The Lantau Development Advisory Committee (LanDAC) has proposed the large-scale development of Lantau to house up to one million residents, a drastic increase from the island’s current population of approximately 100,000. The committee has conducted a public engagement exercise that ended April 30.

Sherry R. Arnstein, writing in the Journal of the American Institute of Planners in 1969, conceptualised a “Ladder of Citizen Participation” as a means to rank different levels of public involvement in the planning process.

Sherry Macleod Ladder

Arnstein’s ladder has eight rungs. The bottom rungs describe efforts to sway public opinion through the illusion of citizen participation – “manipulation”. The topmost steps of the ladder describe levels of genuine citizen empowerment.

Where does the LanDAC public engagement rank? A basic prerequisite for public evaluation of LanDAC’s proposal is the dissemination of clear, accurate information. A 20-page booklet distributed by the committee is the most prominent face of their plan. This document is riddled with the hallmarks of Arnstein’s bottommost “manipulation” rung, ranging from marketing fluff to misleading nonsense. For instance:

A tenet of the LanDAC proposal is supposedly “conservation” – a strange way of putting it, considering that Lantau today aligns much better with the conventional definition of conservation than LanDAC’s proposed large-scale development of the island. Anyway: pictured here is page 11 of the booklet, which extols the committee’s plan to conserve “distinctive landscapes” – including the Hong Kong International Airport, Ngong Ping 360, and the new bridge to Macao.

Hong Kong International Airport
Conserved! Photo: Wikicommons.

The preservation of Cheung Sha, home to Hong Kong’s longest beach, sounds like an admirable goal – were it not for the fact that, buried on page 16, LanDAC proposes the development of spas, resort hotels, and a “wedding centre” there.  This entails large-scale commercial development, entirely incompatible with the banner of “landscape conservation”.

Cheung Sha Beach
“Landscape conservation.” Photo: Wikicommons.

This sort of document should, at the very least, include a map showing the different proposals in detail. But this cartoon is the most we’re given:

lantau island map

There is no sign of the aforementioned commercial development at Cheung Sha. Meanwhile the “East Lantau Metropolis”, LanDAC’s radical plan for a new town on artificial islands connecting Kennedy Town to Mui Wo, has been reduced to a series of innocuous little hexagons. Everything else is washed in a reassuring green – even the airport tarmac! For a more accurate illustration of the impact of one million residents on the landscape, you might look at a satellite image of Sha Tin, Ma On Shan, and Tai Po combined.

Many of the “cultural and heritage” suggestions on page 16, like campsites and trails at Fan Lau, already exist today.

Public engagement must begin with literature that is clear, detailed, and honest. Please, LanDAC: ditch the fancy PR and give it to us straight. Otherwise this exercise is nothing more than manipulation.

hk island
Aerial view of HK Island. Photo: Wikicommons.

Hong Kong is an internationally-unique urban model based on the tripartite tenets of super-high density, transit-oriented development, and limited urban extent. The Hong Kong model may well represent the best template for sustainable 21st century urban growth.

Most other global cities have been unable to achieve a lasting balance among competing land uses. Hong Kong residents enjoy access to unspoiled natural landscapes with an ease that residents of sprawling London, New York City, or Tokyo could never imagine.

Hong Kong’s limited urban extent should thus be viewed as an essential element of the city’s competitiveness on the world stage. The East Lantau Metropolis represents unnecessary urban sprawl that seriously undermines this strength.

tuen wan
Photo: Wikicommons.

LanDAC was always a foregone conclusion. The committee is mandated to advise the government on the development potential of Lantau – a large island with obvious development potential. It was inevitable that a body with such a narrow purview would propose such a dramatic level of urbanisation, especially as several members of LanDAC hold vested interests on the island and stand to profit from its opening-up.

macau zuhai bridge
Bridge to nowhere? File photo: HKFP.

We do need more space for living and working. But we must view the land supply question holistically, at the territory-wide level. The East Lantau Metropolis, the most ambitious of LanDAC’s proposals, is unnecessary. As noted by others, Hong Kong’s population is projected to peak in about 25 years and then decline, and housing targets are being met through other means. There are alternatives to the plundering of Lantau that are more environmentally responsible, more easily-phased, and less reliant on wildly expensive white elephant infrastructure projects.

ben mcleod

Ben MacLeod

Ben MacLeod is an urban designer in Hong Kong.