Opinion | Hong Kong doesn’t need more trophy skyscrapers

Things have changed in recent years. The digital revolution, the decentralisation of knowledge, services and value exchange, the global pandemic, and the call for a healthy work-life balance have all called into question the traditional mode of work and office life.

How the commercial world handles the “ work from home” movement is still up in the air, as companies large and small are trying their best to delicately balance employers’ expectations and employees’ rights. We recently interviewed a young designer who requested to work from home “one to two days a week” even before proving her value or knowing whether we would make her an offer.
It was a revealing moment. As much as I advocate that face-to-face work cannot be replaced by videoconferencing and remote communication tools, if we want to hire Generation Y talent, we need to realise work culture has evolved.


How Covid-19 could transform our cities of the future

How Covid-19 could transform our cities of the future

In May 2021, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon famously said he would restore the office to “just like it was before” and cancel all his Zoom meetings. However, in June this year, The Atlantic noted that the company is slashing its Manhattan office space as staff have not fully returned to the office.

According to CBRE, the global office vacancy rate was 12.9 per cent at the end of the first quarter of this year, with the highest rates in American metropolises such as Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Although our city’s white-collar workers seem to head to their offices day in, day out, Hong Kong office vacancy rate ranked eighth at 15 per cent, which is higher than the global average.

Analysts say the commercial real estate market has not plummeted only because many long-term leases signed prior to the pandemic have not yet expired. Worst, most commercial loans were also made before the pandemic, and the high interest rates do not help.

Don’t expect Hong Kong property prices to recover any time soon

In addition, a report by Unispace Global Workplace Insights found that 60 per cent of Hong Kong workers do not want to return to the office – more than any other city surveyed – and this in a place known for being hardworking. Meanwhile, grade A offices are still coming down the pipeline, including The Henderson and Cheung Kong Center II in prime Central plots that will contribute about a million square feet of office space to the mix.

In what could be the biggest commercial lease of the year, ICBC is reportedly taking over 10 floors at Cheung Kong Center II. However, occupation of the new office space is nothing more than a relocation from their current headquarters at 3 Garden Road. The question remains: who will occupy the vacant space?

The Bank of China Tower (right) in Central with The Henderson under construction next to it. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

Highly educated people realise they can work from anywhere. We now look for quality lifestyles in healthier and more sustainable living environments. We should be less dependent on cars and cherish walkable neighbourhoods, open public space and communities with cultural and intellectual diversity.

Buildings, on the other hand, account for around 40 per cent of the annual global carbon emissions. Most of them, particularly in Hong Kong, are air conditioned 24/7 with limited sustainability design measures.

Green buildings hold the upper hand in Hong Kong’s property glut

While skyscrapers increase density, the taller the towers, the more carbon they emit due to their non-stop facility operations and complex mechanical systems. Commercial skyscrapers now seem to be exactly the opposite of what we need for sustainable urban development.

Carol Ross Barney, who won the American Institute of Architecture’s gold medal this year, said cities need to restore “the missing middle” – low-to-mid-rise building typology within walkable zones – whereas skyscrapers “will just be trophies because they’re just not that valuable”.

Women sunbathe in St James’ Park in London on June 14. Urban dwellers are more attracted to green and healthy living spaces. Photo: EPA-EFE

London offers a great example of where networks of walkable neighbourhoods are interspersed with large parks, public squares and wide pavements, onto which restaurant and cafe tables spill, and have no or low-speed vehicle traffic and designated cycling lanes. The financial district is not emphasised as the urban core.

This does not mean tearing down what we have already built, but when we are imagining new neighbourhoods – from the Northern Metropolis to the Kau Yi Chau artificial islands – perhaps we no longer need to think about zoning horizontally or seeking to build another central business district.

Instead, we now have the opportunity to create urban spaces that are people- and lifestyle-centric. In sustainable urban development, the metric we need to focus on – instead of building height – would be neighbourhoods with the lowest carbon emissions, the most greenery and public spaces, and the highest productivity.

Trophies are nice eye candy, but neighbourhoods with fresh air are really where we live and breathe.

Dennis Lee is a Hong Kong-born, America-licensed architect with years of design experience in the US and China

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