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Hong Kong city portrait

Laura Puttkamer

Find out more about architectural highlights, urban development trends and transport systems of the city.

View over the harbor of Hong Kong at night. Photo: Benh LIEU SONG (Flickr), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Read in our Hong Kong city portrait which architectural and urban planning icons every visitor should have seen and which new urban planning projects are currently in the making.

Hong Kong is a fascinating city state. Officially titled the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China”, this metropolis houses over 7.5 million residents. It lies on the eastern Perl River Delta in Southern China.

Once a fishing village, now a global finance city

The history of Hong Kong includes many centuries of being a quaint fishing village. When the village became a haven for pirates in the early 19th century, it grew into a city and became more interesting. With the end of the first opium war in 1842, the British took control of Hong Kong. Under them, the city became internationally important as a port city. In 1997, China regained sovereignty over the “Pearl of the Orient”, now a global finance city.

Today, the city is a crucial hub for the movement of goods, people, and money. Many of its urban development projects reflect the importance of an improved flow of people and goods. Moreover, with 90% of the population using public transport, the city offers some interesting lessons.

Aerial view of the dense urban area of Hong Kong. Photo by Manson Yim on Unsplash

Architecture highlights of Hong Kong

Hong Kong has a very westernised appearance. This global city includes heritage buildings speaking of its colonial past, modern skyscrapers and many innovative, contrasting examples of global architecture.

For example, the Canadian American architect Frank Gehry designed his first residential building for Hong Kong. The “Opus” resembles the dancing house in Prague and is a fine example of deconstructivism. The luxury flats offer impressive views over the port.

At the Hong Kong Design Institute, French influence is visible. Architects Coldefy & Associés designed the structure the represent creativity, metaphorically showing the blank page as a starting point.

Innovation is also at the heart of the Jockey Club Innovation Tower, a 2014 tower that houses the PolyU School of Design. The famous architect Zaha Hadid designed this building that shows the dynamism of a future-oriented school.

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Some of the best views over the Bay

For those looking for beautiful photos, the Lai Tak Tsuen housing estate impresses with its seemingly endless cylinder shape. However, the flats inside the fascinating towers are in a state of decay. Nevertheless, they are occupied, with high rents in all of the city. Similarly, the Choi Hung Estate is a perfect place for pretty pictures. Its rainbow pastel colours feature in many music videos. The estate still houses around 18 000 residents.

The Chi Lin Nunnery Complex shows both the historical and the futuristic side of the city. It is a large Buddhist complex with a series of temples, lotus-covered ponds, impressive statues and many 1980s buildings.

A tour of the city should also include the M+ Pavilion. Opened in 2016, this site houses many cultural exhibitions. It is a symbol of sustainable, environmental-friendly architectures and offers space and opportunities to emerging artists. Besides that, the balcony offers some of the best views over the Bay.

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Urban development trends in Hong Kong

At first glance, the city looks like a maze of static skyscrapers. But a second glance soon shows that Hong Kong is a very busy city that always moves. Record-breaking mega projects are focused on improving within the city and with the rest of the world.

Mega projects for connectivity

Mega projects include the Hong-Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge or the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link. They all intend to improve the flow of people and goods in and around the city, which is so economically powerful that it could be a member of the G20, were it a country.

In October 2018, the famous Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge opened. It is widely regarded as one of the most impressive engineering achievements of all time. Stretching 55 kilometres with 3 cable-stayed bridges, an undersea tunnel and artificial islands, the bridge provides much better connectivity in the Pearl River Delta. Trips that used to take over four hours can now be done in one hour.

The Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link with is beautiful West Kowloon terminus was also completed in 2018. It connects Hong Kong to Beijing with stops in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The trains reach up to 350 km/h. They start from Kowloon Station in Hong Kong, the world’s largest underground rail terminus with over 400 000 square metres of space underground. A public rooftop park and channels of natural sunlight integrate the station with its surroundings.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, Zhuhai section. Photo: 钉钉, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Transport on land, water and air in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s focus on excellent public transport is particularly noteworthy. The city invested billions of dollars in the South Island Line, which cut travel times from the North to the South of the city to 15 minutes – down from more than an hour. The MTR rapid transit network will also be expanded to connect Sha Tin and Central and to include the South Island line.

The city’s airport is already one of the best of the world. But still, Hong Kong International Airport is planning a new three-runway system and additional airport facilities. Transport on water and on road is also steadily under improvement. For example, the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened in 2013 and has improved touristic interest in cruises to the city.

Drivers are also well served in the city. The new Tuen Mun-Chek Lap Kok link will connect the Northwest New Territories to the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge with a 5-kilometer undersea tunnel.

Train of the South Island Line. Photo: LN9267, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Smart city

Arguably, Hong Kong is also one of the smartest cities in the world. It boasts a strong IT infrastructure and has started investments in cloud computing and big data analytics much earlier than other cities. Strategic priorities are smart mobility, smart living, smart environment, smart people, smart government, and smart economy.

However, there are some important elements that seem to be missing in this affluent global city. Connectivity for people, especially between buildings, is often missing. As a result, there are high levels of isolation and loneliness. Sky bridges could introduce some much-needed public spaces between the buildings. This high-rise connectivity could make the city even more liveable.

Find out more about urban development plans for the city: In October 2021, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, unveiled the new Hong Kong Metropolis plan. 

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