More than 200 “urban thinkers” gathered at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s architecture school on Saturday to discuss Hong Kong’s urban future, with an aim to contribute to the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) in 2016.

urban thinkers group cuhk
Hong Kong Urban Thinkers Campus participants pictured on Saturday morning in the Chinese University School of Architecture. Photo: Urban Thinkers Campus.

Urban Thinkers Campus is a series of symposiums conceived by UN-Habitat to serve as a platform for discussion on the future of the world’s rapidly growing cities. Based on global dialogue and consensus, the organisers hope to identify new principles for sustainable urban growth.

Hong Kong’s Urban Thinkers Campus event, hosted by the Chinese University Faculty of Social Science, brought together a spectrum of participants including fresh urban studies and urban design students, a UN youth group, town planning professionals, and representatives of civil society groups including Designing Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Public Space Initiative, the Business Environment Council, women’s organisations, the Hong Kong Green Building Council, and Make a Difference (MaD).

urban thinkers
Co-organisers Hendrik Tieben and Mee Kam Ng of Chinese University and Designing Hong Kong CEO and district councillor Paul Zimmerman. Photo: Urban Thinkers.

This diverse crowd came together to address the question: “Who has a right to Asia’s World City?” Professor Mee Kam Ng, who co-organised the event with CUHK colleague Hendrik Tieben and Southern District councillor Paul Zimmerman, explained that the theme was chosen based on the idea that those who inhabit urban space should be empowered to shape it. While Hong Kong’s urban form is treated as a commodity by the property development conglomerates, Ng asserted that human relationships must be considered the true value of the city.

Attendees split into groups that examined five distinctly Hong Kong themes: world city vs. great city, mainland integration, public space in a dense city, speculative vs. affordable housing, and land hegemony. In each session participants were invited to suggest recommendations for improvement.

brainstorming cuhk
Brainstorming session. Photo: Urban Thinkers Campus.

Participants of the “World city vs. great city” session lamented modern town planning in Hong Kong, criticising wildly expensive rents, the dated system of excessive zoning and singular land use, rising reliance on the automobile, declining opportunities for grassroots citizens, and lack of meaningful public participation in shaping the city. They agreed that a “great city” is mixed-use, diverse, walkable, and offers citizens and community groups genuine participation in civic affairs.

“Public space in a dense city” explored public space with regard to social inclusion, youth, placemaking, local identity, and Hong Kong’s extreme population density. The participants felt that the city’s public space unduly restricts the range of activities that can take place there, limiting local participation and expression.

“Mainland integration” participants stressed the importance of celebrating Hong Kong’s distinct identity and way of life. Photo: Urban Thinkers Campus.

At the end of the day everybody reconvened to present their findings. The organisers are now compiling the results to present at Habitat III next year, and are planning to hold more such conferences in hopes that the Urban Thinkers event can unite the numerous community voices calling for sustainable, vibrant, and socially inclusive urban change.

Ben MacLeod is an urban designer in Hong Kong.