Island Vision: A Future for Hong Kong

How the city can reconnect with one of its greatest assets — the coast

All images © SOM

Hong Kong faces complex environmental issues, but is there a remedy hidden in plain sight? Peter J. Kindel, director of SOM’s City Design Practice in Asia, outlines a vision to protect the coastline and make it accessible to the city’s seven million residents.

With mountain peaks rising over 2,000 feet and framing some of the densest urban districts in the world, Hong Kong Island presents a striking mix of towering skyscrapers, rugged topography, lush forests, and spectacular coastlines. The island has two distinct faces: the highly urban north side, with its famous skyline, and its more natural and less developed south side. This duality is heightened by the relatively small size of the island—78 square kilometers, about 1.3 times the size of Manhattan. These characteristics, along with the proximity of waterfronts and open spaces, make this city absolutely unique in the world.

However, for all of Hong Kong’s urban sophistication and natural beauty, its residents lack access to much of the coastline. While there are many parks and hiking trails in the island’s interior, there are few opportunities for recreation near the water. Access to the coastline is limited to disconnected parks or isolated beaches. In addition, there is no comprehensive ecological conservation strategy in place to protect Hong Kong’s marine environments, which are often blighted by waterborne pollution, development, and over-fishing.

Hong Kong currently has an extensive network of parks and trails on the interior of the island, but limited biking and hiking opportunities exist adjacent to coastal areas.

To address all of these issues, SOM’s Hong Kong office has created a proposal called the Hong Kong Water Line—a new recreational trail that would encircle the perimeter of Hong Kong Island and provide access to the entire coastline. Designed as a multipurpose path for hiking and cycling, it would create a world-class amenity for all Hong Kong citizens. Beyond recreation, the project would promote awareness of coastal issues and establish a framework for a comprehensive marine conservation strategy. Taken even further, it could anchor a broad conservation vision for the surrounding region.

The Water Line is designed to advance several goals critical to Hong Kong’s future—recreation, quality of life, sustainable transportation, and coastal conservation. To achieve these goals, the project would pursue two key concepts: waterfront access and environmental conservation. The first concept, a comprehensive access strategy for Hong Kong’s coastline, would improve access to all urban waterfronts and create a scenic interconnected trail around the entire island. At approximately 55 kilometers in length — 15 kilometers on the north side of the island and 40 kilometers on the south side — the Water Line would become the longest urban circumferential trail in the world. It would establish a new commuting route between the urban north side of the island, where a majority of employment lies, and the south side of the island, which has substantial residential enclaves. With Hong Kong’s mild climate, the trail would provide a year-round, sustainable transportation corridor.

The proposed trail would encircle Hong Kong Island, connecting existing parks and waterfronts while joining southern coastal communities and northern business districts.

The second key concept is to create eight marine conservation areas on the island’s south, west, and east coasts. While there are organizations in Hong Kong concerned with a variety of coastal issues, these issues are rarely addressed in a comprehensive manner. The Water Line project affirms that Hong Kong’s valuable coastal areas must be led by a more enlightened vision. This vision should incorporate both urban and non-urban coastlines, and consider conservation as well as sustainable development. The coastal protection strategy for Hong Kong Island can then be extended to adjacent islands and the New Territories of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

The proposed plan creates eight new marine conservation zones while accommodating important shipping and ferry routes.

The Hong Kong Water Line is designed to be easily constructed, with a minimal impact on the environment. Nearly half of the route would use existing roads and trails that require only moderate upgrades. Where existing roads or pathways cannot be used, the trail would be constructed with prefabricated modules, with a flexible walking surface made from recycled plastic and rubber. The basic modules are a straight segment and a left- or right-curved segment. From these three shapes, any geometry can be achieved. The 4-meter-wide trail would accommodate parallel pathways for bicycles and pedestrians.

SOM’s design would also address Hong Kong’s issues of pollution and solid waste management. Some of the trail’s components could be 3D-printed with recycled plastics collected from the area — converting existing waste into building material. Additional design elements would further reduce the project’s environmental impact. Dark-sky lighting would be used to reduce light pollution. In environmentally sensitive areas, the proposed design would be set back from the coastal edge by at least 100 meters and screened by vegetation to reduce its visual impact. Along the most sensitive sections of the trail, on the east and west ends of Hong Kong Island, extra care would be taken to avoid marring the natural beauty of these areas.

Typical Trail Sections

By implementing the Water Line project, Hong Kong has the opportunity to reassert its leadership in Asia as a forward-thinking city that is taking action on environmental and quality-of-life issues. But we do not need to stop there. If Hong Kong adopts the principles of the Water Line project, these concepts could be expanded to the adjacent Pearl River Delta coastlines of Zhuhai and Shenzhen. A related effort, the Pearl River Delta Greenway, was proposed by the neighboring Guangdong Province in 2010. The Greenway Plan is a network of diverse conservation areas in both urban and rural areas that connect country parks, ecological areas, and scenic spots. The Water Line project completes this vision with what SOM calls the “Blue Crescent” — a new coastal management zone covering the Zhuhai-Hong Kong archipelago. The Blue Crescent would support a comprehensive conservation strategy for this area, including greater protections for marine habitats and careful management of fishing, land reclamation, and shipping zones.

The cost of the Hong Kong Water Line project has yet to be determined. But, when compared to recent investments in the Zhuhai-Hong Kong Bridge (10 billion USD) and the West Kowloon Terminus, a new rail hub (11 billion USD), the cost should be very reasonable in proportion to the benefits it would create. With Hong Kong soon to elect a new chief executive, the time is right for the city to establish a new roadmap for sustainability. SOM’s Water Line project can be one of the first steps in that direction.

To learn more about the Hong Kong Water Line project, download the full research paper.