Albert Lai’s Series of Letters to Engineers (3/12)
5 May 2008
Dear Fellow Engineers,
I attended a public forum on the Central Kowloon Route Project on 15 March this year. Towards the end of the forum, a middle-aged man sitting next to me whispered, “We residents of the Prosperous Garden have clamoured for road noise barriers for many, many years, talking to numerous government departments. Those engineers chairing the forum this time look really earnest to me. I hope they won’t let us down again.”
It was almost a year ago since I started to get involved in the Central Kowloon Route Project. At that time, the project was facing an imminent deadlock because the proposal included a plan to demolish part of the Yaumatai Police Station heritage complex, which aroused major concern among the public and many LegCo members.
Trying to find ways to break the deadlock, the responsible government departments reached out for the views of key stakeholders. I had lengthy discussions with the responsible engineers on two occasions, during which I offered three suggestions:
(1) To re-launch the project, a public engagement process should be conducted as soon as possible, involving especially the local residents and the disadvantaged groups of Yaumatai so that they can participate in the planning process and voice their views;
(2) To build mutual trust, it would be advisable for an independent body to host those public engagement activities instead of following the traditional mode of public consultation;
(3) To nurture consensus, the project should be visualised not merely as a road-building project, but also a community improvement project. Stakeholders can be encouraged to look into new development possibilities, which might have been overlooked in the past.
In the ensuing six months, government engineers, consultants and the mediating body worked hard as a team. They organised three public forums and charettes, arranged public visits to the Yaumatai Police Station and held an inter-school planning competition. From being rather cynical at the beginning, local residents, shop owners of Temple Street and the Jade Market, as well as conservation groups became more and more involved in searching for mutually acceptable solutions to the problems.
The concept of public participation in environmental policy-making has its roots in the Rio Declaration, a definitive document signed by many countries of the world including China, at the Earth Summit in 1992. By now, the concept has become an international consensus and one of the key principles in sustainable development. I can still remember, when leading a Hong Kong NGO delegation to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa in 2002, the Chinese official exhibition was largely focused on how public participation could make development more balanced and more suited to local needs.
The success story of the Central Kowloon Route project is another breakthrough after the collaboration over the last five years between many professionals and the government in experimenting new public engagement mechanisms via the Council for Sustainable Development and the Harbour-front Enhancement Committee. To ensure that more projects beneficial to the public can be launched smoothly and quickly, we must sum up the valuable experiences we had in these public engagement exercises in order to establish a new policy framework. Should engineers not use this as an excellent opportunity to take the lead in policy-making and in fostering new development possibilities?
After the public forum, I chanced to leave the venue side by side with an elderly woman of some seventy years old. This old lady told me that she lived alone in an old building in Shanghai Street. As a diabetic, she had to go to the Yaumatai Jockey Club Clinic every month to replenish her drug. She was very worried that if the Clinic were to be moved to the new harbour front of West Kowloon, her monthly trip to the Clinic would be that much harder, “How can I walk up and down and cross so many flyovers? What if I trip and fall down the stairs on my way? I might be dead without anybody knowing it.” She said she had waited for the whole afternoon just to utter these words to express her concern.
I could only comfort her by assuring her that new engineering projects are there to better, not worsen, the livelihood of elderly residents like her. The old lady did not say a word but I could still remember how she limped her way down the stairs.
Ir Albert Lai
The Highways Department announced last week that under the Preferred Option for the Central Kowloon Route Project, the entire complex of the Yaumatai Police Station would be conserved, the Jade Market would be relocated in the neighbourhood during and after construction, the Jockey Club Clinic would stay where it is, and the Temple Street Night Market would be able to conduct business as usual. The underground space excavated for the tunnel will be used for the re-provisioning of community facilities. The Project would commence construction in 2012 and be completed in 2016, at an estimated cost of HK$10 billion.
Central Kowloon Route Public Forum
World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg 2002