3 lessons on urban planning from a post-COVID-19 era

    10/18/2020 - 11:10

    This article appeared originally in CHINADAILY on 26 Oct 2020.
    Authors: Ryan Ip, head of land and housing research and Koby Wong, assistant researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation

    The world faces the biggest pandemic this century with more than 42 million cases reported and nearly 1.1 million lives claimed. “Lockdown”, “work from home” and “social distancing” have become words that define 2020 and our livelihoods. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization and epidemiologists have repeatedly warned that COVID-19 is here to stay even if vaccines are developed.  Humanity needs to get used to new norms in a post-COVID era. This article will explore, in particular, the impact of COVID-19 on future urban planning concepts.

    To ensure we always stay on top of the game, we will need “resilient planning” to develop the city’s capacity to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks. Hong Kongers, sit tight and be prepared to embrace the new urban order.


    First and foremost, COVID-19 will require new public health requirements to combat “sick building syndrome”. People suffer from the syndrome if they display symptoms of illness or become infected with chronic disease from the building in which they work or reside. As the COVID-19 virus can stay on surfaces, piles and public areas, it poses infection risks to dwellers even if they practice self-isolation when the ventilation or sterilization is unsatisfactory. In addition, prolonged periods of living in a small flat, like the subdivided flats ubiquitous in Hong Kong’s old districts, will create mental stress and a higher possibility of conflict between household members.

    Bigger residential unit sizes are needed. Hong Kong’s per capita dwelling space stands at 170 square feet. In comparison, Singapore, despite its smaller land area, enjoys 60 percent more space at 270 square feet while Tokyo has 210 square feet, 25 percent higher than Hong Kong. When more time is spent indoors, the significance of having a spacious and comfortable living environment peaks. 

    Recreation-wise, a master plan for more public, open green spaces should be promoted to achieve “green therapy”. United Nations researchers say that 20 minutes of “green time” per day helps to give us a healthy and human approach to our situation.

    Despite more than 60 percent of Hong Kong’s land area designated as country parks and green belts, green space in Hong Kong is unevenly shared. This is due to both its mountainous topography and “garden in a city” planning concept. Only one-fourth of the total land area is built up. The result is that for every square kilometer of built-up land, there are on average 27,400 people, two and a half times the corresponding figures for Singapore and London. In addition, Hong Kong’s open space per capita of 2.7 square meters is far lower than neighboring cities like Shanghai (4 square meters), Tokyo (5.8 square meters) and Seoul (6.1 square meters).

    A return of plants to the “concrete jungle” is called for. This can be achieved by providing more open space as well as enhancing greenery and flora in the urban areas. Singapore is perhaps the best example of such a “city in a garden”, with its famous Gardens by the Bay and a large amount of green space in the city.

    The key to this is to increase Hong Kong’s built-up area. Singapore, for example, has three-quarters of its land built up. With that, many innovative urban designs can be adopted. These include “ladder-style buildings” and “retreat along the street” designs that counter the “walled-city effect”. Other green design examples include vertical plantation in Tokyo, urban farming in Detroit, and an “open street” in New York.

    Second, the current pandemic has accelerated the transition to a “total workplace ecosystem”, as better connectivity enables a more fluid workforce so that productivity can occur outside the office. Compared to a traditional setting, the future workplace will comprise a mix of leased space, flexible space and remote working. New norms will likely see employees going back to the office for two or three days per week for collaboration, innovation, cultural connection and bonding purposes. While demand for traditional office space might decrease, demand for flexible workspaces and larger living spaces will inevitably grow. 

    Third, COVID-19 has led to thriving e-commerce and re-industrialisation. COVID-19 has substantially reshaped the consumption patterns of individuals and households with ever more transactions executed online. According to Oberlo and JP Morgan, there are a staggering 5.2 million online shoppers in Hong Kong considering the total population is just above 7 million. Demand for warehouses, cross-border transportation, and call centers are once again on the rise. Moreover, driving industries like 5G development, robotics, and artificial intelligence machines create demand for data centers and relevant facilities and require upgrades to current industrial land.

    To conclude, the impact of COVID-19 will profoundly reshape Hong Kong’s current practices in the residential, recreational, commercial and industrial realms. Yet none of this can be achieved without sufficient land supply. To ensure we always stay on top of the game, we will need “resilient planning” to develop the city’s capacity to absorb, recover and prepare for future shocks. Hong Kongers, sit tight and be prepared to embrace the new urban order.