Hong Kong must accelerate implementation of “healthy city” goal

In 1997, the first of Hong Kong’s “Healthy Cities” projects was launched in accordance with the World Health Organization’s 1986 Healthy Cities program. Implemented with the hope of unlocking the city’s true potential, the policy aimed to promote and integrate a healthy population, environment and society. 

These ideas were developed in greater detail when the Department of Health published the “Guidelines for Implementing a Healthy Cities Project in Hong Kong” in 2007. However, these promising plans and guidelines have been abandoned in all but name. A simple poll I conducted on social media showed an astonishing 77 percent of netizens responding “no” to the question “Do you believe that Hong Kong is currently a ‘healthy city’?” Harsh but true: Hong Kong’s inability to achieve the “healthy city” goal has coincided with the city’s slow, scattered and passive implementation of these policies.

In sharp contrast, the Chinese mainland’s “healthy city” initiative has met great success. Launched 10 years after Hong Kong’s guidelines, the mainland’s “Healthy China 2030” vision has been implemented efficiently and quickly, especially after the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. The development of urban planning, architectural design, health-related technology and more has led to drastic improvements in people’s livelihoods. According to mainland studies, these “healthy city” developments have increased the country’s average life expectancy by four years, drastically reduced the infection rate of infectious diseases, increased the GDP by an average of 20 percent, and improved public trust in and satisfaction with the government. The program is both feasible and beneficial, yet Hong Kong’s failed implementation has left us with none of the promised rewards. The question then remains: What can we do to accelerate the implementation of the “healthy city” goal?

Given the importance of the “healthy city” initiative and the difficulties in its previous implementation, I believe that a new task force consisting of industry leaders and government officials would efficiently expedite the “healthy city” target

I believe there are four key aspects that need to be addressed: healthcare, dining, living, and transport. With the coordinated efforts of these four factors, the implementation of the “healthy city” goal can be achieved with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

First, regarding healthcare, greater emphasis must be placed on preventive treatment. Although the SAR government has proposed two “10-year hospital development plans” with an estimated HK$470 billion ($59.9 billion) budget to upgrade hospital facilities, the plans overemphasize the importance of inpatient services. These proposals ignore the value of primary and preventive care, such as traditional Chinese medicine, and our shortage of medical staff. Unfortunately, some of the 18 districts still lack public traditional Chinese medicine clinics along with district health centers. The construction of our first traditional Chinese medicine hospitals, meanwhile, is only in its beginning stages. Given the aging population and understaffing in the medical sector, the complete breakdown of the public healthcare system and other health-related welfare is inevitable without a fundamental change in healthcare policy. Some even argue the system’s breakdown has already begun. The need for change is thus more urgent than ever.

The second aspect is “dining”, which refers to the government’s food policy. Specifically, the government must increase the extent of its education and regulations to promote healthy diets. The government has recently started paying attention to the dietary choices of residents. However, the problems with our diets run much deeper than what the government has begun correcting. Aside from the level of salt and sugar Hong Kong residents choose to put in their bodies, how they do it can be majorly problematic. Eating habits such as eating too quickly, eating too late, picky eating or overeating can be highly damaging. Given the current lack of awareness-raising or regulations, it is no surprise that many Hong Kong residents suffer from the “three highs”; namely, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Along with widespread obesity and gastrointestinal problems, these conditions reduce the overall quality of our lives.

Third, Hong Kong’s living conditions require reform. With the “three highs” of high prices, high buildings and high density, it is no surprise that the city’s housing has become the embodiment of the people’s frustration. The city’s experience with the pandemic has further revealed the health risks of its cramped housing conditions. As the representative of four professional institutes for the built environment industry, I have organized many seminars on the pandemic and the establishment of the “healthy city” initiative in terms of urban planning, renewal of old districts, the application of innovative technologies related to property management, and more. The findings can be effective in safeguarding public health and fighting the pandemic. In particular, the recommendations can be useful for the “Lantau Tomorrow Vision” and “Northern Metropolis” plans.

Lastly, two main aspects of “transport” must be addressed. First, the high amount of carbon emissions and exhaust gas in Hong Kong calls for a transition to green, low-carbon transportation. More importantly to the well-being of residents, however, is the perfection of our transportation planning and facilities. In the past, the basis for transport planning has been oriented around roads, cars and engineering designs. Yet those who use the transportation, the people, have been left out of the equation. The resulting roads are thus safe but not people-oriented. For pedestrians, traveling along the road without suffocating from the exhaust gas or biking along the narrow roads is virtually impossible. The transport planning must hence improve as “human-centered designs” to improve accessibility and comfort.

Ultimately, how we choose to implement the policies will determine their success. The past has shown that bureaucratic procedures and red tape have led to the downfall of the “healthy city” goal. I experienced this problem firsthand when the implementation of my research report on architectural designs promoting intergenerational harmony was negatively affected by the lack of clear leadership among the six bureaus involved in the subject. The 2007 guidelines, to an even greater extent, were under the jurisdiction of over 22 bureaus and departments with no one accountable for the policies’ successes or failures. Knowing this, it is no wonder our city development has been so slow. A small and focused team is what the city needs to achieve our goal.

Currently, John Lee Ka-chiu’s new administration has already implemented four different task forces to solve longstanding housing and livelihood problems. Given the importance of the “healthy city” initiative and the difficulties in its previous implementation, I believe that a new task force consisting of industry leaders and government officials would efficiently expedite the “healthy city” target.

President Xi Jinping stated on the 25th anniversary of the city’s return to the motherland that Hong Kong “should be more courageous and adopt more efficient measures to overcome difficulties and forge ahead”. Indeed, his words ring true. Hong Kong’s scattered efforts have wasted a decade of its valuable time. I sincerely hope that the sixth-term SAR government will take the reins and that its coordinated leadership in improving the healthcare, dining, living and transport of Hong Kong will finally achieve our long-awaited dream of a “healthy city”.

The author is a member of the Legislative Council, serving on the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape Constituency.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.