Implications of the GBA on Hong Kong’s 2030+ city strategy

Benchmarking China’s Greater Bay Area with San Francisco’s

I was honoured to be speaking at the RICS Hong Kong Annual Conference 2018 on the subject “What implications does the Greater Bay Area What implications does the Greater Bay Area have on Hong Kong 2030+: A Smart, Green and Resilient City Strategy”

China’s plans for the “Greater Bay Area” (GBA) are, as always when it comes to the mainland, long-term and ambitious. The GBA project is a national government strategy, and its goal of connecting Hong Kong, Macau and the nine cities of Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta to create an integrated economic powerhouse will no doubt offer immense opportunities and drive technological innovation and high-quality growth.

With an economic heft comparable to the San Francisco Bay Area (SFBA), some may wonder how the GBA project will impact on the Hong Kong government’s vision of ‘Hong Kong 2030+’ – a plan to make Hong Kong a more liveable, competitive and sustainable metropolis. The plan charts a path for improving quality of life in one of the world’s most densely populated cities due to shifts in demographics and economic trends. It’s clear that with the driving political will to implement the GBA, the Hong Kong 2030+ vision needs to encompass GBA in its scope.

Around the world, bay areas host some of the world’s most concentrated settlements and by virtue of their geography, are naturally configured to drive commerce through ports and trade. They are also environmentally sensitive and function as a co-dependent eco system that needs to be co-operatively monitored, managed and planned around.

It is interesting to compare Hong Kong and the GBA with the SFBA. The American region is of course known as a leading innovation and hi-tech centre with a vibrant and diverse economy which is home to Silicon Valley and the second highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the United States. Likewise, Hong Kong is a global financial hub. Their geographies are also similar: both are part of the Pacific Rim region; they contain river deltas complete with major ports; and they are famous for their eye-catching bridges.

I believe that the GBA offers Hong Kong tremendous opportunities for similar tech-based, high-quality growth that could very well mirror SFBA’s development pathway. We should look to how the SFBA has brought the kinds of infrastructure initiatives, projects and progress that Hong Kong could adopt to bring its HK2030+ plan to life.

So, how exactly has the SFBA become more liveable, competitive and sustainable in recent years?

Air Quality

The SFBA has some of the most challenged air quality in the United States, but numbers have gradually improved over the last few years thanks to strong state and local clean air programs. In China, air quality frequently makes the headlines, which is why the GBA needs increasing regional cooperation, including providing companies incentives to take-up cleaner technologies and, importantly, harmonizing environmental standards, to address this critical issue. While each city may have its own policies, air doesn’t keep to city boundaries so tackling the issue on a regional-level and deepening cooperation are vital. If there is no control over air quality, all cities suffer as they share the same airshed.

Water Quality

Since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 significant progress toward healthy waterways has occurred across the country including SFBA. Governed by the California Water Board, the vast majority of drinking water meets water quality standards. In China, Guangdong water authorities via Dongjiang water are responsible for water quality, and with growing awareness of the problems of water pollution, there are now numerous commitments at a national and regional level. Hong Kong has a major unaccounted water challenge with leakage causing the city to lose 15 per cent of its fresh water from its public distribution system each year.

Vehicle Congestion

Transportation in the SFBA is reliant on a complex multimodal infrastructure consisting of roads, bridges, highways, rail, tunnels, airports, and bike and pedestrian paths. The development, maintenance, and operation of these different modes of transportation are overseen by various agencies. Given the fragmented system of dozens of separate transit operators, it is no surprise that many commuters in SFBA drive, but the region’s congestion is considered some of the US’ worst with traffic congestion up 80 percent since 2010.

Similarly, congestion in the GBA hit the headlines in October 2017 when heavy traffic during the National Day public holiday halted many highways across Guangdong Province with a three-hour bus ride from Hong Kong to Guangzhou taking 18 hours. Cities in Guangdong Province are already among the most congested in China during peak hours and with the completion of the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge and the Express Rail Link there will soon be much more cross-border traffic. It’s clear that the GBA requires a common, shared road condition data platform to help combat traffic, especially during peak holiday periods.

In addition to these three issues, the challenge of urban heat island effect is also playing out in literally all the GBA cities. Construction Materials such as concrete and asphalt trap heat in the city with vertical density inhibiting cross ventilation. This creates a challenge for us to make our cities liveable.

Waste Management

Effective solid waste management is a backbone of a city’s sustainability and liveability. In 2012 the City of San Francisco achieved an 80% municipal solid waste (MSW) diversion rate, which is the highest across the United States. For decades, state authorities have set ambitious goals through The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, which mandated a specific target to divert 50% of waste from landfills in 2011. More recently, the San Francisco Commission on the Environment have started to push for ‘zero waste’ by 2020, meaning zero discards to landfills or furnaces.

Likewise, in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, the governments have increased efforts in reducing solid waste in the cities. The Department of Environmental Protection of Guangdong Province has also published a Three-Year Solid Waste Management Plan (2018-2020). Solid waste management goals at a provincial level mandates that by 2020, Guangdong is to achieve over 95% safe disposal rates and treatment rates when dealing with waste, from industrial hazardous waste to sludge from urban sewage treatment plants. In Hong Kong, the Environmental Protection Department also targets to reduce MSW disposal rate by 40% per capita by 2022, from 1.27kg to 0.8kg per day.

As the SFBA grew, the local government created different agencies to oversee specific environmental focus areas such as air and water and infrastructure, and report to a regional board. The key to developing the GBA will be finding similar ways of systematic cooperation that unify and optimise the region’s city economies while preserving the quality of life within these urban environments. With the cities of the GBA falling under different legal and administrative systems, it remains to be seen what this will look like. But just because something is difficult to envisage doesn’t mean it can’t be done: for example, the Lok Ma Chau Loop Science Park is a joint Hong Kong and Shenzhen initiative and entity, that perhaps whose model of cooperation can be replicated within the wider GBA.

Ideally, the GBA needs to be managed as an airshed and watershed, and local governance needs to be supplemented with regional cooperation and coordination to facilitate flows of goods, talent, big data and business investment priorities. A city-based focus without a GBA context will ultimately come at the expense of Greater Bay Area’s long term environmental and public health.

Great cities and regions require integrated visions, resources and the will to develop, attract and retain the best talent. Ultimately, we need a holistic approach that encompasses all the aspects that affect a city’s and its region’s liveability. By following the SGBA’s example, we can get closer to this goal. It’s clear that the Hong Kong 2030+ vision needs to encompass GBA in its scope. After all, we are neighbours: we share resources and a common environment.

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John Batten

Global Cities Director Ask me a question