Hong Kong is embarking on ambitious urban development projects, notably the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy. In considering the initiative, Samuel Chen Yi of The University of Hong Kong and Zhang Xiaoling of City University of Hong Kong analyze the domestic, regional and national challenges the special administrative region faces as it aims to integrate with the Greater Bay Area, the emerging mega-region critical to China’s drive for sustainable socio-economic development.
View of Shenzhen from Hong Kong: The SAR aims to deepen cooperation with the mainland while remaining a separate administrative entity (Credit: Lee Yiu Tung / Shutterstock.com)
In October 2021, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government released its Northern Metropolis Development Strategy, a blueprint for the development of two of the city’s districts along the border with the mainland Chinese special economic zone (SEZ) of Shenzhen. With the plan, the SAR aims to achieve a set of strategic and sustainable goals in context of the economic, social, and environmental challenges and opportunities presented by modern urban development and the changing global economic landscape. Analyzing the policy through three spatial frameworks – metropolitan, mega-regional and national – makes clear how Hong Kong intends to use it to secure its long-term prosperity and sustainability.
Industrialization and capitalism have fueled urbanization globally. The growth of metropolises is linked to major development challenges including regional economic disparity, the risks of relying on traditional industries, the lack of livable or sustainable housing, uncontrolled urban sprawl, inadequate public transportation, traffic congestion and the other socioeconomic consequences of the heavy use of private vehicles, and damage to the environment and cultural heritage.
Hong Kong has been at the forefront in tackling these issues. After its economic base shifted from manufacturing to services through the 1980s and 1990s, the city has been a leading global hub for financial and commercial services, international trade and shipping, buttressed by its highly developed tourism and consumer sectors. It has also tried (with varying degrees of effort and success) to provide its population with efficient public transportation, high-density and livable housing, and conservation of natural and cultural heritage.
In response to the global shift towards economic diversification and innovation, Hong Kong has a region of 300 square kilometers as the Northern Metropolis, which it will develop into an international hub for the innovation and technology (I&T) and advanced manufacturing industries. The hope is to make it into Hong Kong’s Silicon Valley. Out of the 650,000 new jobs projected for the Northern Metropolis, 150,000 will be in the I&T industry. Centered on the San Tin Technopole, with an area of 11.1 square kilometers, this sector will draw from Hong Kong’s related business segments such as fintech and will serve as a regional balance to the city’s metropolitan commercial core along the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon sides of Victoria Harbour.
To attract high-flying companies and professionals to settle in the Northern Metropolis, Hong Kong will provide a complete I&T industry ecosystem integrated with the city’s bread-and-butter financing and professional services sector, world-class research and higher education institutions, and science and technology parks. Implementing the strategy will entail accommodating some 2.5 million people with the addition over 20 years of 350,000 residential units to the existing stock of 390,000.
For sustainable land use and to optimize property values, this housing will be close to workplaces and commercial areas, reducing commuting time, avoiding traffic congestion and limiting carbon emissions. Public facilities such as extensions of the transport systems, hospitals, schools, sports and cultural venues, as well as recreation and green spaces, will be incorporated into the housing developments. This will promote life-work balance for residents and enhance family life, community building and sustainable living. The high level of integration of the new urban areas with a broader SAR development plan will contribute to meeting the Hong Kong’s economic, social and environmental goals.
Since the 1960s, urban studies researchers such as French geographer Jean Gottmann and American socio-economic theorist Richard Florida have argued that mega-regions have become the main economic unit through which cities grow and compete globally. This is due to the agglomeration of production and supply chains, complementary economic roles, and the interaction of innovation ecosystems and consumer markets.
Over the last two decades, governments from around the world have tried to bundle adjacent cities or metropolises together for concerted regional development, harnessing the agglomeration or multiplier effects. China began to promote its mega-regional strategy in 2006. In 2018, The Economist identified 19 emerging “super regions” or city clusters across the country. Of these, the Greater Bay Area (GBA) of the Pearl River Delta (PRD) is one of the most dynamic, given that its constituent cities include China’s economic powerhouses – Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou.
Within the GBA, Hong Kong’s link with adjacent Shenzhen is the most crucial connection in the network because of the complementary strengths of the two cities and their existing collaboration over the past several decades. With Shenzhen being China’s premier city for high-tech R&D and manufacturing, locating Hong Kong’s center for I&T and advanced manufacturing industries right across the border will allow the SAR to take advantage of the neighboring SEZ’s growth and development momentum.
For its part, Shenzhen will gain from expanding its collaboration with Hong Kong through the development of pilot zones to create its own metropolitan belt. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen I&T Park, already underway across from Shenzhen’s Huanggang Port area could form a tech cooperation triangle with Hong Kong’s San Tin Technopole and Shenzhen’s Science and Technology Park. The Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone in Qianhai, Shenzhen, could also deepen links. The economic cooperation between the SAR and the SEZ would be further supported by cross-border transport networks that would ensure seamless connectivity and mobility between the two. Both sides would work together to conserve natural resources including marine life.
Closer collaboration with Shenzhen will be the main channel for Hong Kong to pursue its connective role in the GBA, which would in turn catalyze the SAR’s further integration with the rest of the country. This network building has already begun through the establishment by leading Hong Kong universities of campuses, R&D and medical facilities across the border.
The reshaping of global supply and industrial value chains due to growing market demand, new technological capabilities and geopolitical shifts poses a challenge to mega-regions as they determine how they will secure stable supply of resources and serve key markets. Successfully integrating the GBA at the local-regional level and into the regional-national framework will be essential. Hong Kong and its Northern Metropolis will fit into these integration efforts as outlined in the Territorial Spatial Master Planning of Shenzhen (2020-2035), the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area, and the National 14th Five-Year Plan.
After serving and coordinating the long-established supply chains, Hong Kong will now contribute to driving this new phase of development in the GBA and the rest of China through the powerful combination of the SAR’s emerging innovation economy with its advanced financial, commercial services and logistics industries. This formula will generate sustainable economic growth for Hong Kong, the GBA and the rest of China.
The execution of this mega-development strategy is not without significant challenges. Skeptics have pointed to the Hong Kong government’s earlier mega project, the HK$624 billion (US$80 billion) Lantau Tomorrow Vision, the plan to create a third core business district in Hong Kong by constructing artificial islands and reclaiming land in the waters off easter Lantau, the biggest of the SAR’s islands. With the Northern Metropolis set to cost much more – estimates for both projects do not yet factor in required environmental impact assessments – it could be challenging for the Hong Kong government to deliver both ambitious large-scale plans.
Critics have stressed the importance of implementing the Northern Metropolis Development Strategy in such a way that stakeholders will benefit at different stages of the initiative over the course of the 20 years required to complete it. Key to success will be the careful integration of efforts to create a sustainable living and working environment with the construction of the necessary physical infrastructure to support the increased population in the new zone. Special attention will be required to address the social and cultural needs of the people who would be expected to settle in the region. Layered onto this would be the importance of ensuring a smooth and productive social and cultural integration of Hong Kong with the regions across the border with mainland China – within the framework of the “one country, two systems’ concept: closer cooperation with the rest of the GBA while remaining a separate administrative entity. Hong Kong will have a three-dimensional challenge ahead: achieving domestic regional coherence and integrating with mainland areas across the border, all while in alignment with China’s national efforts to achieve robust but sustainable growth.
Chan, Justin; and Yip, Jason. (June 8, 2022) “Chinese City, Global Hub: Hong Kong’s Future in China’s Greater Bay Area”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Chen, Xi. (September 29, 2022) “No Easy Path: Reinvigorating Hong Kong for the Greater Bay Area Initiative”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Leung, Philip. (August 4, 2022) “What China’s Greater Bay Area Can Learn from Silicon Valley’s Challenges”, AsiaGlobal Online, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong.
Samuel Chen Yi
University of Hong Kong
City University of Hong Kong