 2004:

URBAN PLANNING Christian Masset

Why quality matters

At last month’s Apec meeting in Chile, President Hu Jintao emphasised that Hong Kong’s government “should give priority to the development of the city to ensure that its citizens enjoy concrete benefits … improving the livelihood of the Hong Kong people”.

This declaration leaves us wondering about the meaning of “development”, since Hong Kong already has Asia’s second-highest gross domestic product per capita, after Japan. Does “development” mean the need to build infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, container terminals and housing? Or is it about meeting a specific need and ensuring its viability in the long term, something which I will call “quality development”?

Hong Kong’s situation can be viewed as a paradox; we are in the position of having world-class infrastructure, yet, during the past two years, we have adopted several poorly justified and widely contested projects which threaten our quality of life and competitiveness. These include the Central-Wan Chai reclamation; the mega hotel in Wan Chai, masking nearby hills; the West Kowloon cultural hub; and the Zhuhai bridge.

All these projects reflect the poor quality planning behind them. They translate into aggravated air and noise pollution, a reduction of the natural footprint of this remarkable area, and high financial costs to the people and the government of Hong Kong. Now is the time for Hong Kong to adopt a new intention – to accept only “quality development”. Clear The Air proposes that this should rest on three basic approaches.

First, abandon the cheap, shortsighted and non-transparent processes. This means opting for the challenging, creative and long-lasting – a worthy prospect for a world city. Applications of this thinking range from energy-efficient architecture to the adoption of rail and other low- or nonpolluting modes of urban transport, and the design of pedestrian-friendly urban areas – while at the same time preserving the existing natural surroundings.

Second, Hong Kong must reflect on issues such as: how to drastically reduce domestic waste by recycling all goods and packaging; and how to develop and implement innovative services and methodologies in education and training.

Third, a focus on “quality development” would make Hong Kong a world-class laboratory of “innovative urbanism”, resulting in cash-rich opportunities for enlightened entrepreneurs.

Hong Kong is never short of ideas; we must let them blossom. Good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy. Archaic thinking, seen in the calls for more infrastructure projects to provide work for engineers, suggests that a viable and fair development policy is badly needed.

The tendency of developers to label environmental groups “antibusiness” reflects the paradox of these times; poorly devised processes and natural destruction of the environment are themselves anti-business, since they result in the depletion of two of our most valuable assets – land and the natural environment. Without these, there is no chance to demonstrate quality of life, which, if it is good, will attract quality people.

If Hong Kong is serious in its claim to be a knowledge-based society, we ought to look to other places – such as California or Japan, for example – with well-protected natural resources. They attract highend businesses, quality research, and are vibrant places that foster development.

To set a new course, let us walk away from a pollution-based mentality which offers an illusion of a prosperous economy. Hong Kong needs economic growth based on “quality development”. Only then will President Hu’s wish materialise and benefit the Pearl River Delta and the people of Hong Kong.

Christian Masset is chairman of Hong Kong-based green group Clear the Air

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