Transformative urbanism and reproblematising land scarcity in Hong Kong

Blog by Mee Kam Ng

6 Dec 2018, 10:19 a.m.
Mee Kam Ng



The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) has recently ‘recycled’ a massive reclamation plan rejected by the British colonial government in the 1980s, and announced its ‘Tomorrow Lantau Vision’ of constructing 1,700 hectares of artificial islands in the sea off Lantau Island. The Hong Kong SAR government argues that there is no alternative for accommodating urban growth due to the severe land shortage, a key factor contributing to the city’s astronomical property prices. However, a review of the land distribution shows that only 24% of the 1,111 km2 of land has been developed and 46% of land is protected as country parks and conservation areas, leaving about 30% of land potentially available for development. Why does the government prefer spending multi-billion dollars on reclaiming artificial islands rather than developing existing land resources?

The Hong Kong SAR government seems to be continuing the British colonial government’s practice of avoiding development of the majority of the land owned by the indigenous villagers in the leased ‘New Territories’ (NT). Hong Kong’s development has always been concentrated in the urban areas (Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and on land reclaimed from the sea around the NT for new towns). Redevelopment of rural land in the NT has been very limited. As over 90% of the city’s population is crammed into the 24% built-up areas, people in general believe that the land shortage is real. In fact, the perceived land scarcity has sustained high land and property prices, making the running of the bureaucracy a much easier job as about 20-30% of the city’s revenue has always come from land sales and property-related development. Massive land reclamation for artificial islands off Lantau will automatically ensure the government’s control of land release, yielding a steady revenue stream in the coming decades. This mega-project is also tailor-made for the interests of the largest property-related companies which also control the 1200-member Chief Executive Election Committee as well as the non-democratically constituted Legislative Council.

The lack of concern for the possible destruction of the marine environment and the potential for destroying other ecosystems from the sourcing of reclamation materials to carry out the project is consistent with the city’s failing record to develop an environmental management strategy to reduce impacts and increase resource efficiency. The emphasis on densification and creation of urban land through reclamation has also led to escalating socio-economic polarisation, making Hong Kong’s Gini-coefficient (0.54 in 2016) one of the highest in the developed world. On the land shortage issue, the government’s high land price policy, a property-dominant urban-biased political economy as well as a systematic neglect of valuable and massive rural land resources, have created the illusion of land scarcity in Hong Kong. The paper argues for reproblematising the land supply problem: with massive land resources in the New Territories, the city can experiment with restoring the ecologically damaged brownfield sites, with enhancing existing ecological systems and providing experimental grounds for the creation of urban agriculture, new jobs and places for community building and for people’s multifaceted well-being. Can Hong Kong society re-perceive such an opportunity and develop a political will for a transformative urbanism?


Read the paper on Urban Studies - OnlineFirst here



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