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HongKongEcho: Behind the blueprints of the Northern Metropolis

Paradise or pipe dream? Hong Kong’s Northern Metropolis project will reshape the city for the better says Professor KK Ling.

The northern reaches of Hong Kong are a study of contrasts. Sprawling marshes and idyllic country parks are interspersed with busy industrial enclaves and traditional villages where local family lines have lived for generations upon generations.

Hire a bicycle in Yuen Long, for example, and you will pedal through an array of traffic-heavy main roads, quiet village houses, family-friendly bike paths, and largely empty dirt trails. Soon enough, you can reach a stretch of land that is home to world-renowned migratory bird watching.

On a clear day, you can see the tall towers of Shenzhen rising above the wetlands.

It’s here that Hong Kong is planning one of its most ambitious development projects to date. “Some people seem to think this strategy has just suddenly sprung out of nowhere,” says Professor KK Ling with a laugh.

He currently serves as the Strategic Planning Advisor for Hong Kong/Shenzhen Cooperation for the HKSAR Government and assures us that the project is not a quick-fix initiative, but a plan that has been in the works for decades.


Going north


An enormous HK$100 billion has been set aside for the Northern Metropolis in the 2022-23 Budget with ambitions to house 2.5 million people in comprehensive communities. “Housing supply is obviously a priority,” says Professor Ling, “but the other two objectives involve creating a second economic engine for Hong Kong and rebalancing the current home-job spatial distribution”.

The project spans 30,000 hectares of land and covers the existing three ‘new towns’ of Yuen Long, Tin Shui Wai, and Fanling/Sheung Shui, as well as other New Development Areas, essentially consolidating and expanding the so-called Northern Economic Belt that has been laid out in the HKSAR Government’s ‘Hong Kong 2030+’ strategy – an overarching policy framework that sets out a blueprint for the city’s land and infrastructure development.  

A key component of this vision is the recalibration of the city’s main employment centre. “Today a lot of jobs are concentrated around Victoria Harbour in a relatively small area of Hong Kong, meaning many people have to commute long distances between their homes and workplaces every day. In my opinion a more sustainable approach is to create a large number of jobs in the New Territories and rebalance the current situation.” The most recent government estimates envisage the provision of 650,000 jobs in the metropolis with a mix of industries including modern services, advanced manufacturing, and Innovation & Technology (I&T).



At the heart of this reshuffling is a big bet on Hong Kong’s I&T industry. Around 240 hectares of land will be allocated to the new San Tin Technopole which will be home to the much-talked-about Hong Kong-Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Park (HSITP) in the Lok Ma Chau Loop (the Loop). It will sit adjacent to the Shenzhen Innovation and Technology Zone (Shenzhen I&T Zone) and will feature four fully-integrated cross-boundary routes to connect the two cities.

Hong Kong, of course, already has two major I&T-associated hubs in Cyberport and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park, but Professor Ling says that greater integration with Shenzhen is an obvious and necessary component of the city’s restructuring.

The extreme proximity of the Technopole to Shenzhen has caused some commentators to question its benefits – and that of the proposed new housing in areas also close to Shenzhen – for local Hong Kong people. Under the prevailing policy, 70% of new housing development will be public housing for Hong Kong citizens. Professor Ling emphasises that this policy will be followed in the Northern Metropolis.

While the proposed ‘innovative immigration clearance arrangements’ mentioned in Government’s development strategy report are yet to be clarified in detail, Professor Ling explains that people will be working and living much closer to boundary control points in a way that you will simply be able to walk to Shenzhen instead of always taking a bus or train. “In 10 to 15 years’ time, the plan will facilitate the change of behavioural pattern of our residents along the boundary.”


Conserve and preserve


The traditional villages that are scattered throughout the northern New Territories make up much of the area’s charm, and it’s an aspect of the heritage the Government says it will look to protect. “The overwhelming majority of the existing historical buildings will be preserved, except for very specific circumstances where we may have to relocate a village if there is no other viable option,” says Professor Ling. 

The Government will also need to resume a substantial amount of privately-owned land – another heated issue in the territory’s history. “As is the case in any city whenever there is rehousing and clearing of land, there will be tensions. It’s an area where we need to tread carefully.”

Likewise, the vast amount of natural, and largely undeveloped, habitat could be seen as a stumbling block for the mega project. Professor Ling admits there has been no shortage of media attention and controversy around conservation efforts in the northern areas of the New Territories. “I believe we need to take a more proactive approach. In the past we’ve been relatively passive – we only look to repair damage after it’s done. This has to change by purposefully creating protected areas under proactive government management.”

While some of the land will need to make way for housing or commercial development, the wetlands around the Mai Po Nature Reserve and the Hong Kong Wetland Park will be classed under a comprehensive system of wetlands and coastal ecological conservation totalling 2,000 hectares. The Wetland Park itself will increase by four times its current size to around 300 hectares.

“Our conservation efforts will serve four different functions: the increase of local food supply to help in reducing our carbon footprint, further investment towards modern aquaculture research, the enhancement of the overall ecological value of our wetland system, and the creation of a recreation outlet for the local population.”

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the proposals is the opening up of a Greenway system which will be a hiking trail to connect the urban with the rural and linking the MacIntosh Forts – a series of colonial era structures with significant historical value – to rival the likes of the renowned MacLehose Trail.

Professor Ling, whose background is in urban planning, is keen to explore how the built environment can enhance its natural surroundings, rather than infringe upon them. He envisages riverside promenades which can penetrate into built-up areas with parklands acting as buffers between conservation areas and mixed-used developments such as offices and apartment buildings.

“We need to create a very unique metropolitan landscape – one which integrates the urban and rural seamlessly. When you look at images along the River Thames, for example, you know immediately that it’s London. We want to create a similar effect by creating a unique landscape for the Northern Metropolis which signifies the co-existence of development and conservation.”