When some people learned that I grew up in Hong Kong, they expressed that my decision to become an urban planner was not surprising. After all, Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a modern city well known for its skyscrapers, high density, creative use of limited land resources, and efficient public transportation system. They were partly right. To be more accurate and complete, I also gravitated towards planning because I enjoyed playing with Legos, studying geography in high school, visiting exciting new places, and staring at maps in my dad’s office where he worked as a senior land officer for the Hong Kong government. When my family moved to the U.S. a few years before China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997, I began to seriously pursue my dream of becoming an urban planner. I devoted myself fully to my studies and eventually started working as an intern for the Los Angeles Housing Department (LAHD). Although part time, this opportunity gave me my first true taste of professional planning and marked the beginning of my career which thus far has been both very challenging and interesting.
After a year at LAHD, I joined a consulting firm where I served primarily as a preparer of housing elements of general plans. As the years went by, I became increasingly frustrated by my role as a consultant or an “outsider” to the many communities for which I wrote and presented housing needs assessments and plans. In particular, several client cities simply had no interest in meeting the housing needs of lower-income households and only wanted to have state-certified housing elements to avoid lawsuits that might be brought forth by affordable housing advocates. (To be fair, there were also some cities that were serious and proactive about meeting their share of regional housing needs.) It also bothered me that for the most part, local governments in California lacked the authority to meet the housing goals established for them and that the Regional Housing Needs Assessment seemed more like an academic exercise for regional planning agencies without any real power.
This is in sharp contrast to the approach in Hong Kong, where the government is actually in the business of producing quality public housing (unlike Pruitt-Igoe and other failed housing projects in the U.S.) and is able to control the supply of land available for developers to build market-rate housing. This, of course, is not to say that Hong Kong functions like a socialist state; to the contrary, people can decide for themselves the location and type of their residence.
I later joined the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, where I was assigned to the coastal studies section. This position turned out to be very educational and challenging in that I had to wrestle with issues that I was completely unfamiliar with, such as the California Coastal Act, environmentally sensitive habitat areas, ridgeline protection, fuel modification, and rural development. Having lived in cities all of my life, I quickly realized how little I knew or understood about planning in less developed areas and how strongly property owners responded to government regulations.
Sometimes I wonder how the Hong Kong government would have planned for a unique area like the Santa Monica Mountains. My guess is that it probably would have designated the entire area as a country park. (While the Santa Monica Mountains is a national recreation area and contains public parks and open space, private development is permitted.) Alternatively, it might have allowed the development of high-rise residential towers with premium ocean views that are quite common in Hong Kong.
In my third and current major planning job, with L.A. County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, I find much satisfaction in my job as a park planner because it gives me opportunities to help promote a healthy lifestyle and strengthen communities through the improvement and development of existing and new parks and recreational facilities. This work takes place in a sprawling metropolis that, somehow, is famous for having one of the lowest rates of per capita green space in the United States.
By contrast, in a former colony with some of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the world, the Hong Kong government has also shown foresight in its park and open space planning. While most are familiar with Hong Kong’s high rises, few seem to know how green the metropolis actually is. Residents are never more than 20 minutes away from nature in Hong Kong and nearly two-thirds of the city is green space, with parks and hiking trails lining the surrounding hills and mountains.
Hong Kong is certainly not perfect, but it does a great job of meeting the housing and park/recreation needs of its residents. Anyone who thinks that California can’t possibly make room for affordable housing or that preserving open space will devastate land values might want to take a trip to Hong Kong.