Keeping Cities Green in Crowded Hong Kong

A traditional Chinese junk sails past the growing skyline of Hong Kong

Recent decades marked a landmark shift in human history—for the first time ever, more people lived in urban areas than in rural areas. There are currently 500 cities with over a million residents and Hong Kong is climbing that list every day.

Hong Kong is among the most crowded places in the world. The tiny chain of islands and peninsulas off the southeast coast of China is home to 7 million people. For comparison’s sake, that’s twice the population of Los Angeles in an area the size of San Antonio. Additionally, Hong Kong reserved an impressive 40% of its land as green-space, meaning all those people actually live in an area the size of Virginia Beach. As a result, the city has built up instead of out, with endless towers of apartment blocks stretching 60 stories or more into the sky. Now consider the city is predicting an extra 1.5 million residents over the next few decades. The Hong Kong skyline looks like the city of the future, and its urban plans are just as forward-minded.

Sandy Hinchman, who teaches Politics of Development and Global Environmental Politics, brought her students to the Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition to learn about the cities green development plans. “It’s really amazing how far ahead they are in terms of planning for the future,” Hinchman explained of Hong Kong’s initiative. Already the city has filled in areas of the harbor to build new waterfront districts and now plans to convert the old airport into a housing complex. The population growth has expanded so rapidly that, for the first time, the city is backtracking on its pledge to preserve it’s green-space. “What’s interesting from our point of view is that, right now, 40% of Hong Kong is green-space and they’re planning to add these 1.5 million anticipated new residents while only utilizing 3% of that green-space. Most of it will still be left in a pristine condition,” Hinchman explained.

The city of Hong Kong peeks through the greenery along the Dragon's Back trail in Shek O Country Park

While at the Exhibition Center, students got a glimpse of the next 30 years in Hong Kong. “They’re going to be building entirely new sections on the green-space—the latest in green housing, basically,” explained Jacob McCollum, an architecture major from William & Mary. “The building code in Hong Kong has only allowed construction where a building once stood or is currently standing. Basically no one was allowed to consume any more green-space. The population growth is expected to slow down over the next few years, so they’re taking this opportunity to get all this new housing and development done. It provides a really stark contrast to the United States. The government of Hong Kong is taking charge—they actually sit down and plan out entire city blocks, whereas in the United States everything is pretty much privately owned and there’s still a lot of outward expansion.”

McCollum had never left the country before SAS (in fact, he’d never even been on an airplane), but seeing the world—and seeing Hong Kong—has added to his growing global mindset. “The whole voyage is just full of stuff that I haven’t seen,” he explained. “When I would take architecture workshops back home, ideas would come to me every now and then, but I find inspiration a lot easier to come by now that I’ve see all this and now that I’ve experienced it firsthand. Suddenly all these different styles come flooding into my head whenever I try to think of a design for something.” McCollum isn’t taking any architecture classes this semester, but that hasn’t been an obstacle to his education. “Traveling the world, I’ve been able to learn just as much about architecture on my own as I feel like I would in any course back home.”

Click here to learn more about the Hong Kong Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition.

Click here to read Dr. Sandy Hinchman’s bio.

Towering apartment blocks dwarf the Chi Lin Nunnery in Diamond Hill, Hong Kong

This post was originally published on the Institute for Shipboard Education blog.

About International W&M

The Reves Center for International Studies promotes, develops, and supports the global dimensions of learning, teaching, research, and community engagement at the College of William & Mary
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