While most people give little thought to what their city would look like in 20 years' time, professional city planners spend a good proportion of their time thinking about long-term urban and regional development.
"There is a global trend in urban development in that adjoining cities become connected to each other by efficient transport networks, forming large city regions. Sharing resources in this way provides many social and economic benefits," says Tam Po-yiu, assistant director of planning, technical services division, Planning Department.
The Planning Department has recently completed a series of joint studies with its mainland and Macau counterparts on several cross-boundary projects, such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-HongKong express rail link.
"Our vision is that by 2030, Hong Kong people will be able to work and live in different cities within a one-hour commuter zone. Detailed infrastructure planning is therefore vital for facilitating the coordination between the cities involved," Mr Tam states, adding that city planners need to take a long-term inter-regional perspective on land use and city development. He and his colleagues frequently meet with their counterparts in neighbouring cities to discuss the development in the Pearl River Delta region.
Planning involves a range of disciplines, including engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, environmental conservation, economics and demography. "In planning, we need to consider various factors. For instance, the change in housing needs as our population ages and the increasing expectations on the environmental quality of the city," Mr Tam explains.
The Planning Department is responsible for initiating land use zoning changes in response to Hong Kong's fast-changing economy. Some of the land previously set aside for industrial use, for example, has been re-designated for business use to aid Hong Kong development as Asia's key financial hub.
"Instead of focusing only on residential developments, we also plan for leisure facilities and community facilities, simultaneously taking into account air ventilation and other environmental factors. Therefore, planners need to possess knowledge across many disciplines, including statistics and demographics, as well as social and environmental science."
The Planning Department advocates public engagement and strives to work closely with other government agencies throughout the planning and implementation stages of projects.
With growing environmental awareness, Hong Kong people are becoming more concerned about nature conservation and environmental issues. The department's plans strive to attain sustainable development of the whole community in the long term, with respect to international environmental standards as well as public expectations.
"Our strategy is to preserve the city's valuable countryside and to restrict high-density buildings to areas that are already developed, using quality designs. Not only will this help to maintain a good balance between economic development and nature conservation, but it will also promote maximum efficiency of the public transport systems and benefits for the community," Mr Tam stresses.
There is great job satisfaction when the planned facilities in the blueprints are built, Mr Tam notes.
It takes a lot of time to plan and build successful cities. Similarly, to produce exceptional planners, time and effort should not be spared. Young planners looking to join the Planning Department can expect ample opportunities to build their work experience. They will also be exposed to a wide variety of tasks to help them develop a long-term career. "This profession is very challenging," Mr Tam says.
Some people may think that planners only need deal with the technical aspects of a task. "We, in fact, bear in mind the comprehensive picture of the whole city. Sometimes, changes taking place in a small area may affect the entire city, and even leave a long term impact," he remarks. "The best way to serve the city's needs is to engage citizens in our planning, so we gather their opinions through discussion forums and consultation exercises."
For these reasons, planners require extensive knowledge of the economy and public policy to effectively align land use to the city's social and economic development.
The department seeks graduates with a university degree in town planning. The department will provide ample opportunities for on-the-job exposure, which in turn will assist them in attaining the corporate membership the professional institutes.
"We are looking for people with a wide range of skills," he stresses, adding that planners will need to work with a range of different parties, so they should be good communicators and team players.
Mr Tam also advises aspiring planners to keep abreast of current affairs and public policies, as these closely relate to the city's future.