Urban Renewal Authority (URA) Managing Director Ir Wai Chi Sing is an expert in civil and structural engineering. He holds a master’s degree in transportation engineering from Purdue University in the United States, with professional qualifications in civil, structural and geotechnical engineering.
Wai joined the Hong Kong Government in August 1980 and has served in the Transport Department, the Highways Department, and the former Environment, Transport and Works Bureau. He was the Director of Highways from November 2006 to June 2010 and Permanent Secretary for Development (Works) from June 2010 to April 2015 before retiring.
On 15 June 2016, Wai was appointed to his current position at the URA and, by virtue of holding that office, he is also the deputy chairman of the URA Board. He also serves as a director of the Board of the Urban Renewal Fund since July 2016.
What led you to pursue this career path?
When I was young, the most popular subjects at that time in Hong Kong were medicine and civil engineering. I decided to choose one of the popular subjects. I studied physics and mathematics, so I chose civil engineering. Of course, civil engineering is not a very popular subject nowadays, but that was not the case 40 years ago when I was making my decision.
Why did you decide to move into urban redevelopment upon retirement?
I have spent 40 years in the government, during which I have worked in many different departments; I am one of the very few engineers who have spent a long period working in policy bureaux, so I have the privilege of touching on quite a number of infrastructure-related and planning-related issues.
Although I am over 60 years old, I still believe that I can contribute to society. After my retirement, I was offered several job opportunities. But then, the former managing director of URA resigned. Considering my experience and the problem of urban decay in Hong Kong, I believed that I could contribute something, so I took up this post in URA. It wasn’t planned.
How have your prior roles and experiences helped you in your work at the URA?
The experiences that really assisted me were those from my position with the Development Bureau. I was responsible for the East Kowloon Development, which was designated by the government to be the second Central Business District. To bring this initiative forward, I had to deal with a lot of planning issues.
I think that urban renewal efforts in Hong Kong up to this moment focus more on project initiatives instead of the overall planning, so my previous experience will assist me in dealing with urban decay in a better way.
My other experiences, which are all related to infrastructure, are also helpful as, other than buildings, we also need to deal with the hardware of the old district, such as the infrastructure or road network, etc.
In leading URA, a prominent organisation in the construction industry, could you share with us your thoughts on leadership?
In my 30 years with the government, I had been the head of a department where I had to look after more than 2,000 colleagues. When I was working at the Development Bureau, I had to manage more than 15,000 colleagues working in different departments. These experiences have helped shape my leadership capabilities.
Leadership consists of a number of elements. Firstly, you need to have a vision. Then you need to set the direction because you can have different paths to achieve the same vision. After setting the direction, you need to take all the colleagues with you and motivate them to work together as a team. At the end of the day, we have to assess whether we have achieved what we wanted or not. The most important thing is that we have achieved something new. If you are not able to achieve something new, the leadership has failed.
Different positions may have different considerations. For this particular job at URA, setting a vision and direction may not be the foremost task because the vision of the organisation has already been established in the URA Ordinance and Urban Renewal Strategy, so my role is less about setting the vision but more about establishing the strategy to execute that vision.
What are some of the highlights since your appointment as managing director of the URA? What do you want to achieve during your term?
The work of URA focuses on four ‘R’s—redevelopment, rehabilitation, preservation and revitalisation. ‘Renewal’ means the need to take forward all these four ‘R’s in an integrated and holistic manner. Over the past 16 years, the URA has been focusing more on one ‘R’ than the others, which is redevelopment. So I wanted to make sure the whole organisation aligned its work with all the requirements of the URA Ordinance and Urban Renewal Strategy, and to establish our own execution strategy to ensure these are achieved.
After taking up the position, I had a brainstorming session with the board members and my colleagues to explain what the URA Ordinance requires us to do. For example, as required by the URA Ordinance, one of the major tasks of the URA is to tackle the problem of urban decay. If you want to prevent urban decay, you can’t only focus on the old buildings—the downstream of the entire urban decay process. We will also need to look at the new buildings—how do we ensure that new buildings are properly maintained so that the life of the buildings can be extended? If we can achieve that, the pressure on redevelopment will be greatly reduced.
Thus, one of the tasks I have given to my team is to look at preventive maintenance. We also want to know why building owners are not willing to spend money on maintenance. We need to look at all these issues so that we can draw up a strategy that covers the whole life cycle of buildings.
Most people consider URA as a developer and an organisation that focuses on redeveloping residential projects. When you talk about preventing urban decay, you cannot ignore the entire urban fabric and the urban hardware, including the commercial, residential and industrial buildings or even the streets. Obviously, we need to have different strategies for different types of areas. For industrial or commercial buildings, we may not need to take part in the redevelopment process, but how do we encourage property owners to look after their properties?
An urban renewal area will be serving Hong Kong for the coming 60 to 70 years, so renewing an old area is no different from developing a new area. When we are developing a new area, we need to take a more long-term perspective. That’s why I have been promoting smart city and environmental initiatives, where we focus more on renewal instead of redevelopment.
The URA is now conducting a district study for Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok. What are your plans for this project?
When we look at urban renewal, there are a number of challenges. First, we have a seven-year rule where we need to compensate the affected owner-occupiers of redevelopment projects the equivalent to the market value of a notional replacement flat of seven years old. This policy, which has been in effect before URA was established in 2001, results in a very heavy financial burden.
We were fortunate over the past 16 years because the property market was on an upward trend, but we do not know how long the property market will continue to rise. When property prices start to come down, we will probably face a heavy deficit as we will be in a ‘buy-high, sell-low’ situation.
Secondly, increasing construction cost is another challenge, which is out of our control. And with property owners not prepared to maintain their buildings, the pressure on redevelopment gets heavier. There are many other challenges. If we want to deal with them in a basket, then I would like to study a very specific old area—such as Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok (Yau Mong) —to see whether I can derive some solutions for these challenges.
Yau Ma Tei and Mong Kok is one of the oldest districts in Hong Kong, with an average building age of almost 40 years old. It is also a highly dense district. I am looking for the application of planning tools to tackle the challenges. In some areas, if we can increase the population, rezone the area or remove some of the restrictions such as the height restriction, then I may be able to have additional resources to deal with the financial burden. During this process, I will introduce smart city and placemaking initiatives so that Yau Mong will become part of the overall Hong Kong new city. That’s what I want to achieve in this study.
You mentioned placemaking initiatives. How will this help promote better urban design?
If you look at the URA Ordinance and Urban Renewal Strategy, words such as integration and holistic district approach are used extensively. My interpretation of integration is that once an area is renewed, there should not be a distinct differentiation between the old and the new buildings in the area as they are integrated as one.
I want to achieve it by applying the concept of placemaking—making use of the public open spaces to make the neighbourhood more attractive or to attract more activities into that area. That’s how I want to blend the old and new together. For the community, they will benefit from a renewed neighbourhood, not just individual renewed buildings.
How will technology, such as smart city and building information modelling (BIM), assist in urban renewal in Hong Kong?
Many people are talking about big data as many management activities are data-driven, so the first sort of technology is information technology. What we want to do is to set up a map-based urban renewal information system where we can include all information about old buildings into the system. Then we need to analyse the data to see how to make use of it to assist our management work. After that, we need to analyse how we can apply artificial intelligence into managing the data and automate some of the planning and management activities.
As for the smart city concept, it is divided into six areas, which are smart environment, smart government, smart people, smart mobility, smart living and smart economy. It is necessary to apply technology to bring the smart concept into these areas.
I would like to share one example to show how we can use technology to improve our environment. If we plan to increase the plot ratio, we are actually increasing the density of an area. We will then need to deal with environmental issues such as traffic, air quality and ventilation. Often, there may be a major opening on the side of a building that’s supposed to allow a ventilation path, but if there’s no wind, what’s the purpose of that opening? It’s only a passive opening that has to rely on the natural wind to improve ventilation. With technology, we now have bladeless fans. I am thinking could it be possible to turn the passive opening into active opening by incorporating similar technology? That’s how I look forward to applying technology into planning and urban renewal.
For the application of BIM, we are now using BIM in design to deal with the construction process. But up to this moment, there is not a single development that is using BIM in facility management. So I am looking at whether the URA could select one or two of our projects that use the BIM model from design stage all the way through to construction, and then into property management, and later on to maintenance.
In terms of road network capacity, if we are able to demolish the old buildings for a relatively large area, then I can effectively open up all the underground space and take the vehicles, loading activities or even the waste facilities underground. Then I can deal with the transport problem in a slightly different way and convert the ground space into a pedestrian area. These are some of the areas that I am looking at applying technology into the urban renewal process with an aim to improve the living environment in old districts.
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