Hong Kong's unique blend of Eastern and Western culture and rich heritage continue to draw visitors from around the globe. "To maintain our international standing, it must be clear where we stand in relation to the growth of mainland China, globalisation and technological developments," says Anthony Kwan, assistant director/metro, district planning branch, Planning Department.
Hong Kong's constant quest for growth and improvement opens up a wide range of career options for both established and aspiring town planners, he says. "There is a spectrum of functions within the wider industry."
While land usage consultancy and research and analysis constitute the major town planning sectors, these categories include many overlapping subsections such as architectural design, land surveying, planning and landscape architecture and horticultural design.
"Some of these disciplines require advanced IT expertise, presentation skills and insight into ways of using land in the most intelligent and efficient way," Mr Kwan explains.
Work experience at government departments is invaluable, Mr Kwan believes. "Exposure with the government equips planners not only with knowledge of procedures and operations across a range of departments, they also have the chance to work closely with the community and private sector and gain experience on best practices."
New recruits should hold a relevant degree and are usually members of the Hong Kong Institute of Planners (HKIP) or other professional town planning institutes, with relevant work experience. Mr Kwan notes that many professionals in the field initially graduate from university with a related degree and subsequently study for a master's degree in town planning as part of a greater career plan.
The department runs a trainee programme introducing young graduates (non civil servants) to the industry. Overseas graduates applying for a place on the programme must pass an HKIP examination to familiarise themselves with local requirements and legislation.
With Hong Kong society changing, the town planning focus also tends to shift. The department is presently working towards supplying land for future developmental needs related to housing, transport infrastructure and recreational facilities. "Current projects include the redevelopment of the Kai Tak area and West Kowloon, and an analysis of possible land use in various areas," Mr Kwan points out.
"In many aspects, rapid development on the mainland should impact favourably on Hong Kong. We must therefore accommodate change and embrace challenges and make wise strategic decisions suited to changing demographics and population distribution," he adds. "We must plan for the long term."
Town planning can be a lengthy process, and turning even simple concepts into reality can take considerable time, Mr Kwan says.
The department has always aimed to produce in-depth analyses based on feedback and comments to help various interest groups reach consensus and minimise potential conflicts during the implementation stage.
Public consultation is a crucial part of planning success. "Community engagement and participation are indispensable during the consultation process and facilitating this has always been an essential part of our training. It is best to identify and confirm society needs early on. With all of our initiatives, we share with the general public about the goals and concepts behind the plans."
Flair and functionality
Planners never work alone or behind closed doors and teamwork is particularly essential, Mr Kwan stresses. The Kai Tak development project, for example, involves a team of professionals from government departments such as the Lands Department, Hong Kong Marine Department, Transport Department, Highways Department, Home Affairs Bureau, Environmental Protection Department and Civil Engineering and Development Department. Members of district councils, advisory committees and professional institutes are also invited to participate in discussion sessions or help with public forums.
Planners are given the opportunity to rotate through jobs, giving them greater exposure to functions such as district planning, project design and even law enforcement. Such lateral moves help develop skilled all-rounders, with potential for promotion.
People looking to move up in their careers can benefit from ongoing learning. "Planners wanting to take on higher-level responsibilities must constantly upgrade their skills and knowledge," Mr Kwan says. "Apart from enrolling in skills enhancement programmes, they can also take advantage of industry seminars and public forums."
The biggest challenge for any town planner is balancing flair and functionality. "When I was responsible for planning new towns 30 years ago, the planning process was quick because of great demand for housing and so planners could see the end results in practically no time. These days, we must take into account a range of issues, including land supply, demographic distribution, population density, property prices and government revenues, as well as respond to public concerns."
For all these reasons, Mr Kwan finds his job immensely satisfying. "Seeing your concepts and ideas take shape and subsequently enjoyed by the public, and knowing that you're contributing to sustainable development, provide you with a great sense of achievement," he concludes.